The day the laughter died

Peter Robinson, who was arguably South Africa’s leading cricket writer and was certainly the most entertaining, died in Johannesburg late on Tuesday night.

Robinson, who wrote a popular cricket column in the Mail & Guardian, was diagnosed with cancer of the lung in October last year and underwent surgery. He made a rapid recovery and for months it appeared he had won the battle.
It proved a false dawn. In mid-March tumours were discovered on his brain and less than a month later he was dead.

Robinson was educated at Queen’s College in Queenstown, Alexandra High in Pietermaritzburg and the University of Natal where he graduated in 1975.

He was a useful sportsman, playing first-team cricket and rugby at school, but he finally found his sporting home as a goalkeeper for the Maritzburg Varsity first soccer team. He was a natural. The job description did not demand that he spend lonely, uncomfortable hours working on his fitness, while his position offered a panoramic view of the action while allowing him to contribute vocally and critically in a loud voice from afar. From there it was just a short step into the world of sports writing.

He joined The Witness in Pietermaritzburg in 1975 as a soccer writer and spent 15 years with the newspaper. Writing under the name Stinkvoet Snyman, he produced a regular column during the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand and won a SAB merit award for his efforts. But to most he was Peter, Robbo or, curiously, Bonk.

Watching Robinson at work was an experience. He would wander around the editorial department, from the library to the tearoom to the newspaper stacks, coffee cup in one hand and fag in the other (this was a long time ago), nattering away to anyone not tied to a desk. He was working, he would explain primly to any one daring to question his work ethic. And he was, conducting wide-ranging research, or at least seeking the spark for a column. Finally, he would return to his desk, bash away furiously, without lifting his head, for 40 minutes and his day was done.

In 1989 he moved to The Star in Johannesburg and he started making his name on the international cricket circuit. He became the Argus Group cricket writer while at The Star from 1990-96 and, belatedly and deservedly, won the SAB Sportswriter of the Year award in 1994. After two years with The Sunday Independent, he joined the new sporting daily, Sportsday, as a senior cricket writer and when that newspaper closed he took charge of the South Africa’s CricInfo web pages.

After freelancing for the M&G and the London Times, he finally came home to Pietermaritzburg in 2002, rejoining the sports department for a year.

His desire to return to mainstream cricket writing took him back to Johannesburg in 2003 when he joined another new, but doomed, paper, This Day. When that paper sank without trace Peter spent an enlightening couple of months as news editor of the rapidly-growing Daily Sun tabloid newspaper in Johannesburg before he was appointed Sports Editor of The Citizen last year.

Peter was a lively presence in news rooms and press boxes the world over. He was well suited to the job with an easy, flowing style, able to work quickly and accurately under pressure. He was a gifted writer with a delightful, quirky sense of humour. He could, without forcing the issue, find a fresh, amusing angle to the most mundane event, marrying the serious to the ridiculous and making his point with a smile.

He was also a knowledgeable, well-read critic and was widely respected by international players and journalists who enjoyed his wry sense of humour.

His description of Andre Nel a couple of seasons back was typical of his writing: “Nel looks like a fast bowler, he acts like a fast bowler, he even sounds like a fast bowler ... the only problem is he is not very fast.”

Peter, for much of his writing career, was on the road, with different newspapers and on new assignments and fresh tours. It was a lonely, unsettled life and he only recently found contentment with Jo, his wife of less than two years.

Robbo looked like a journalist, he acted like a journalist, he sounded like a journalist, he was, in fact, the most talented of journalists ... the tragedy is that he died with so much good writing still in him. Peter Keith Robinson was just 54.

John Bishop is the sports editor of The Witness

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