The four keys to an exceptional coach March 20, 2007

The wonder of Woolmer

Tim de Lisle on the four keys to an exceptional coach



Woolmer didn't just embrace innovation, he made it the norm © Cricinfo Ltd

The last time the cricket world saw Bob Woolmer was in the closing minutes of Pakistan's game with Ireland on Saturday. Triumph and disaster, Kipling's twin impostors, were hovering over Sabina Park like a pair of blimps. One set of supporters was already having a ball, dancing and hooting and laughing. Some members of the other set were shortly to go out on the streets back home, chanting murderous slogans. The camera kept going to Bob, watching as Ireland inched to their target. His face was glum, motionless, quite unlike him. Then the game ended, the Irish jigs reached the middle, and the camera found Bob again. He was packing away his laptop. That was more like him.

These days, you often see players and coaches sitting at computers but the idea is relatively new and it was Bob Woolmer who pioneered it. He was the first laptop coach. He didn't just embrace innovation, he made it the norm. After his creativity turned South Africa into the world's second-best team in 1994-99, Australia and England both hired coaches who were thinkers rather than ex-doers. Later, West Indies and of course Pakistan followed suit. Coaching is now recognised as a skill in its own right, quite separate from playing.

Bob's laptop was used to enlighten fans as well as players. He leapt onto the web, launching his own website and blogging on Cricinfo , and he used email to keep in touch with his many friends. If you mailed him, you always got an answer, however busy he was, and it always ended "kind regards, Bob". He was both a citizen of the cricket world and an English gentleman.

In fact, he was the only major international coach English cricket has produced. As England has more teams and professionals than any other cricket country, it should produce the most coaching talent. But it doesn't. What did Bob have that many fine ex-players didn't?

Bob combined the precision of Ray Illingworth with the warmth of David Lloyd

The first key is in his playing career. In the obits, his playing years got rather crunched and a point was missed. He was a player who reinvented himself. He started with Kent as a swing-bowling allrounder, batting at nine. He saw potential in his own batting, but Kent didn't: they kept him down the order, often below Alan Knott, a gifted improviser but was never going to be a frontline batsman. To prove himself in the top five, Woolmer had to winter in Natal. His Test career followed the same pattern: first picked in July 1975 as a bowling allrounder, batting at eight, he was number five by August, when he made his epic 149 against Australia. By 1977, he was an Ashes-winning number three. Things went awry after that, but he had shown the ability to turn raw material into achievement.

The second key was his personality. If you ever saw him interviewed on television, you will have noticed his cheerful demeanour. Some cricket people are like that on screen and not off. Bob was just like that. It is said of the best players that they have more time. Offstage, they often don't: they are much in demand and can get spoilt by it. Bob always had time for people.

The third key was his attitude. He was tremendously open. "My philosophy," he used to say, "is that your mind is like a parachute - if it doesn't open, it won't work." For someone who had grown up in a county dressing-room in the 1970s, that was a radical point of view. If he sometimes erred on the side of novelty, as with the notorious earpieces, it was a refreshing change from all those leaning the other way.

The final key lay in his handling of people. He was gentle - Allan Donald even used the word "soft". Even when it emerged that Hansie Cronje had betrayed his own team, Bob was sympathetic. The man with "What Would Jesus Do" on his bracelet had done a Judas; the man who could have felt most betrayed managed to be forgiving, if not totally convincing to the more detached onlooker.

Bob combined the precision of Ray Illingworth with the warmth of David Lloyd. His cuddly silhouette was not misleading. In the Seventies, he was one of my favourite players, which can lead to disappointment if you eventually meet, but Bob simply became one of my favourite ex-players. At Wisden Cricket Monthly, I signed him up as an agony uncle for readers who were having trouble with their game. It never felt like talking to an old-timer. He didn't harp on about what happened in his day. As he said in the mantra on his homepage, 'Yesterday is history / Tomorrow is a mystery / Today is the present / A gift to make the most of'.

With a CV that encompassed Kent, Natal, England, Packer, Avondale, Boland, Kent again, Warwickshire, South Africa, several minnow nations and Pakistan, he was the most cosmopolitan of coaches. But, paradoxically, the World Cup was cruel to him. Picked for the England squad for the inaugural tournament in 1975, he broke a finger the day before it began. In 1999, his South African team endured the most agonising of near-misses, losing a tied semi-final to Australia on the strength of a 0.1 difference in run-rate. This time, in a World Cup designed to keep all the good teams in, Pakistan somehow stampeded for the exit. And then came the greatest cruelty of all. Woolmer himself, amenable as ever, said he would "sleep on" his future, and never woke up.

Whether the game did for Bob, we may never know. What Bob did for the game, happily, is not in doubt.

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Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden and now edits www.timdelisle.com