He who loved the game
One of the saddest of cricket anniversaries falls today. It was during the last World Cup that Bob Woolmer, the highly respected coach of Pakistan, died in mysterious circumstances in a cramped hotel bathroom in Kingston, Jamaica. The police, let alone the conspiracy theorists in the wake of a perplexing defeat by Ireland - even if they were fielding Kevin O'Brien that day - declared his death was being treated as suspicious. The tournament of 2007 never recovered.
Although it is cautiously accepted, overtly anyway, by Woolmer's dignified family, that he suffered a heart attack, the coroner eventually recorded an open verdict. There are other intelligent men, among them Rod Bransgrove, the Hampshire chairman who is a seasoned visitor to the Caribbean, who still harbour doubts. If no one has written a book or made a film about these events, that can only be because no writer wishes to delve further into murky areas such as match-fixing than the media did at the time.
March 18, 2007 is a date that will forever be etched in my mind. I was Woolmer's ghostwriter for his regular column for the Times and for his autobiography, which we were in the process of updating. Shortly before his death he had emailed 10,000 words to me back in England. Suffice to say there was no detail of match-fixing whatsoever, but these will never be published, upon the express wish of his widow, Gill, who was left to fend for herself in South Africa after her husband's death.
It was generally known that Woolmer was writing not one but two books - the second being a coaching manual - and inevitably there was much speculation over their contents and whether he might even have been planning a third. If anyone would have blown the whistle on match-fixing it would have been Bob. There was an innocence and naïvete about him, to say nothing of blanket loyalty towards his players, which was why he never saw through Hansie Cronje. There was also great integrity and a love of the game matched only by his mentor, Colin Cowdrey. He would never have harmed it.
At 5.30pm English time on March 18, the Times rang me to say that Woolmer had been found unconscious on the floor and that, to be on the safe side, I had best think about preparing an obituary. I assumed he had had too much to drink and went for a dog walk. After all, although he was overweight, he was only 58 and had looked quite fit enough to me when I had last seen him in Cape Town earlier in the year. At 6pm the telephone rang again. Bob was dead.
Soon enough there were suspicions. A post-mortem proved inconclusive. A Jamaican journalist claimed he had been strangled. Four days after his death, a murder investigation was launched. The Sun arrived on my doorstep, wanting to know what I knew of what Woolmer knew about match-fixing. Mihir Bose of the BBC rang just before going on the air for the Today programme. A prominent MCC committee member advised me to get some personal protection - and he did not mean insurance. The sports editor of the Sunday Times suggested I buy a shotgun. To this day, I am not sure whether he was joking.
The media firestorm had not subsided by the time a memorial service was held in Cape Town, where Woolmer lived, on April 4. There was the bizarre sight of Ali Bacher, his old boss, entering a packed school assembly room at the very last minute, television cameras following his every move, until he sat directly behind Gill Woolmer. It was as if South African royalty had arrived. Afterwards, Clive Rice stood in the sunshine and declared that he had no doubts about a link between Cronje's death and Woolmer's murder.
In the circumstances it seemed extraordinary that there was no police protection for Gill Woolmer at her home in Pinelands the next day. The television cameras had gone and she was all alone. Her husband had been working miles away in Lahore and he died miles away in the West Indies. Had he been well remunerated, all that would have been understandable, but this was not the case. He once said that his home in this suburb of Cape Town, pleasant enough but a notch or three below Constantia in terms of wealth and status, was worth no more than a lock-up garage in Birmingham.
The World Cup dragged to its end, which at least was more than could be said for suspicions over strangulation and match-fixing. There was a second memorial service held for Woolmer, followed by a reception at Lord's, at the end of the summer of 2007. By then, however, the media had moved on to other matters, and when the coroner eventually announced his verdict, all opinion had been spent and there was no one left to be quoted.
Yet as Wisden, in its own way a form of coroner, summed up: "An open verdict was, in many ways, the worst possible one. Because it means we just do not know. After eight months of drama, intense scrutiny and pain, the question remained of whether Bob Woolmer had his life taken from him or simply succumbed naturally to the stresses inherent in his very demanding job..." Today RA Woolmer is regarded as a well-liked man, a good all-round cricketer and a still better coach who died in desperately sad circumstances. He is seen as belonging to cricket history.
There is one question he would have answered in his updated autobiography, which he wanted to call Oh What a Circus: why he left his family home and took on the position of Pakistan coach.
"The job offer came when my role as the high performance manager at the ICC was hitting a brick wall financially through no one's fault. There was much to put off a coach coming to Pakistan, many stories and rumours of match-fixing, ball-scratching, and other incidents littering Pakistan's history, so why did I take it?
"The talent that emanated constantly from this Islamic republic seemed endless. I have always been interested in Indian and Pakistan cricket - it held a sort of mystique. Turning pitches, wristy batsmen, reverse-swing, it was for me the only way that I would and could see coaching and playing cricket in a completely different light…"