1999 March 7, 2015

A word in your ear

When Bob Woolmer and Hansie Cronje fell foul of the ICC in their attempt to use technology to help their communication

Hansie Cronje with the earpiece he was forced to remove at the first drinks break © Getty Images

While technology has come to play an increasing part in the modern game, when the captain is in the middle he remains very much on his own, able only to draw on advice from his team-mates and the occasional message from the dressing room surreptitiously brought out by a water carrier or physio. But at the 1999 World Cup, South Africa tried - and failed - to find a way around the problem.

For more than a year before the tournament, Bob Woolmer (at the time South Africa's coach and always someone looking for new approaches to old problems), had been toying with an idea he had seen work in US sport where it was common practice for players to wear small earpieces to allow them to hear instructions from coaches.

Woolmer tried the equipment in a couple of benefit matches during the year; it worked well and, just as importantly, went almost unnoticed. After checking it did not breach either the tournament regulations or the laws of cricket, he suggested to Cronje they use it in the tournament itself. He agreed and when the proposal was mentioned to Allan Donald, he too said he was willing to give it a try.

South Africa tried the earpieces out in one of their warm-up matches and again it attracted no comment, so they decided to use them when South Africa played India in the two sides' opening game in Hove on May 15. Mohammad Azharuddin won the toss and batted and when Cronje led his side on to the field he and Donald had their earpieces in place.

It did not take long for the television commentators to spot them, and Sourav Ganguly, who opened for India with Sachin Tendulkar, also noticed, bringing it to the attention of the umpires, Steve Bucknor and David Shepherd, shortly before the drinks break.

The umpires spoke to Cronje, who was quite open about what was going on. Unable to decide if what he was doing was legal, they asked Talat Ali, the match referee, for a ruling. He too was unsure and contacted the ICC, which said that while the earpieces were technically not breaching any rules, they were unfair. As drinks came out, so did Ali, making clear the earpieces had to go. Although the audience on TV was privy to the discussion, most spectators at Hove were left bemused, so small were the devices that were being used.

South Africa went on to win the match and afterwards Woolmer was unrepentant. "All I was trying to do was give help and advice," he said. "I'm sorry if I've upset anyone. I've tried to be innovative; the idea was to take the game forward. Where we erred was, I should have asked the ICC for permission. Perhaps I'm naïve, but it didn't occur to me. I felt it was a really good idea and I would like to discuss it with the ICC.

"I'm not trying to disturb the batsman or the captain, I'm just wanting to offer some advice. They use it in American football and I believe the French used it in their World Cup campaign, so I felt it was a really good idea. Hopefully, it will make life easier for the cricketer."

He also went out of his way to explain the system was not aimed at giving instructions. "If Donald, for example, is not bowling with rhythm I could tell him to run in harder or more softly. It is a way of addressing technical faults by looking at the game from a different angle."

Cronje was also dismissive of criticism. "There's nothing in the rules to stop us from using it and it's very disappointing it's been stopped," he said. "The coach sits at a different angle from me and he can give me different options when we're batting or bowling. It's always nice to hear another voice." He also asked if the ICC was going to ban gloves being taken out to batsmen "in case a message from the coach is sent with them".

If the media hoped Azharuddin would be incensed, they were disappointed. "It's going to happen," he said. "It does in other sports."

ICC spokesman Clive Hitchcock said: 'We made our position clear when we said that the World Cup is not the event to experiment with new devices. We would listen to anything the South Africa management had to say on the issue, but in view of the fact that we would have to get all the countries together to discuss the issue, it is unlikely these devices will be used again in the current tournament. There may be nothing in the rules banning them but neither is there anything there saying that they can be used."

When the press asked Ali Bacher, the chief executive of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, for his opinion, he admitted he was aware of Woolmer's innovation. "Bob came to me about 15 months ago to ask about it and I told him at the time that it could be controversial," he said. "But Bob has a hyperactive cricket brain and sometimes he gets ahead of himself."

The South Africans left Hove still hoping they would be allowed to use the earpieces but the ICC made clear it was not going to budge and that was that.

What happened next

  • The ICC subsequently banned the use of such devices but Woolmer was undeterred. "I believe that technology is the way to go forward and we will be using earpieces in the nets at Warwickshire so that I don't have to keep interrupting players to make my point. But I am also hopeful that I can persuade the ECB to allow the use of earpieces in second team cricket to show that they can be a real help to captains and players."
  • Less than a year later Cronje was uncovered as a match-fixer and subsequently banned from the game. He died in an air crash in 2002.
  • Woolmer resigned as South Africa coach at the end of the tournament and returned to Warwickshire. He died in suspicious circumstances during the 2007 World Cup.​​

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