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The Woolmer case brought out deep-rooted prejudices that snowballed into mass hysteria before time and second opinion saw sanity restored
June 17, 2007
Pakistan cricket is owed an apology. Not even Inspector Clouseau could have made a bigger bungle of the Woolmer enquiry than did the detectives responsible for concluding that murder most foul had been committed by person or persons unknown. Nor were the local gendarmerie entirely to blame. Constable Shields (as he will soon hereafter be called) learnt the ropes at Scotland Yard and presumably brought with him the hardness of the mean streets.
Unfortunately the main investigator, upon whose judgement the world was entitled to rely, made a fool of himself and thereby lets loose the dogs of guesswork and innuendo. Anyone announcing in the middle of a World Cup that a senior coach had been eliminated had better be right. Of course the same applied to K K Paul, the Indian raincoat responsible for naming and shaming Hansie Cronje. When Paul called the press conference that turned a game upon its head he was dismissed as a dimwit. Colleagues told a different tale, describing him as a ruthless and clinical investigator who kept his cards close to his chest. And so it proved.
When Shields informed a stunned press gallery that Woolmer had been killed he let loose a thousand speculations and accusations. Uncertainty over the cause of death did not deter him. One minute the burly coach had been strangled, the next he had been poisoned. Finally he had been both asphyxiated and poisoned, with nobbled champagne sent by one of the chief suspects. Meanwhile a vast horde of reporters filled front pages with the latest rumours, a pack of wolves feeding upon a carcass.
Nor did the cricketing community distinguish itself as the search for the killer continued. Since there was no sign of forced entry, everyone rapidly assumed that it had been an inside job. Accordingly security in the hotel was condemned, inquiries revealing that the corridors had been poorly patrolled, leaving people free to come and go as they pleased. Considering the weight of security imposed on the tournament by the spoilsports it did seem to be an oversight.
Much worse was to come. Within 48 hours the Cup was overwhelmed by the arrival of news reporters, cameras, shutterbugs, columnists, none of them covering the cricket. Suddenly everyone was Sherlock Holmes. Despite the presence of the greatest cricketers on the planet, identifying the killers became the most exciting game in town.
At first most fingers were pointed at the bookies. Although match-fixing has been reduced in the aftermath of the scandals that exposed so many international captains as greedy humbugs, it cannot entirely have been suppressed. After all it had been going on since the 1970's and a lot of money had been made. Moreover a bowler need only deliver a wide first ball to make a packet.
Speculation grew that Woolmer was about to tell his tale. Since he had coached three teams - South Africa, Warwickshire and Pakistan - immersed in scandals of various sorts, it was assumed that he knew the location of numerous skeletons. To protect their empires and investments the bookies had needed to silence him. Or so it was said. But the theory lacked plausibility. When did bookmakers start drawing attention to themselves by murdering famous people in plush hotels with the world's media a bar stool away?
If it was not the bookies perhaps Bin Laden was to blame? Perhaps the terrorists had been enraged by the way an infidel had led their precious and mostly faithful team to defeat at the hands of a minnow, and a white minnow at that. A devastating defeat against Ireland formed the backdrop to the death. Had it not been a humiliation for a nation and a religion? Most of the players prayed regularly, and the captain dedicated every success that came his side's way to his god. Now terrible and public defeat had been suffered. Maybe Al Qaeda had executed the coach.
|But let us not allow one man to carry the can. Although it was reasonable to accept the experts' initial verdict that Woolmer had been strangled, too many of us were too easily prepared to believe that Pakistani players or at any rate supporters were the culprits|
Next the shadow of unvoiced accusation fell upon senior Pakistani cricketers. After the defeat against Ireland, Woolmer had apparently berated the players in the rooms and on the coach trip back to the hotel. The coach driver denied that hot words had been exchanged but was ignored. Rumours spread that players past and present had sat in their rooms all night, whisky fuelling their resentment. Supposedly they had decided to confront their coach as the sun rose. Whether they had gone to his room to talk to him or to kill him was widely debated behind the scenes. Supposedly they had been inflamed by his remarks sufficiently to strangle him. Admittedly this did not explain the champagne sent by one of the suspects but then maybe that had been one of those red herrings favoured by Agatha Christie.
For a time this theory held sway. Indeed arrests were hourly expected. Several Pakistani players were "interrogated" and fingerprints taken. The team manager insisted that the questions had been routine but he would say that wouldn't he? The players interviewed were the very ones mentioned in the gossip. They had beards and bad consciences, or so it was claimed. Although it seemed genuine from a distance, perhaps the match against Ireland had been thrown. Perhaps Woolmer knew it. The world was filling up with "perhaps". That old rogue Sarfraz Nawaz added fuel to the flames by saying he was certain it was murder. But then he could find a conspiracy in a bowl of tomato soup.
And then the case began to drift, and every passing day brought doubt. Sanity returned. Newspapers started wondering whether a distressed and unfit coach might have suffered a heart-attack. A second autopsy was requested and competent detectives were asked to re-examine the evidence. Presently confirmation came that Woolmer had died of natural causes. Shields must have died of embarrassment.
But let us not allow one man to carry the can. Although it was reasonable to accept the experts' initial verdict that Woolmer had been strangled, too many of us were too easily prepared to believe that Pakistani players or at any rate supporters were the culprits. In our own way we were as guilty as those involved in the burning of the witches in Salem or the rounding up of supposed American communists in the 1950's. Few emerged from the debacle with their reputation enhanced. Some observers called for the abandonment of the tournament. Happily the ICC kept its head and said the game must go on, a decision whose wisdom has not been acknowledged.
At such times we must be thankful for due process, that a man may be condemned only by fact and not prejudice. And we must pray that eventually the principle becomes universal, reaching across the Limpopo, into the Burmese jungle and even Guantanamo Bay, and takes root wherever hysteria arises or the powerful become entrenched.
A collection of fine cricket writing on great cricket feats, and never mind the omissions
Plays of the Day from the first ODI between South Africa and India in Johannesburg