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Bob Woolmer — much more than a mysterious death

Bob Woolmer © Getty Images
Bob Woolmer © Getty Images

Bob Woolmer, born on May 14, 1948, is unfortunately remembered for his mysterious death. However, there are several reasons to cherish the life he led.  Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was an elegant batsman, a brilliant coach and a compulsive rebel.

The tragedy

On March 17, 2007, Pakistan clashed against Ireland in the World Cup. The world expected a one-sided battle of the greens aptly played on St. Patrick’s Day. In a cricketing sense, Ireland was as green as could be. Yet, it was Ireland that won by three wickets. Pakistan were bundled out for 132 and crashed out of the World Cup.

Coach Bob Woolmer was apologetic about his team’s performance. “We have to wait and see what happens next. Basically, our World Cup is over. I didn’t think their bowling was anything special. From my perspective, we just didn’t score enough runs.”

Woolmer’s contract was coming to an end after the World Cup, and the result against the Irish side made it abundantly apparent that it would not be renewed. But, the coach refused to speculate on this. “I’d like to sleep on my future as coach,” he said.

The words would come back to haunt the cricket world ominously. After that night, Woolmer would sleep forever.

On the morning of Sunday, March 18, Woolmer’s body was found on the white tiles of the bathroom of room 374, on the 12th floor of the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. The revolutionary cricket innovator lay naked, on his back, his legs splayed, as blood trickled from his mouth. The walls were sprayed with vomit.

Woolmer was known to be under medication for diabetes, prone to violent coughing fits. The first reaction when the news of his death made its dark rounds was that he had had a heart-attack. Some suggested suicide. However, foul play was never off the table. Pakistan’s performance, the proliferation of bookies, betting syndicates and their nexus with cricketers — all combined into blood curdling conjecture.

It is a pity that a fantastic coach, an elegant batsman of some quality and a life full of colourful experiences around the world would forever be remembered, at least by the casual followers of the game, because of that gruesome death.

Woolmer became a coach at 22, and scored Test hundreds against Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. His record for England may not be very impressive, but at the peak of his career he was good enough to be signed for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket.

He was born in Kanpur, played for Kent, coached in South Africa, turned out for Natal and fought his way into the England side. He was one of the anti-establishment cricketers to join the Packer circus and continued to be a rebel as he hitched himself to the first ever cricket team to visit South Africa during their isolation. He coached South Africa and Pakistan with Warwickshire thrown in between, revolutionised the profession. He was wooed by England and refused the job. And finally he met his end in the Caribbean.

At his best, his drives were said to resemble the ones essayed by Colin Cowdrey. He also possessed much of the schoolboyish enthusiasm of the great man of England and Kent. Finally, he is said to be the only man to have watched Hanif Mohammad score 499 for Karachi against Bhawalpur and then Brian Lara notch up 501 for Warwickshire against Durham.

There was plenty to cherish about Woolmer’s life. Death was sudden, premature, cruel and maddeningly mysterious, but he had lived a full life.

Hailing from India

Woolmer was born in a hospital which was just across the street from the Green Park cricket ground in Kanpur. His father Clarence Woolmer worked in the insurance business and was also a Ranji Trophy cricketer representing United Provinces — called Uttar Pradesh in the modern day. Woolmer senior batted right-handed and bowled off-breaks.

It was literally a case of cricket from the cradle for young Woolmer. The story goes that when his parents returned from the hospital with the baby, Clarence Woolmer placed a bat and a ball in one corner of the cot, saying, “Son, I hope this will be your life.”

Woolmer came to England at the age of seven, and was admitted in the Yardley Court preparatory school at Tonbridge. From his father he had already learnt the basics and merits of forward defence. It was fortuitous for him that the school staff was keen on cricket.

Woolmer started with slow off-breaks, but was fascinated by the speed of Fred Trueman and Brian Statham on television.  During the last of his three years at Yardley Court, he switched his style to fast-medium against the advice of his headmaster.

It was probably during one of his winter breaks at the age of 10 that he visited his parents and watched Hanif Mohammad score 499 at Karachi. And the following summer, when his parents returned to England, he shifted to Skinners’ School, Tunbridge Wells. It was in his new school that he excelled at hockey as well, and remained a serious hockey player in the winters, ultimately reaching the level of Kent ‘A’ side.

Clarence Woolmer captained the Tonbridge 2nd XI in Club Cricket. Woolmer started appearing for the club at the age of 14. He walked in at No 11 on debut for the club, with the scores level, three balls to go. The older man at the other end walked down and asked him to keep the balls out. Woolmer blocked the first two, and stroked the third through the covers to win the match.

Into the Kent side

During his stint for the under-15 side for his school, he was nominated to attend the Association of Kent Clubs at Seven oaks. There he came under the tutelage of Colin Page, who later became the manager of the Kent county side.

It was as a fast medium bowler that Woolmer made his mark in school and club cricket. This was his role in 1967 when he took three week’s holiday from his first job in the sales division of ICI to play for Kent’s 2nd XI. In 1968, he was invited to join the Kent staff.

On his debut at Maidstone against Essex, Woolmer hit an unbeaten 50. That underlined his claims as an all-rounder. Although Woolmer himself felt he was a batsman who could bowl, the team continued to think of him as a bowler first.

It was another happy turn of fate that the John Player League started in 1969. Woolmer’s all-round skills were tailor-made for the Sunday afternoon romps. Kent missed John Shepherd, away touring West Indies under Cowdrey. Woolmer filled up the gap and was the county’s leading wicket taker in the One Day league. In the first two seasons of the new competition, he was the first to reach 50 wickets. He ran in at a lively pace and bowled a nippy inswing. Against Sussex, he picked up seven for 47 at Canterbury in the County match.

In 1970, Kent won the County Championship. After the last match of the season against Surrey at The Oval, skipper Cowdrey presented him with his county cap. Woolmer often travelled to the ground in Cowdrey’s car.

English and South African summers

It was during 1970-71 that Woolmer took up his first coaching job — in Johannesburg. At 22, he was the youngest coach across lands and sports. It was in Johannesburg that he was bowling at the nets when he discovered the way to swing the ball away. It stood him in good stead.

The next two years saw him batting quite low down the order for Kent. And it was as a bowler that he played his first One Day international against Australia in 1972. On his debut at Old Trafford he successfully yorked the Chappell brothers and trapped Doug Walters lbw.

However, the lack of batting opportunities, and therefore success, was starting to bother him. His name was discussed for the 1972-73 tour of India and Pakistan, but he did not make it to the final squad. The saga was repeated during the 1973-74 tour of West Indies. Kent with its immensely strong batting line up had no place for Woolmer higher in the order.

Woolmer showed the early inclination of being the itinerant when he went to South Africa with the DH Robins XI. This was followed by another coaching stint, this time under Barry Richards in Durban with the Kingsmead Mynahs club. He turned out for Natal as well.

This southern summer was important for a number of reasons. It was while batting for Natal at No 5 that he started building his innings and playing some long ones. It was also at Durban that he met his future wife Gill. They got married a year later.

Other English counties were by now ready to offer him a batting position at No 5. However, Woolmer was not ready to leave Kent. Legendary wicketkeeper batsman Les Ames was the Kent manager and also held the post for DH Robins XI. A fruitful discussion ensued. In the 1974 season, Woolmer was promoted to No 5 in the First-Class games while being made to bat lower in the order in One-Day matches. He scored over 800 runs, with three hundreds. He also picked up 56 wickets.

The England selectors still saw him as a bowling all-rounder. He played another ODI against India, but was omitted from the tour of Australia — that nightmarish Test series against Lillee and Thomson.

Woolmer returned to South Africa, spent another season under Richards, played for Natal and coached the Mynahs. He also got married.

Top grade

1975 proved to be Woolmer’s watershed year. He scored 1,193 runs and hauled his season’s average from the late 20s to the early 40s. He was chosen for the Prudential World Cup, but could not play because of an injury.  He scored 71 against the visiting Australians for Kent and took a hat-trick against them for Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). At Lord’s, he made his Test debut against the old enemy.

Batting at number eight, Woolmer scored a gritty 33 in the first innings. Bowling first change, he trapped Ross Edwards leg-before for 99. In the second innings he hit two sixes in a 31 scored off 25 balls as England looked for quick runs.

Dropped from the next Test at Leeds, Woolmer returned at The Oval. With the ball he dismissed Ian Chappell for 192. When he batted at No 5 in the first innings Thomson got him for five.

England followed on 341 behind and Woolmer batted five minutes short of 500 minutes to score 149 that saved the Test match. His century was brought up in six hours and 36 minutes, then the slowest Test hundred for England against Australia, a battling effort against Lillee, Thomson, Max Walker and Ashley Mallett out for the kill. He was the last man out.

By now, Woolmer was already a qualified physical education teacher. He returned to South Africa for his third season, building up his game, excelling as a short leg fieldsman, working on his coaching methods as well.

The next seasons were flourishing at the county level, although in Tests the success was quite limited. He did not get runs or wickets against the West Indies. He went to India with Tony Greig’s team in 1976-77, but did not make an impression. But, when Australia returned in 1977, Woolmer played some of the best cricket of his life.

Lord’s witnessed yet another rescue act, this time essayed from No 3. He top scored with 79 in the first innings of 216. Lillee was out of the side with fracture to the spine, but Thomson had been joined with the new ball by the fast and furious Len Pascoe. Woolmer came in at nought for one in the second innings with a deficit of 80, and batted five hours for 120. Once again, the Test was saved. In the following Test at Manchester he hit 137 and England won by nine wickets.

And during this series he signed on the dotted line to join the rebels in World Series Cricket.

End of cricket career

That was effectively the end of Woolmer’s good days in international cricket. There were a few returns in the early 1980s, but four Tests brought him just 119 runs. And then he continued to indulge his rebel streak by flying to South Africa in 1982 with the likes of Graham Gooch and Geoff Boycott. That spelt the end of his Test career.

In his later days, he could be seen standing in the slips for Kent, often scoring runs with the class of old. He played First-Class cricket till 1984, doing a more than decent job at the crease. But he was not recalled to the England side.

Woolmer scored 1059 runs at 33.09 in his 19 Tests. He crossed 50 just five times in his 34 innings, but three of them resulted in hundreds. In Tests his bowling was rather pedestrian, with four wickets at 74 each. However, he was a genuine all-rounder at the First-Class level, with 15,772 runs at 33.55 and 420 wickets at 25.87.

His batting was characterised by pleasing drives through the cover and mid-off and delectable on-drives through mid-on and mid-wicket. As mentioned, some of his strokes were compared to the class of Cowdrey. Additionally, he could play fast bowlers off the back foot with grit and comfort.

Woolmer the coach

After his playing days were over, Woolmer emigrated to the South Africa he knew so well. He coached cricket and hockey in high schools and guided the Avendale Cricket Club in Athlone, Cape Town. It was a rather bold decision to join a ‘coloured’ club during the high noon of apartheid.

In 1987, Woolmer returned to England and coached the Kent Second XI. Four years later, he was appointed coach of the Warwickshire County Cricket Club. It was here that he saw Brian Lara hit 501, and the side won three out of four trophies of 1994.

It was also in 1994 that Woolmer took up the role of the coach of South Africa. The initial days were not very happy, with the side losing six matches on the trot in Pakistan. However, South Africa soon turned into one of the best teams of the world, winning 10 out of the 15 Test series and 73% of the ODIs contested while Woolmer remained seated in the pavilion, studiously poring over his laptop.

Bob Woolmer (right), during his stint with South Africa as their coach, introduced many a technological reform to the coaching manual © Getty Images
Bob Woolmer (right), during his stint with South Africa as their coach, introduced many a technological reform to the coaching manual © Getty Images

Yes, Woolmer was one of the first coaches to use computer analysis. He encouraged innovation, creative thinking, and that included going for strokes like reverse-sweep. He was perhaps the coach with the best credentials, and perhaps because of that he did not follow the MCC Coaching Manual.

He even experimented with speaking to South African captain Hansie Cronje while the latter was on the field — by virtue of wireless technology and an ear-piece. It was not against the rules, but was frowned upon by the guardians of the spirit of cricket. Such communication was later banned.

Woolmer did bring in further ideas, experimenting with the goalkeeping techniques to aid wicket-keepers. He was a wonderful thinker about the game. Perhaps what he did not think about was the way he would be caught up in controversy, with dealings that did not involve him but happened all around as he was busy conjuring up strategies. Cronje’s confession came after he had resigned from his post as the coach of South Africa, but it stinged him and his stature. And then there was the whole murky business that perhaps led to his death.

When David Lloyd resigned as coach of England in 1999, Woolmer was the replacement of choice, ahead of Duncan Fletcher. However, the first tour of the Englishmen would be in South Africa. Woolmer refused the job. A blessing in disguise? That was the series in which there was the infamous Centurion forfeiture, conceptualised by a bookie and implemented by Cronje.

He went back to Warwickshire and coached the county team. When the truth about Cronje shocked the world, Woolmer was visibly shaken. But, when he spoke to BBC TV he called for the removal of the ban on the ex-captain of South Africa.

For a while Woolmer joined the International Cricket Council, evangelising the game in countries as yet uninitiated to the sport.

The Pakistan job

In 2004, he signed the fatal contract with Pakistan. Javed Miandad had just been sacked after the Test and ODI series losses to India at home. Under Woolmer, Pakistan drew the 2005 Test series in India, while winning the contest in the shorter version. In 2006, they defeated their arch rivals at home in the Tests, although they were crushed in the ODIs. In between, they defeated England months after they had won the Ashes.

There were mixed results during Woolmer’s days with Pakistan. There was the severe ball-tampering row during the tour of 2006, when Pakistan forfeited the Test at The Oval after allegations. Former ICC match referee Barry Jarman alleged that during the 1997 triangular ODI tournament involving South Africa, Zimbabwe and India, a match ball had been confiscated after just 16 overs and had shown evidence of tampering by the Proteans, then coached by Woolmer. The coach denied the allegations, but stated that he believed that ball-tampering should be allowed in cricket and that a modification to existing laws should be made.

At The Oval, Woolmer asked every Pakistan player to swear on oath that he had not tampered with the ball. Later he said, “They all did, and, as they are a religious bunch, I tended to believe them.” He almost resigned as coach. That might have saved his life.

Bob Woolmer's (left) relation with the Pakistan players was that of a practical-minded atheist with a group of religious god-fearing cricketers © Getty Images
Bob Woolmer’s (left) relation with the Pakistan players was that of a practical-minded atheist with a group of religious god-fearing cricketers © Getty Images

He stayed on with Pakistan. His lack of religion and God confused Inzamam-ul-Haq often scandalised other Pakistani players. But, they respected him and liked working with him.

It was a shock to the entire cricket world and beyond when he was discovered dead. He was posthumously honoured in Pakistan with the Sitara-e-Imtiaz (Star of Excellence), a high ranking civil award in the land. The Bob Woolmer National Indoor Cricket Academy was opened in Lahore.

Post-mortem

Bob Woolmer's death shocked one and all, who practiced or preached the sport © Getty Images
Bob Woolmer’s death shocked one and all, who practiced or preached the sport © Getty Images

A few hours after Woolmer was found dead, Inzamam announced that he would be stepping down as captain and retiring from One Day Internationals after the World Cup. It was perhaps the worst piece of timing ever executed by the great Pakistan batsman.

The shocked side played Zimbabwe in their last match on March 21, and the teams observed a minute’s silence before the game. Pakistan won by 93 runs according to the Duckworth-Lewis method, and dedicated the win to their deceased coach.

Barely a day later, it was revealed in a shocking announcement that Woolmer had been murdered. Deputy Commissioner of the Jamaica Constabulary Force, ex-Scotland Yard man Mark Shields, led the investigation and declared the cause of death as ‘asphyxia as a result of manual strangulation.’

Shields went as far as to say that the Jamaican gangsters were not responsible for Woolmer’s death: the Yardies used guns or knives. He also suggested a towel could have been used for strangulation.

As the Pakistan team were getting ready to board a flight to London from the Montego Bay, 30 miles from the scene of tragedy, Inzamam, assistant coach Mushtaq Ahmed and manager Talat Ali were detained for questioning over supposed ‘ambiguities’ in their statements. As they walked out after questioning, reporters screamed their questions, “Did you kill Woolmer?”

Meanwhile, Shields was throwing his leads casually over the huddle of microphones in hastily arranged press conferences. Talat Ai had changed his name into a false one at Pegasus after Woolmer’s death. There were unexplained scratch marks on Mushtaq Ahmed’s face. And there were cuts on the bridge of the nose of the dead man.

Reports emerged of a row between the coach and the players on the team bus after the defeat to Ireland. Rumours were rampant about the fallout between the coach and the captain over religion — the Pakistani team was a devout group and Woolmer had no time for any god. Furthermore, the coach supposedly alleged that some of the cricketers were more into praying than playing. South African journalist Neil Mathorp, a close friend of Woolmer, later said, that when the news had broken of the supposed strangulation, his first instinct had been that a religious zealot was to blame.

The departure of the Pakistanis was accompanied by the darkest of suspicions. Asian betting syndicates, three missing Pakistan officials, severely irate Pakistan fans — all sorts of diabolical speculations were rife across the cricket world.

Meanwhile, Shields was busy enjoying the limelight.

And suddenly, things changed. Two days later, in a press conference, ticks and shuffles demonstrated the increasing doubt of the Deputy Commissioner.  There were other Jamaican detectives unconvinced about murder. They did not discover any mark on Woolmer or any sign of struggle. However, supposedly their consensus had been overruled by senior officers. And apparently antiquated forensic equipment and techniques, added to the error.

Elementary cautionary protocols were disregarded; at least six Pakistan players entered the room after the incident  — which in normal circumstances should have been sealed off immediately. Woolmer’s body was kept in a funeral home rather than a morgue.

The murder was also announced far before evidence was concrete. Kingston pathologist Ere Seshaiah initially reported a possible heart attack, and later changed the verdict to suspected strangulation due to a broken hyoid bone. According to medical science, broken hyoids indicate strangulation only if there are other noticeable factors — such as mottling of the facial skin. None of these factors were present in Woolmer’s case. Later, the standard of autopsy was challenged. In Jamaica, supposedly autopsies were performed in 20 minutes whereas elsewhere it was a process that took several hours.

A month after the death, the investigation had stretched across three continents, and more than 400 people were interviewed. However, nothing concrete was unearthed.

On the other hand, a three-man team of senior Scotland Yard detectives visited Kingston, and their review suggested that one of the main reasons why the murderer had not been arrested was that there had been no murder. No strangler had struggled with Woolmer on that fateful day.

By early May, the increasingly edgy Jamaican police requested British authorities to evaluate Seshaiah’s verdict. Home Office pathologist Dr Nat Carey sent a report to Kingston explaining that Woolmer had not been strangled. The hyoid appeared intact. A Canadian pathologist corroborated Carey’s findings.

On June 7, a South African strangulation expert, consulted by the Jamaican police, concluded that Woolmer died of natural causes. A week later, the case was officially closed.

During this period, further evidence had come to light indicating that Woolmer’s health had been worse than previously believed. The death could very well have been due to natural causes, a violent agitation resulting from what he had eaten could have resulted in the vomiting.

On June 12, the Jamaican Constabulary Force announced that Woolmer had in fact died of natural causes. Suddenly the elements of a mystery thriller set in the Caribbean dissolved into the saddest of tragedies — of a man who had met his end while going through the most disappointing time of his life.

Finally, on November 27, a jury in Jamaica recorded an open verdict, deciding that there was insufficient evidence of either a criminal act or natural causes.

The lead up

On March 16, the day before Pakistan played Ireland, Pegasus had hosted a pre-match cocktail party. Woolmer had sat in the lobby, chatting happily with a group of Irish cricket writers and players.

According to Mark Townsend, crime correspondent of The Observer, two Pakistani reporters wandered over and an ‘astonishingly aggressive’ exchange followed. After the heated exchange, Woolmer turned to the Irish journalists and accused the Pakistani reporters of trying to ruin him at the behest of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad. “They’re spies for Javed and Imran. It doesn’t matter what I tell them, they go off and write whatever they want to.”

When the reporters asked him about suing under libel laws, Woolmer got even more needled saying that nothing of that sort of legislation existed in the land.

A day later, his effigy was being set on fire outside his Lahore apartment by Pakistan cricket fans, most of them charged up by hostile media reports.

On returning to the Pegasus on the evening of the Ireland match, Woolmer headed straight for room 374.

He had taken the lift with Shoaib Malik and had walked to his room. At 3:12 am he had sent an email to wife Gill, elaborating on his disappointment with the team’s performance. His body was found seven and a half hours later.

Woolmer had performed the herculean tasks of coaching the South African team during the phase of transformation from an all-white team into an integrated one. He had taken them to the summit in ODI rankings, and just behind Australia in Test cricket.

He had stepped down as coach a year before Cronje had been implicated in match-fixing controversies. Woolmer had resolutely stood by his friend during the harrowing period right up to his death.

Woolmer had never been entirely happy coaching Pakistan, complaining often about the politics that cut across every level of the game’s landscape in the country. It was the most stressful job in sport, but he had survived the 2006 ball-tampering row at The Oval, the incident of Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif taking drugs and other difficult tests thrown in his way. But, he had found this last challenge too difficult to overcome.

Theories of Murder

There are many who still believe in the conspiracy theories. It stretches the imagination to categorise the mysterious deaths of Woolmer and Cronje as coincidence.

Clive Rice is still adamant that he was killed. “I have no doubt whatsoever. Around the time of Woolmer’s death, there were occasions when the entire Pakistan team were all out caught. All dismissals in an innings caught. What are the odds [of that happening]? It has happened very rarely in the history of the game,” he recently said in an interview given to Cricketcountry. “There were statements made after Bob’s death. First we heard that the trachea had been damaged. Then we were told of a heart attack. How does a doctor say trachea damage first and then heart attack? It would have been disgraceful for image of the World Cup organisers if a murder was revealed. We in South Africa made a mistake. We should have performed an autopsy on his body when it arrived in the country.”

Indeed, there is a reason why Inzamam’s leg before dismissal in the first match is mentioned in the first paragraph of this article. In the two matches against West Indies and Ireland, across the twenty Pakistani dismissals, that was the only wicket not falling to a catch. Against West Indies, nine men had been caught; against Ireland, all. It is rare for this to happen — very, very rare.

Is it extraordinary to believe that a man who had pioneered the use of laptop by coaches, and scientific look at data for analysis had been equally intrigued by the way the batsmen got out? Had he smelled some rat that was busy being shoved under the carpet?

We will perhaps never know.

What we do know is that he was a man much loved and respected. According to Ivo Tennant in The Wisden Cricketer, he will be remembered as “for his gentleness, enthusiasm and generosity with his time and money. He gave too much of himself to too many people, some of whose motives he might not have recognised. Above all he was trusting of the human race.”

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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