W is for Bob (W)oolmer the player cum coach whose death is still a big mystery – #BlogchatterAtoZ #AtoZChallenge 2019
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I have regaled you with the stories of a lot of sportspersons in this A to Z challenge. But the one thing we have to remember is that in any sport, the coach for the team or the sportsperson has a big role to play in their success or failure. Today I will bring you the story of the renowned cricket coach Bob Woolmer who was also a member of the English cricket team before taking up coaching full-time. His death was also extremely controversial and there is still some suspicion of foul play. To this day some people firmly believe that his death was not natural and he was murdered.
Robert Andrew Woolmer was born in the Georgina McRobert Memorial Hospital which is right across the road from the Green Park Stadium in Kanpur, India. His date of birth is 14, May 1948. His father, Clarence Woolmer was also a cricketer who represented United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) in the Ranji Trophy. Woolmer first attended Yardley Court in Tonbridge and later The Skinner’s School in Tunbridge Wells.
He played for the Kent second XI initially as an off-spinner, but his captain and coach Colin Page converted him into a medium pacer. Initially, Woolmer played county cricket for Kent and in 1975 he graduated to test cricket as an all-rounder. He took a hat-trick for the MCC against the touring Australian side as a medium fast bowler. But he was then dropped only to reappear later in the final match of that series. In this match, he scored 149 runs which at that time the slowest recorded test century for the English team against Australia.
In 1977, he scored two more centuries against Australia. In fact, all his test centuries came against Australia. He was a regular member of the English ODI team from 1972 to 1976 but his career suffered later because he joined Kerry Packer’s World Series break-away group. He did play some test matches for England in the early eighties but his form had suffered by then and he was not the same player as before. He participated in the rebel tours of South Africa in 1982 and that put an end to his international career.
Woolmer had already obtained his qualifications as a coach in 1968. After retiring in 1984, Woolmer emigrated to South Africa and coached school children in Hockey and Cricket. He also became involved with the Avendale Cricket Club in Athlon, Cape Town. Those days South Africa practised apartheid and Woolmer preferred to join a ‘coloured’ club rather than a ‘white’ one. He helped the Avendale cricket club to grow and flourish and proved to be an inspiration to them. Due to his efforts, there is still an annual programme for a talented Avendale cricketer to spend a summer at Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire.
He came back to England in 1987 and coached the Kent second XI. In 1991 he began coaching the Warwickshire County Cricket Club. The side won the Natwest Trophy in 1993, followed by three out of four trophies contested the next year. He continued his success as a coach and led Warwickshire to Natwest and County Championship victories in 1995. He followed this by taking up the post of the South African National Coach.
Woolmer is believed by most people to be the only man who has witnessed both the West Indian Brian Lara’s innings of 501 not out against the county Durham in 1994 and the Pakistani batsman Hanif Mohammad’s 499 in Karachi in 1958. Woolmer was an extremely innovative coach. He popularised the reverse sweep among batsmen and it is believed that he was one of the first coaches to use computer-aided techniques for coaching. It was discovered that the South African captain Hansie Cronje frequently communicated with Woolmer during matches for assistance in decision making. This became a point of controversy in the cricket world and finally led to a ban by the ICC on coaches communicating with members of the team during matches.
Under Woolmer, the South African team initially performed rather poorly losing all six ODI matches in their first series against Pakistan. However, in the next 5 years, South Africa won 10 out of the 15 series they played and won around 73% of the ODI matches played by them.
In the 1999 ICC World Cup, South Africa faced Australia in the final match of the Super Six round. Australia needed a definite win to qualify for the semifinals. South Africa, on the other hand, had already qualified. Australia had a better recent record in must-win matches against South Africa. The South Africans were believed to be less adept at handling high-pressure situations by the media. In this match, the South African player Herschelle Gibbs dropped the Australian captain Steve Waugh while prematurely celebrating a catch and Waugh went on to score an unbeaten century and taking Australia to victory helping them to qualify.
South Africa again played Australia in the semi-finals of the tournament. This match ended in a tie and the South Africans were eliminated. When the scores were level, South African batsman Lance Klusener and Allan Donald had a mix up in the middle of the pitch while attempting to take a run, and Donald dropped his bat and was run out. This resulted in South Africa being eliminated from the finals, because of their inferior performance in the earlier matches. And the result of all this was Bob Woolmer resigned as coach of the South African team.
Bob Woolmer also spoke up for the removal of lifting the life ban on South African captain Hansie Cronje for match-fixing. He even gave a BBC interview on his views on Cronje. In 2004 he took up the mantle of the coach for the Pakistani Cricket team. Under Woolmer, the Pakistani team toured India in 2005. Inzamam Ul Haq was the captain and the team held its own drawing the test match series 1-1 and winning the ODI series handsomely with a 4-1 victory. This was again followed by a 2-0 win for Pakistan in a series against Srilanka.
Woolmer was quite often in the centre of controversies. Former International Cricket Council match referee Barry Jarman alleged that during the 1997 one-day tournament involving South Africa, Zimbabwe and India, one of the balls used in the match and confiscated after just 16 overs showed evidence of tampering by Woolmer’s team. Woolmer denied advocating ball-tampering at any point in the match. He also mentioned that he had contacted the match officials from that game and they also could not recall any such incident.
In August 2006, just before Pakistan’s Twenty20 international match against England, Woolmer had to defend his reputation when it was claimed that Pakistani players lifted the seam off the ball when he was in charge of the team. Woolmer also stated that he firmly believed that Cricket’s rules should be modified to allow ball tampering.
Woolmer’s death is a big unsolved mystery. On 18th March 2007, Woolmer was found dead in his room in the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel at Kingston, Jamaica. This was the day that Pakistan was knocked out of the 2007 ICC world cup. I remember the day clearly myself. Imran Khan was hell-bent on suggesting that Bob Woolmer was unable to take the shock of his team Pakistan’s elimination from the world cup and had died of a heart attack due to this. And even our own spinner Maninder Singh suggested the same on television.
On 22 March, the Jamaican police launched an investigation based on the report of a pathologist Ere Seshiah that Woolmer had actually died due to asphyxia brought about by manual strangulation. The investigation was led by deputy police commissioner Mark Shields. On 12, June 2007, the commissioner of the Jamaica Constabulary force Lucius Thomas announced that Woolmer had died a natural death and not due to asphyxiation. It was reported that three independent pathologists employed by the police had examined Woolmer and concluded that the earlier report of manual strangulation was incorrect and also that the toxicology reports found no evidence of poisoning. Pathologists from the UK also carried out tests. There were contradictions in the reports submitted by the Caribbeans and the pathologists from the UK.
Reports also suggested that Woolmer was suffering from several health problems including Diabetes and an enlarged spleen. On 6, November coroner Patrick Murphy asked for further tests to be conducted following the discrepancies in the forensic and toxicology reports submitted by the two sets of pathologists. After hearing the evidence for 26 days the jury returned an open verdict refusing to rule out the theory of manual strangulation put forth by Ere Seshiah.
Former South African cricketer Clive Rice still believes that Woolmer might have been murdered by organised gangs. Similarly, former Australian captain, Ian Chappell believes that it is more likely that Woolmer was murdered as he was about to reveal some secrets which had been troubling him and about which he had a lot of misgivings. And as far as Imran Khan’s theory that Woolmer died of a heart attack brought about by the disappointment of having to watch Pakistan’s elimination from the tournament, it is out and out poppycock. A coach feels so disheartened by his team’s game that he has a heart attack! Only Pakistanis can think of a cock and bull story like that.
Even if it was a murder, the problem for the Jamaican police could have been that charging someone could have resulted in an international incident. It is very difficult to bring home a crime to the perpetrator when many countries are involved and there is a risk of a diplomatic standoff. I personally believe that Bob Woolmer did not die a simple natural death. I hope you enjoyed reading about this player and coach today. Tomorrow, I will be back with another story.
Tags – #BlogchatterAtoZ 2019 #AtoZChallenge 2019