Remembering Bob Woolmer: 14 May 1948 – 18 March 2007
Tomorrow will be the fourth anniversary of Bob Woolmer’s death at the ICC World Cup in the Caribbean. It feels like yesterday that I was in the West Indies for the final matches of the 2007 World Cup, which I attended partly as a kind of pilgrimage in Bob’s honour — I still cannot see a palm tree without a dart of emotion.
This first World Cup since his death has brought him back to me countless times, and I find that the oddest things trigger tears. The other day, it was the news that England player Steve Davies had declared openly that he was gay, the first international cricketer to do so. Immediately, I heard the voices of Bob and Prof Tim Noakes, co-collaborator on The Art and Science of Cricket, in my head:
Bob: Makes absolutely no difference, no difference at all. It’s how he plays that matters. All that matters. Course we didn’t talk about these things when I was playing, but the game has to keep adapting and moving forward, that’s the important thing.
Tim: But this is very important. We must put this issue in the book. There must be other gay professional cricketers and athletes, I wonder if there is any research on how they cope? Helen, can you try and find out, and write something up?
I cannot claim to miss Bob the way his family and friends do, a steady ache in the bone, a step constantly missed in the dark. But once I was part of something big, and it wasn’t just as junior partner in the writing of the mammoth and magisterial Art and Science of Cricket, which now bears Bob’s name. It was getting to be a fly on the wall of the friendship between two geniuses – both the best in the world at what they did. I miss being in the presence of giants who had the freshness of children. Their open-mindedness, their constant curiosity blew a heady breeze through the stuffy halls of cricketing tradition, and I miss that too, but most of all I miss the way they sparked fresh enthusiasm in each other, and those around them – including myself. There was always a bit of magic trailing in the air behind them.
Little has been said about Bob at the 2011 World Cup so far, although he is doubtlessly not far from the thoughts of many: Inzamam ul-Haq, the former Pakistan team captain, said “Pakistan should try to do well in this ICC Cricket World Cup not only for the country, but also for our late coach Bob Woolmer, who always believed we had the potential to be the number one side in the world” (ESPN Star).
As I follow the World Cup via television, I wonder why there is so little commemoration of Bob, or mention by the commentators. After all, Bob’s legacy is everywhere I look – Gary Kirsten, who probably more than any other elite coach today practices his trade in Bob’s mould, is steering the Indian team to what might well be a win on home soil; the flashes of brilliance, the heartening improvement in the performance of the “minnow” teams remind us of Bob’s years as the ICC High Performance manager; the reverse sweep pioneered by Bob is taken for granted as a response to the spinning ball.
Some of the most senior players on and off the field are pure graduates of the Woolmer Way: most obviously, Jacques Kallis and Younus Khan (who in the last few years has dedicated almost every victory or man-of-the-match award to the memory of Bob, whom he loved like a father). But there are plenty of others – Shahid Afridi, Shoaib Akthar, Kamran Akmal and Abdul Razzak all benefited from Bob’s tutelage. In Bob’s great book, we featured various players demonstrating their skills in the technical photographs: Jacques Kallis (batting), Allan Donald (bowling), and Jonty Rhodes (fielding). In the 2011 World Cup, Kallis is wielding the willow as one of the world’s undisputed greats, Donald is doing a creditable job as the Blackcaps bowling coach, and Rhodes is tweaking the Kenyan side’s fielding.
I know they all remember Bob, for whom the subcontinent was familiar territory (he was born in India), and who must be a lingering presence at many of the grounds. Perhaps those who loved Bob don’t talk much about him in public because, like me, they are still outraged at the bungling that followed his death, the media vulture storm, and are saddened that unanswered questions about this tragedy still darken their memories. They prefer to remember the man they knew, not the mess after his death.
Last year, I vehemently opposed proposed new legislation to curb the media and restrict freedom of information in South Africa. But even as I did so, I remembered the horror of watching rumours and frank fabrication bloom like algae in the wake of Bob’s death. Stranded at the time in the American South, whose inhabitants ignore the phenomenon of cricket, my only way to track the breaking story was via the internet and phone-calls home across a jarring time-lag. I remember the wilder rumours that Bob’s other co-authors (including myself) were to be targeted by his alleged assassins, the 3am call from a journalist hunting dirt, reading online that our book had been snatched away by a British publisher (a bald lie). I realised, for the first time, the extent to which tabloids lead the broadsheets by their noses.
I can’t help wondering if shame isn’t part of the reason for the muted voices on Bob and his legacy to the game, and particularly the World Cup. Many members of the Pakistan team at the time suffered enormous guilt over their humiliating loss to Ireland at the knock-out stage, wondering if their shock defeat was a precipitating factor in Bob’s death later than night (a fundi later told me “I think they broke his heart – literally”).
But the press behaved worst of all during those long months in which we all believed that Bob had been murdered, and everyone was hunting for a motive. I like to think that with hindsight, some of those news broadcasters realised that speculating to the point of slander about a man who died doing his job thousands of miles from home, and whose family needed concrete answers, wasn’t quite the same as reporting on whether a starlet was cheating on her latest squeeze. It’s possible that they don’t wish to be reminded of the depths to which they sank four years ago.
Everyone who knew or met Bob remarked on the transparent decency of the man, his affable nature, his passion for coaching, and his enthusiasm for the future. He was by no means starry-eyed about his work – in the unpublished memoir he had started writing just before his death, his exasperation with the various cricket administration bodies he had worked with is clear. But other than his perhaps controversial view that disgraced former captain Hansie Cronje should have been rehabilitated back into the game (a view that was no secret), there is nothing scandalous or murky in his unfinished writings. Like everything else he wrote, and did, they reveal that he loved, and lived for, two things: his family, and the game of cricket.
The world of cricket moves fast, but I hope that tomorrow, it stops for a minute to salute a man whose coaching style is imprinted on the way the game is played, and who, quite literally, gave his life to cricket.