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Wednesday, June 23, 2021


Bob Woolmer: A requiem and a legacy


The last column Bob Woolmer wrote was for TSI (see previous issue).Fortuitousness aside, in memory of moments both privileged and poignant, TSI offers an introspective tribute to the man and the challenges of his trying times
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Bob Woolmer: A requiem and a legacy There are times when what’s happening on the sports field pales into insignificance and appears trivialised by the greater and grimmer realities of life. Everyone suddenly seems to realise ‘It’s a game, after all!’ Kanpur-born Robert ‘Bob’ Woolmer’s tragic and sudden death is one such. Coming as it did after Pakistan (the team he coached) was shockingly ousted from the World Cup by minnows Ireland with irate fans venting their anger, it forces us to ponder – is the modern day game exacting its pound of flesh?

Sport in recent times has become larger than life, taking on a Bill Shankly-like philosophy, which at some point would become unsustainable. In the modern, commercialised world, sports mean big bucks, be it for the sportstars through endorsements, TV channels through advertisements or anyone else who remotely leverages the appeal to make any sort of money. And big bucks always mean big trouble. An ugly nexus of administrators, politicians, gamblers and marketers fanned by an increasingly callous and attention-hungry media that inflames fans’ ambitions and outlook about a sport, driving them to the point of fanaticism.

It’s difficult to see common sense in the adage ‘Be a fan, not a fanatic’ in a day and age where the average fan has been pushed to the brink thanks to overexposure to overanalysis and trial by media of every result, player and event. The problem seems even more acute in Third World countries, where the game (any popular game, be it cricket or football or any other) becomes an escape from reality to the extent that it provides an alternative to the drudgery of a mundane, poverty stricken life. And everyone rushes in to take advantage – be it politicians looking to gain electoral mileage or the local bookie out to make a quick buck off the gullible. The heady mix of poverty, population and gambling inebriates the common fan into suspending his common sense, thus resulting in tragic events.

We need not dig too deep in history to find such instances. A gambling mob allegedly murdered Colombian footballer Andreas Escobar 10 days after he scored an own goal that knocked his team out of World Cup ‘94. Escobar’s father had bitterly remarked that, “Football is violent and it is poisoned from within.” And who could forget the darkest night in European football when on 29 May 1985 a clash between fans of Juventus and Liverpool at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels claimed 39 lives. With results becoming so very critical and the onus always being on ‘desired’ performance, an unfortunate overreaction, by fans or player or coach is inevitable. Bob Woolmer: A requiem and a legacy Bob Woolmer was as professional a cricket coach as you could get. In fact, he was perhaps cricket’s first ‘coach’ in an era when the game was run by ‘managers’. A visionary thinker, Wisden declaring him the ‘Cricketer of the Year’ in 1976 had written, ‘If ever a youngster could have been said to eat, drink and sleep cricket, then surely it was Bob Woolmer.’ And that was his hallmark with every team he coached (Warwickshire, South Africa, and Pakistan). Never one to shrink from taking bold steps that could help the game chart a new course, Woolmer even got wrapped in controversy when accused of instructing the South African captain Hansie Cronje on field through an earpiece. But his clever use of technology perhaps made the game more absorbing. He was cricket’s first ‘laptop’ coach using rigorous analysis to detect chinks in the opposition’s armour. Allan Donald’s tribute is apt. “Bob was an extremely professional man, a cricket scholar, but at the same time a thorough gentleman, and he quite literally gave his life to cricket,” he told TSI.

His tragic and suspicious demise in harness, with conspiracy theories of murder and poisoning doing the rounds, just serves as horrendous a notice of the pressures of a coach’s job nowadays. “I can identify with the pressure on Bob, but he was such a robust personality that it is hard to believe he let the pressure affect him”, Tom Moody, currently coaching Sri Lanka, told TSI. Moody also points out at the commercial excesses of the game today, “he was always critical of the hectic international schedule, and hated the stress and strain of constant travel”. Sarfraz Nawaz, the former Pakistani pacer, claimed that the match fixing mafia was behind Woolmer’s death. Woolmer’s controversial, unreleased book, Discovering Cricket apparently unravels the nexus between players and bookies.

The loss is a huge one for cricket. The great South African, Barry Richards, in a moving tribute told TSI, “I’m still not able to cope with the loss and the shock. I played a lot of cricket with him and knew him well personally. He had a difficult and demanding job, and his death will affect the Pakistan team hugely. He has left a lasting legacy and will be remembered for his services not just to Pakistan, but also to England and South Africa.” In an era where excessive media hype means that a player or a coach becomes a hero or a villain at the drop of a catch and players, their families and homes are attacked after a single loss, the game itself becomes so intense that it doesn’t remain a game anymore. While going to press, news reports claimed that Woolmer had been murdered – either for losing a mere game or perhaps for spilling the beans. In either situation, it perhaps is a murder most foul, symbolic of the pathogenic forces (administrators, bookies, players) that control the game through its strongest pillars – the fans. It is a wake up call for fans and the media to behave responsibly, with maturity and integrity to ensure that in future, they do not become unwitting instruments or triggers for yet another murder.

Robert Andrew ‘Bob’ Woolmer, may your death not be in vain and may your soul rest in peace.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017