Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Bob born in Kanpur, played for England died in Kingston Jamaica


Clarence Shirley_________ born in   1910 in Lewisham, London, was a former English cricketer.  He captained United Provinces (the earlier name of  Uttar Pradesh) during the Ranji Trophy in 1948-1949 against Bombay State (Maharashtra)  - the subject matter of the post is his illustrious son, whose death sparked worldwide debate, occurring as it did during a major Cricket tournament and more so, immediately after an ignominious exit !

                 In the windowless room that evening, anything seemed possible.  Had he been  poisoned? 'It's possible,' Shields said. The work of a hitman? Maybe. Is there more than one murderer? Plausible. Could a match-fixing syndicate have ordered the cricket coach's death? A shrug. At 6ft 6in and with his good looks and natty suits, Shields, the former Scotland Yard officer, was the English copper straight from central casting. He had arrived in Jamaica in 2002 to investigate a shooting and was then appointed Deputy Commissioner, on secondment from the Yard. Now, his responsibility was to find the killer of one of cricket's best-known figures, a former England Test player who had become a coach of international renown.

The man – Bob Woolmer.  Robert Andrew Woolmer (14 May 1948 – 18 March 2007) was an English cricket coach, cricketer, and a commentator. He played in 19 Test matches and six One Day Internationals for the England cricket team and later coached South Africa, Warwickshire and Pakistan.  I have seen him play at Chepauk in a Pongal test and remember reading statistics that he debuted in the 2nd ODI ever played and took 3 wickets in that. 

2007 World Cup was a nightmare – India the runner-up in 2003 crashed out losing to Bangladesh and Srilanka and scoring heavily against Bermudas.  In another group, Pakistan too crashed out losing to West Indies and then Ireland.   On 18 March 2007, Woolmer died suddenly in Jamaica, just a few hours after the Pakistan team's unexpected elimination at the hands of Ireland. Shortly afterwards, Jamaican police announced that they were opening a murder investigation into Woolmer's death.

He was born in Kanpur, India, on 14 May 1948, the son of a cricket-loving father Clarence Shirley Woolmer  who worked as a civil servant and once captained the United Provinces team in India's domestic championship. The family moved back to England in the mid-1950s settling in Kent, where Woolmer attended The Skinners' School in Tunbridge Wells. He was a talented schoolboy all-rounder, and, at the age of 20, he joined the Kent county staff.

I remember seeing that Pongal Test at Chepauk in Jan 1977.  Critics booed India for their lacklustre performance.  Those were the days when Test matches had a rest day !  In that Test no. 793, England opened with Dennis Amiss and Bob Woolmer.  Tony Greig was the captain- John Brearly, Roger Tolchard, Derek Randall, Alan Knott, John Lever, Chris Old, Bob Willis and Derek Underwood played and were all out for 262.  Bishan Bedi took 4; Madanlal and Prasanna 2 apiece.  India could muster only 164 – Lever took 5/59.  England were bowled out for 185 [Chandra took 5/50; Prasanna 4/55] and chasing 284, Indians were bundled out for 83 – Willis  3/18 and Underwood 4/28 inflicting the damage.

In 1975, he made his test debut against Australia at Lord's. But in 1977, at his peak, he joined World Series Cricket, Kerry Packer's breakaway competition in Australia, one of six England players who turned out for a World team against sides representing Australia and West Indies. He was banned by the Test & County Cricket Board, along with the other Packer players, and though that punishment was overturned in the High Court he did not play for England again until 1980.  On his return to the England side, Woolmer failed to hold down a regular place and, in 1982, took part in the rebel tour of apartheid South Africa, led by Graham Gooch. (Underwood and Knott were also on the tour.) He earned around £50,000 for the tour - good money for a cricketer, in those days - but it was a tour of disgrace and defied the British government's policy of sporting isolation for South Africa. This time, he was banned from playing for England for three years, effectively ending his international career at the age of 33.

Woolmer chased money, he played to his strengths becoming a superage coach, relying more on computers and modern techniques. Woolmer was known for his progressive coaching techniques. At times, he was controversial too, as he did during 1999 WC communicating with his captain Hansie Cronje with an earpiece during matches. The practice was later banned.

On their glorious day Ireland restricted Pakistan to a paltry 132 with Boyd Rankin taking 3/32 and chasing the required target on a difficult pitch. , O'Brien led Ireland's response with a superb fifty which appeared to be easing his side home until a rain break, and Duckworth-Lewis, altered the required total - and his momentum.  On the streets of Multan, Inzamam-ul-Haq’s home city, they were already burning effigies of him and chanting “Death to Woolmer”. At the post-match press conference at Sabina Park in Kingston, Woolmer had been asked: “Are you going to resign?” He replied: “I’d like to sleep on that one.” He answered each probing question with his usual courtesy.

At first, everybody assumed Woolmer had died of natural causes. Aside from his health problems, there was the stress of coaching Pakistan at a time that included the forfeiture of a Test at The Oval in a ball-tampering scandal and a drug-taking controversy involving Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif – surely a heart attack had to be the most probable cause?  However  Woolmer suffered the most lonely of deaths, a post-mortem had proved inconclusive, and Jamaican police announced that his death was being treated as suspicious. By the Thursday, March 22, a Jamaican journalist by the name of Rohan Powell sensationally claimed on television that Woolmer had been strangled. That very day police launched a murder investigation.

Bob had  retreated to his room, number 374, at the end of a musty corridor on the 12th floor of the Pegasus Hotel, a 17-storey skyscraper with 300 rooms in what passes for a luxurious area of Kingston. Next door was Danish Kaneria, Pakistan’s spin bowler and, across the corridor was the room of Brian Lara, one of the greatest players the game has known, now coming to the end of his West Indian career.  A large man, he had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. It was later discovered that his heart weighed an abnormally heavy 520 grams, with an enlarged left ventricle and a distinct narrowing of the coronary arteries: three-quarters of diabetics die of heart attacks. He also suffered from sleep apnoea, which meant he would stop breathing in his sleep unless he wore a mask attached to a machine that kept his air passages open .. .. and later consumed as a open death.

In Aug 2006, on the eve of Pakistan's Twenty20 international against England in Bristol, Bob Woolmer was forced to defend his reputation when it was claimed Pakistani players lifted the seam of the ball when he was in charge of the team.  Former International Cricket Council match referee Barry Jarman alleged that during the 1997 triangular one-day tournament involving South Africa, Zimbabwe and India, a match ball, still in Jarman's possession, that was confiscated after just 16 overs showed evidence of tampering by Woolmer's team. Woolmer could not recall any such incident and he denied advocating ball-tampering.

Now perhaps none remembers Woolmer 72 years after his birth and 13 years after his death.  The Pakistan president, Pervez Musharraf,  honoured Bob Woolmer with the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, a posthumous civil award, for his services to Pakistan cricket.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
12.5.2020


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