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Woolmer, Robert Andrew [Bob]free

(1948–2007)
  • Rob Steen

Robert Andrew Woolmer (1948–2007)

by Philip Brown, 2006

Philip Brown / Rex Features

Woolmer, Robert Andrew [Bob] (1948–2007), cricketer and cricket coach, was born in Kanpur, India, on 14 May 1948, the son of Clarence Shirley Woolmer, an English insurance executive who had once played in India's domestic cricket championship, and his wife, Stella Kathleen, née Birks. He was ten when his father took him to Karachi to see Hanif Mohammed break the first-class record by scoring 499. (In 1994, after Brian Lara beat Hanif by scoring 501 for Warwickshire, whom Woolmer then coached, it was widely reported that he was unique in witnessing both innings.) The family moved back to England in the mid-1950s, settling in Kent, where Woolmer impressed at Skinners' School in Tunbridge Wells as a seam-bowling all-rounder, joining the county cricket club at the age of twenty. He made his one-day international début for England in 1972. In 1974 he married (Shirley) Gillian Hall, who had been brought up in South Africa. They had two sons.

The influence of Colin Cowdrey, a sedate, graceful stroke-player, Woolmer's team-mate at Kent and his driving companion, and another Indian-born Englishman, became increasingly plain—in girth as well as approach—and in 1975 Woolmer was picked for the Lord's test against Australia's intimidating pace duo of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. By the summer's end he had embarked on a sequence of three centuries in consecutive Ashes encounters. If the first was a painstaking, match-saving innings—in expending fully 396 minutes in reaching three figures he set an Ashes record for sluggishness—the other two, in 1977, were far more fluent and commanding.

The year 1977 also saw Woolmer join world series cricket, Kerry Packer's revolutionary breakaway venture in Australia. Banned from county cricket, along with the other Packer players, Woolmer was reprieved in the High Court and resumed his England career in 1980. Despite taking his aggregate beyond 1000 runs, he struggled in his four remaining tests, plunging his final average, in nineteen appearances, to a modest thirty-three. In 1982, beset by the back problems that would impel an early retirement, and spurred in part by the belief that maintaining links with South Africa was the best way of defeating prejudice, he undermined the international policy of sporting isolation by accepting a reported £50,000 to join the first ‘rebel’ tour of apartheid South Africa, where he was playing for Western Province, and was accordingly banned from national duty.

An affable, sensitive man, Woolmer now found his true calling as a coach, blazing a trail at a time when coaches were only just starting to challenge the captain's autocracy. Motivated by 'curiosity and challenge' (The Times, 15 Oct 2007), he became coach at Avendale Cricket Club, a club for ‘non-white’ cricketers in Athlone, Cape Town, and then had one season at Kent before he made his name at Warwickshire, admired for his use of computer technology and thirst for innovation, notably in his enthusiasm for the ‘reverse sweep’. He also presided over a remarkable season in 1994 that saw Warwickshire, unprecedentedly, win three trophies and only narrowly fail to secure all four. In 1994 he became coach of the South African national cricket team, remaining until 1999. He had ceased to be the South African coach when in 2000 the scandal broke following revelations that the South African captain, Hansie Cronje, had accepted bribes in return for ‘fixing’ matches. Nevertheless Woolmer's defence of Cronje did his own reputation, and that of the game, no good.

Woolmer returned to Warwickshire for three troubled years from 2000 to 2002, and then became the International Cricket Council's performance manager before taking on the immense task, daunting enough even if he had spoken Urdu, of coaching Pakistan. His tenure of this post was a difficult one. During the 2006 Oval test against England, Pakistan's captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, furious at allegations of ball-tampering, refused to resume play, and Pakistan became the first team to forfeit a test. The following year Pakistan was knocked out of the world cup, shockingly, by Ireland.

To Allan Donald, who broke South Africa's test wicket-taking record under Woolmer's aegis, Woolmer was the game's foremost technical coach. He 'looked at every aspect of the game', affirmed the long-time national wicket-keeper Dave Richardson. 'He didn't force anything down anyone's throat. You could always talk back to him if he got over-technical or over-enthusiastic' (interview, 2 Oct 2009, www.cricinfo.com). 'He was too generous with his time', wrote the journalist Ivo Tennant, who ghosted Woolmer's autobiography (Pirate and Rebel? 1984) and was more aware than most of the physical and mental toll. 'Any player could go to his room at any hour for advice' (The Times, 15 Oct 2007). The culmination of this accumulated wisdom was Bob Woolmer's Art and Science of Cricket, written in collaboration with a sports scientist, Tim Noakes. Technical instructions abounded alongside psychological advice: 'Remember, [the reverse sweep] is a shot that takes flair and confidence and, if you get it wrong, don't expect many sympathetic voices in the dressing room'. Woolmer also wrote Skilful Cricket (1993) and Woolmer on Cricket (2000).

On 18 March 2007, the day after Pakistan had been knocked out of the world cup, Woolmer, by now overweight and diabetes-stricken, was found dead in his room in the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel, Kingston, inciting all manner of speculation, even in nations immune to cricket. The Kingston police cited strangulation, fanning the flames. The Observer's crime correspondent encapsulated the giddying confusion:

The murderer was an enraged Pakistan fan. It was the cricket mafia. The Pakistan team captain. A terrorist plot by Islamic extremists. An underworld bookmaker who had lost millions. Who killed Bob Woolmer? Frankly, back then, it felt as if anyone might have murdered him, and that there were many who wanted him dead.

Observer Sports Monthly, 1 July 2007

Two months later overseas pathologists disproved the police's claim, but uncertainty persisted. In November 2007 an open verdict was returned. His body was cremated in Cape Town on 4 May 2007. He was survived by his wife, Gill, and sons Russell and Dale.

Sources

  • B. Woolmer, Pirate and rebel? (1984)
  • Daily Telegraph (19 March 2007)
  • The Guardian (20 March 2007)
  • The Independent (20 March 2007)
  • Observer Sports Monthly (1 July 2007)
  • WW (2007)

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1969–2006, Rex Features, London
  • photographs, 1970–2007, Getty Images, London
  • photographs, 1973–2000, Photoshot, London
  • photographs, 1999–2007, Camera Press, London
  • P. Brown, photograph, 2006, Rex Features, London [see illus.]
  • obituary photographs
(1849–)