Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Robert Andrew Woolmer, 1948-2007

With the ubiquity of the internet and 24-hour news channels, getting shocking news, or any news for that matter, by word of mouth is almost a quaint concept, a relic from a past era. Last weekend, I was eating brunch at a restaurant with two people, one of whom got a call from another friend. As he spoke on the phone, my friend's eyes opened wide and his eyebrows raised, and he used sentences that contained no more than three syllables, like "What?!", "Are you sure?", "How?", and "Oh my God". It obviously didn't take a detective to figure out something was wrong. When he hung up, he looked at me and said: "Bob Woolmer just died. He was found unconscious in his hotel room, and now he's dead." Given we'd just lost to Ireland the previous day, my first reaction was that a crazed Pakistan fan must have gotten to him and, holding the nefarious "foreign laptop coach" responsible for the defeat, killed him. When I got home, I immediately went on Cricinfo and discovered that it was either a heart attack or something related to his diabetic condition and/or his high blood pressure. A few days later, the Jamaican police threw those initial hypotheses out of the window and confirmed that Woolmer had been murdered.

Who might have killed Bob Woolmer, or who might have wanted to kill Bob Woolmer, is not the subject of this post. That speculation is best left to the relevant authorities in Jamaica. Contrary to what I'm sure is the position of most of Five Rupees' readers, I generally try to limit myself to topics of discussion which I might claim to know something about. International politics? Yes. Cricket? Yes. Criminal investigations? Definite no. So if you're looking for a post conjecturing what happened that night, you can stop reading right now.

I remember reading the late Omar Kureishi's column in Dawn the week Woolmer was hired to coach the Pakistan team in mid-2004. After the usual caveats about his salary and language difficulties, Kureishi wrote that this was a coup for Pakistan cricket, and that Woolmer's credentials could not be doubted. How wrong he was. Over the next three years, it wasn't just Woolmer's credentials that were doubted but also his commitment, his "patriotism", his methods, his attitude, his coaching background, his weight, and, generally speaking, his value to Pakistan. Kureishi obviously did not account for the slime that passes as the media in Pakistan or the scum that passes as former Pakistani cricketers. These two groups pilloried Woolmer for the duration of his entire tenure as coach for entirely selfish reasons, never objectively taking facts into account or keeping Pakistan cricket's true interests in mind.

What are the facts? That Woolmer took on the toughest job in international cricket and did the best he, or anybody else, could under the circumstances. That he united what is notoriously and historically a faction-driven team by not playing favourites and by staying above the political fray. That he achieved more in terms of fostering team spirit and camaraderie than any other coach before him ever has (indeed, most of our coaches have a worse-than-zero impact on team spirit - they actually prove deleterious to it. See Miandad, Javed). That for the first time in our history, the quick single became both an offensive weapon (i.e. running the opposition into the ground) and a defensive weapon (taking pressure off oneself and the team by rotating the strike when early wickets have fallen). That in ODIs before July 2004, Shoaib Malik averaged 27 with the bat and 39 with the ball and after July 2004 upped those numbers to 39 with the bat and 29 with the ball. That in Tests before July 2004, Younis Khan averaged 37 and after July 2004 averaged 59. That Shahid Afridi averaged 32 with the bat (in Tests) before Woolmer and 43 with him. That bowlers like Shahid Nazir and Mohammad Asif, who would have been consigned to the dustbin on history under the peculiarly Pakistani logic of "Thou shalt not bowl at less than 145 km/h if thou wishes to be considered for selection," were encouraged and brought into the team at the behest of Woolmer to reap fantastic results and, in Asif's case, brought us the world's best quick bowler (quick: name me another non-spinning bowler you'd rather want if you were starting a team from scratch. Right, you can't). That we drew a test series in India that, on paper, we should have lost 3-0. That we won three, drew one and lost no Test series at home under Woolmer after having a run of disastrous results in Pakistan immediately preceding his tenure that were arguably the worst of all the top-Test nations at home other than the West Indies. That we rose to the No. 2 spot in the Test rankings and the No. 3 spot in the ODI rankings, places we couldn't sniff under previous regimes.

None of this, of course, ever mattered to our gutter press and the Imran Khans and Javed Miandads of the world. Because these people only cared about furthering themselves and not about Pakistan cricket, they ruthlessely attacked Woolmer even when it was not justfied. The media complained about his salary, but never bothered to check the rates at which coaches around the world were being hired. Former players criticized his methods ("laptop coach") without regard to their effectiveness. Everyone criticized results, without comparing them to what they were before he came on. The truly bizarre criticisms (Waheed Khan et al), Woolmer dealt with on his website. The truly vicious, he left alone. He was too good a man to be drawn into the brutal mud-slinging typical of Pakistan cricket.

His personality and demeanor, I think, are what were most impressive about him. Leaving behind the results on the pitch, the way he interacted with the players and the media was such a refreshing change for those of us used to "There's an Irfan Pathan in every gulli in Pakistan" and stories of coaches resigning on the eve of a World Cup because of difficulties with senior players (both attributable to the immortal Javed Miandad). You could tell the players, in general, really liked him. In various interviews, the likes of Younis, Yousuf, Shoaib (Malik, not that other chootia), and Afridi were always quick to mention not just how much Woolmer had added to their games but to how well he got on with everyone in the dressing room. He learnt a few Urdu words, he enthusiastically immersed himself in a culture alien to him and typically held in scant regard by people of similar background (what do you think the average Englishman/South African thinks of Pakistan?) and he always defended our players and their ways in public (even if he was less than sure of them in private). Remember how he stood up for us after L'affaire Hair? I recall thinking how lucky we were to have a Western man familiar with the ways of the media to deal with that public relations nightmare. The guy truly responsible for being that guy (the manager, Zaheer Abbas) was nowhere to be found, except of course, with the odd retarded comment. Woolmer was always there for us: on the field and off it. Now, sadly, he is not, because some motherfucker(s) decided that Woolmer's life was worth taking.

On a purely selfish note, one can say that this episode effectively guarantees that no foreign coach wil ever want to step foot in Pakistan again. Whether his murder came at the hands of someone connected to the Karachi-Mumbai-Dubai bookie mafia or a nutjob fan angry at the results of the World Cup is irrelevant. The point to be made is that the lesson that has been learnt by people all over the cricket world is "Pakistan: Enter At Your Own Risk". No amount of money or travel perks will ever be worth it for the Whatmores and Moodys of the world. Nope, we're going to be stuck with the likes of Haroon Rashid, Intikhab Alam and, at best, Aaqib Javed. With those choices will come the inevitable politicking, stories of backstabbing, selection issues, newspaper reports that so-and-so got into the team because he's the new coach's cousin's neighbor's wife's uncle's stepson's friend, discord between the captain and coach, and general chaos. You know how they say countries get the politicians they deserve? Well, they get the cricket coaches they deserve too.

Rest in peace, Bob. You were too good for us.


Zeyd said...

Good post man. Im amazed you managed to get so much out because Im still speechless. Despite my shock and anger, Im still going to Barbados for the final. Cricket must prevail I suppose.
Its been a sad few weeks in Pakistan cricket, sadder than normal, and perhaps the saddest I'll ever experience. Can we recover? I imagine we will. Right now that doesn't seem to matter. Its all about Bob and he should never be forgotten.

Ahsan said...

no he shouldn't.

on another note, good to see you're going to get to watch west indies-sri lanka. should be a good game.