April Issue 2007

By | Sports | Published 17 years ago

Pakistan cricket has always had a tendency to be associated with controversy. But when the Pak team coach, Bob Woolmer, was found dead in his hotel room in Kingston, Jamaica, on March 18, one day after Pakistan was knocked out of the World Cup, it was a situation that left even the Pakistanis — well versed with dealing with sticky situations — absolutely bewildered..

“He was lying on the floor, half naked, with his mouth open. His body had turned blue, and there was vomit and some blood on the floor and walls near him. We knew almost immediately that he had no pulse. It was one of the most terrible moments of my life,” recalled Pakistan’s assistant manager in the World Cup, Asad Mustafa.

In the hours and days that followed Woolmer’s death, the Pakistanis came under increasing scrutiny and pressure as both the media and the Jamaican police pondered over several theories regarding the motives for and the circumstances surrounding Woolmer’s death.

While initial reports suggested that he had died of a heart attack, the Jamaican deputy police commissioner, Mark Shields’s announcement three days after Woolmer’s death that an autopsy of the corpse had provided enough evidence to suggest that the coach had been murdered sent shock waves around the cricketing world.

Reeling from the loss to lowly rated Ireland and floored by Woolmer’s death, the Pakistan team was further shell-shocked by the news that their coach had probably been murdered.

“No one knows how close we all were to Woolmer. He was a good man, and apart from his credentials as a cricket coach, he got along well with everyone. As in every family, there were disagreements now and then, but overall he was a popular member of the team. His death was a big blow to us, a nightmare,” said the captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq.

The pressure of losing to Ireland and consequently being ignominiously ushered out of the World Cup induced Inzamam to announce his retirement from one-day internationals and resign from the captaincy the same day that Woolmer was found dead. The announcement engendered some scathing criticism from the western media, who accused Inzamam of insensitivity.

“Perhaps I was wrong in making my announcement then, but it was something I had to do. Being the captain, I was responsible for our poor performance. I had already discussed it with Woolmer. I wanted to get this burden off my shoulders as soon as possible,” explains Inzamam.

Although the Pakistani players were allowed to return home after interrogation by the Jamaican authorities and giving DNA samples, conspiracy theories continue to haunt the team. With the rumour mills working overtime, there are a range of possibilities, among them the conjecture is fast gaining ground that Woolmer was not murdered but fell, hit the sink in his bathroom — hence the marks on his neck — and passed out, subsequently dying. To counter these rumours the Jamaican authorities have decided to conduct a second autopsy of Woolmer’s corpse. To date, no real headway has been made in the investigations of his death. In fact, Shields told the press that it might take months to get to the bottom of the case.

Pakistan manager Talat Ali feels that the Jamaican authorities mishandled the case, and allowed it to blow up into something very big and sinister. “We are still waiting for hard evidence that will confirm he was murdered,” says Ali. Many of the Pakistani players echoed Ali’s sentiments. They don’t believe Woolmer was murdered. “He died of natural causes,” said one cricketer. They maintain that after the devastating loss against Ireland, he was very depressed. He had diabetes and other disorders, which may have been responsible for his untimely demise.

Some medical experts also voiced suspicions that the condition in which Woolmer was found indicated he could have died of an overdose of medicines, alcohol or some other toxic potion

For his part, Dr Qaiser Sajjad, the secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association believes that the reports of vomit and blood being found near Woolmer, and his skin condition, are not indicative of strangulation. Rather, he stated, “To me it looks like a case of poisoning.”

Another medical expert pointed out that Woolmer could have choked on something and had a heart seizure, or fallen down accidentally and broken his neck.

Whatever the causes of his death, the outcome is certain: Woolmer is dead, leaving a large vacuum in the cricketing world. Tragically, unlike his legacy before his stint in Pakistan, he did not have the comfort of knowing that his was a job well done, thanks to the pathetic performance of the Pakistani cricketers.

While the cause of Woolmer’s death is yet to be determined, the reasons behind it, if it was indeed a murder, have also yielded a multitude of conspiracy theories. There is much conjecture that Woolmer’s death was caused by the betting mafia because he was in the process of writing a book on match-fixing and was going to name those involved.

While the publishers of his book and his ghost writer, Ivo Tennant, have rubbished this, saying Woolmer’s book was simply about cricket and his coaching experience with the Pakistanis, and police have also found no mention of any match-fixing incidents in the laptop found in his hotel room, rumours of this nature persist.

However, former Pakistan captain, Rashid Latif, a central figure in the match-fixing scandal that rocked cricket in the 1990s and led to bans on top players like Hansie Cronje, Saleem Malik and Mohammad Azharuddin, believes that the police need to change the direction of their investigation into the case.

“I admit there are some loopholes in the theory about Woolmer being murdered by bookmakers. But even if his death has nothing to do with match-fixing, the truth remains that this menace still plagues international cricket,” he said.

Rashid also pointed out that after confessing to taking money from bookmakers to fix matches, former South African skipper Cronje died in an air crash while in a private chartered jet in 2002 in mysterious circumstances. “We still don’t know exactly how Cronje died. I just hope the police can solve the mystery of Woolmer’s death, or else cricket will suffer enormous harm,” he added.

Rashid said that in 2003 he had informed the anti-corruption unit that bookmakers still had a nexus with some players and encouraged fancy fixing (which means betting on every ball of a match on anything), but they didn’t take him seriously. “I even offered to dummy fix a match for them to confirm my findings, but they were not willing to cooperate. So I gave up and refused to meet them again,” he disclosed.

But bookmakers in Karachi and Lahore rule out any possibility of Woolmer being murdered by their kin. “What motive would any bookmaker have to kill Woolmer? And we are certain that the matches Pakistan played against the West Indies and Ireland in the World Cup were not fixed,” divulged one Tariq Road-based bookmaker.

Another one, who goes by the name of Daniel, said that bookmakers in Karachi, Lahore, Dubai, Mumbai, Delhi and even South Africa had taken a lot of bets on World Cup matches and would not have committed the mistake of having the attention of the world media and police turn towards the possibility of match fixing in the tournament. “There is heavy betting on matches, but I don’t think Woolmer’s death is related to match-fixing,” Daniel insisted.

Police have also not ruled out the possibility of some angry bookmaker or cricket fan killing Woolmer in a fit of anger for the loss to Ireland, the odds of which, it was widely perceived, were one in a hundred.

The fact that Woolmer was very close to Cronje when he was coach of the South African team between 1994 and 1999 has only added fuel to the theory about bookmakers being involved in his death.

The Jamaican police theory that no one else had access to Woolmer’s key card, which gave him access to the hotel lift and his room, is also debatable. In a crime-infested country like Jamaica, it is not impossible for someone to pay a heavy bribe and have a duplicate key card made. Thus, the view that he let someone he knew into the hotel room is questionable.

Woolmer’s death has cast a long shadow over the World Cup. At one point there was even talk of the event being cancelled. While that did not happen, it has surely rattled the cricket world.

For the Pakistani players, Woolmer’s death might have offset some of the anger that had been directed at them for their World Cup performance. Nonetheless, there can be no getting away from the fact that there is an urgent need to overhaul the state of cricket at home. Who will do that, however, remains to be seen.