A man who mirrored a changing game

By Tim de Lisle, a former editor of Wisden (THE TIMES, 24/03/07):

Bob Woolmer made his name as a cricketer in 1975, in only his second Test match. Playing for England against Australia, he made a brave, skilful and very slow century, which saved the match. He batted in a cap and his sleeves were rolled up with military neatness. For five days’ work, he was paid about £200.

These days, England’s cricketers are paid in thousands, not hundreds. They wear helmets, even when facing slow bowlers. And they have lost the art of the rearguard action. If the past is another country, Seventies cricket is another planet — sedate, formal, traditional, a world of polite applause and cucumber sandwiches.

Woolmer’s international career, which came to an abrupt and violent end in a Kingston hotel room this week, turned out to be a long, remarkable and emblematic journey. Two years after his debut, the game was shaken to its core by the media magnate Kerry Packer, who secretly signed up most of the leading players for a breakaway series. Woolmer was among them; it may even have cost him the chance to captain England. Later, when another fat chequebook was waved at him, for a rebel tour of South Africa, he signed up again. If the ethics were unsavoury, he made up for it later with some tireless coaching in the townships.

Once apartheid began to fall, and after a spectacularly successful stint with Warwickshire, he became South Africa’s coach. He was present again, though not implicated, when the South African captain, Hansie Cronje, fell from grace by accepting money from a bookmaker to contrive a result in a Test against England.

Later, Woolmer worked for the game’s governing body, the ICC, as its so-called high performance manager, which meant trying to drag fringe nations up to scratch so they didn’t embarrass themselves in World Cups. And then he took over as coach of Pakistan, accepting the most poisonous of all cricket’s chalices.

Pakistan cricket, riven by regionalism, got through coaches and captains like nobody’s business, and it had endured a match-fixing investigation that left several star players less than fully exonerated.

One of them, the W. G. Grace-like figure of Inzamam-ul-Haq — stylish, portly and incorrigible — had somehow become the team captain. Another, Waqar Younis, had reemerged as the team’s bowling coach, despite many brushes with the law over alleged ball-tampering. The team were brilliant one day, hopeless the next. Under Woolmer, they beat India, which was like winning the Ashes; but they lost heavily in England last summer, lost again in South Africa this winter, and then lost their first two World Cup games. In a tournament purpose-built to keep the big teams in, Pakistan managed to crash out. The spectre of match-fixing loomed again.

Woolmer’s journey was unique: nobody else has worked with so many different countries. But it was symptomatic of wider changes. Cricket itself has travelled a long way in the past 30 years. Its epicentre has moved from Lord’s to the sub-continent. It is ruled not by amateurs, but by broadcasters, sponsors, agents and lawyers. It has proliferated dramatically: there have been as many one-day international matches in the past decade as there were in the previous 26 years. The players have far more money but far less freedom: much of the time, they are wealthy hamsters on wheels.

Many of the changes are for the better. The game is more entertaining, less stuffy, more inclusive. Television carries it into millions of homes. The internet has smuggled it into offices, and cricket turns out to be the ultimate multimedia game — rewarding to read about in the papers, fun to listen to on the radio, great to watch on television, and perfectly suited to the web, with its statistics and opinions and its ability to bring together people in different timezones.

But there has been a price to pay. Money doesn’t talk in modern cricket — it shrieks. The game’s ambience, once so calm, has become febrile. The internet, as well as bringing people together, has acted like a microwave, generating heat at unhealthy speed. Off the field, cricket’s sole superpower is India, where the game is followed with a passion that is sometimes frightening.

The Asian countries, while naturally rejecting the old Anglo-Australian hegemony, tend to hire English or Australian coaches, which leads to culture clashes. Greg Chappell, the former Australia star who coaches India, was manhandled the other day by a disgruntled fan. The brief upsurge of player power has given way to what may be a more lasting era of fan power. It’s not far from the lynch mob.

When cricketers are quizzed about their bad days, one of their stock responses is to say: “Nobody died.” Now somebody has — a good man, widely liked and respected for his warmth, gentleness, enthusiasm and openness to new ideas. Whether it is the worst of cricket’s scandals, we may discover in due course. It is already the nastiest.