March 23, 2007

Bob Woolmer – a visionary ahead of his times

By H Natarajan

If cricket coaching today has transformed from art form to science, a large part of the credit goes to Bob Woolmer. In keeping pace with time, the game’s foremost philosopher redefined coaching from a verbal field job to an analytical, cerebral indoor exercise. He catapulted cricket into the Information Age with his ubiquitous laptop, that’s now a vital instrument in every cricket coach all over the world.

And in an age where geographical boundaries have come apart, Woolmer was a truly global citizen – he was born in India, grew up and represented England, settled down in South Africa and made it a force to be reckoned with again in international cricket, moved on to coach Pakistan in whose colours, he tragically and untimely, died in a hotel room in far away Jamaica.

Woolmer’s death brought back memories of another popular England player, Ken Barrington, who too died in a hotel room in the West Indies when accompanying the English team as it assistant manager 26 years ago. What’s most poignant is that Woolmer was murdered.

It was still early days of his coaching South Africa and international team did not have foreign coaches the way we have today when I asked Woolmer if it was difficult wearing the South African colour as coach and strategizing the downfall of the country he represented as a player. His reply clearly indicated that there was no conflict in his professional choices. There was clarity in his thinking and calmness in his actions.

As an England player, he did not have an outstanding career. But he ensured that he was counted where it most mattered – in the Ashes, where he ran up scores of 149 (vs Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Max Walker and Ashley Mallett), 79 & 120 (vs Thomson, Len Pascoe and Walker) and 137 (vs Thomson & Walker). Woolmer may have ended up playing more than 19 Tests than he eventually did had he not shifted his allegiance, along with many of the top players of his time, to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket and, later, the rebel tour to South Africa.

It’s said the best of players are not made the best of coaches and the best of coaches have not been the best of players. Woolmer is a good example of an average player who turned out to be an outstanding coach. Unlike some former Indian players who still begin with “Haamare zaamane mein….” and refuse to update their skills with technological advancements of the time, Woolmer saw technology as an opportunity to create a paradigm shift in thinking. He was a visionary in that respect. And it’s a tribute to his pioneering thought process that his revolutionary methods have left a rich legacy that is now accepted as par for the course today.

A coach without a laptop would have little hope today to get a top job, however skilled he may have been as a player and however perceptive he may be as a coach. A case in point is Mohinder Amarnath bringing his brother-in-law to parade his claims before the selection committee that was to choose a successor to John Wright as India coach.

The tech-savvy Woolmer’s progressive ways saw him blog like the young generation of today. He even had his own cricket website. Woolmer was a man ahead of his times and, not surprisingly, his thinking was out of sync with the masses. Not all his methods got a positive response. For example, he fitted Hansie Cronje with an ear-piece - in a World Cup match against India in 1999 – so that he could communicate with the captain when his team was fielding. While the innovative decision was seen as a breach of rules and spirit, I have no doubt that it’s something that will evolve and be accepted as part of the game in times to come. If there is a level-playing field with both captains getting similar advantage of technology, I guess there should be no objections. It’s certainly a much better than the charade of the 12th man running on the field with fresh gloves - even when both batsmen have just arrived at the crease. Everybody knows that the 12th man is out in the middle only to convey instructions from the dressing room. It certainly makes sense to avoid miscommunication and save time by empowering the captain by giving him the choice of ear-piece.

Woolmer was a people’s person and a player’s coach. His body language made him approachable and his friendly nature and helping attitude made him a very likeable person.

Yet, he copped more than most in his short life. He did not quite fulfill the promise as an international player because of circumstances of the time. The World Cup, in particular, brought him much grief. He never made it as a player in quadrennial showpiece. He was picked for the 1975 World Cup, but a broken finger a day before the tournament got under way dashed his hopes. In 1999, as coach of South Africa, he saw his team lose a tied semi-final to Australia by the narrowest of margin - a 0.1 difference in run-rate. And in 2007, he had to endure the ignominy of his team exit in most shameful manner that may have eventually caused his unfortunate demise.

The last images that the world saw of him keep haunting us. Woolmer had pressed the “Esc” button and was packing his faithful laptop when the cameras panned on him. There was unmistakable pain on his otherwise cheerful face as his team made the exit after losing to Ireland. Hours later, Woolmer’s life had hit the “Esc” button - a cruel and most undeserving end to a very rich life that still had plenty to offer.

RIP, Bob.