An outstanding coach


The mystery surrounding Robert Andrew Woolmer's death has finally been laid to rest. Paul Weaver pays tribute to the England batsman and Pakistan coach who made the laptop and computer analysis fashionable in cricket.

Bob Woolmer was one of cricket's great enthusiasts. He was a fine player, who for a while looked as though he might become a very substantial one, but it was as a gently passionate and innovative coach that his reputation will stand.

Like many outstanding coaches, his playing career was abbreviated by injury. His tracksuit reputation was made at Warwickshire in the early 1990s; in 1994 the county lost only four matches in all four competitions, winning three trophies. With captain Dermot Reeve, another original thinker, Woolmer formed the strongest partnership in county cricket. He was then appointed coach of South Africa, a position he held for five years, ending with the aching anti-climax of a World Cup semifinal defeat by Australia; South Africa should have won the match and the tournament.

Following a second, unsuccessful spell at Warwickshire and a stint as the International Cricket Council's high performance manager, he was appointed Pakistan's coach in 2004. He experienced his worst day in that role, the day before his death was announced, when his side were beaten by Ireland in the World Cup.

Woolmer was the coach who made the laptop and computer analysis fashionable in the game. He introduced the reverse sweep, which scandalised the purists, as well as less enduring features, such as a radio link-up with his captain and a slab of marble for use in the nets. Sometimes, when his effusiveness strayed into eccentricity, his detractors would roll their eyes and refer to him as "Bull-shit Bob." But even they did so with affection.

Despite being a cheerfully confident and generous individual, he was involved in some of the game's fiercest controversies. He signed for Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket in 1977, just as his Test career was blossoming.

Then, in 1981-82, having forced his way back into the England side, he joined a rebel tour to South Africa and was banned again. He was South Africa's coach during the match-fixing scandal that engulfed the game, though he always maintained that he knew nothing about the dark dealings.

He was Pakistan's coach at the Oval last summer, when the last Test was abandoned following a row over ball-tampering. Before the World Cup this year, he was told he would have to make do without his two most potent bowlers, the injured Mohammad Asif and Shoaib Akhtar, who earlier had failed drugs tests.

All of this seemed aeons away when the young Woolmer dashed along Kent roads in his green MGB-GT. "Bobby England," his team-mates called him, for his ambition to represent his country was intense. He was born in Kanpur, India, and his father, a civil servant, had put a miniature bat into his cot with the words: "I hope this is your life." It certainly was. At Skinner's school, Tunbridge Wells, he excelled at cricket and hockey. He made his first-class debut for Kent in 1968, scoring 50 not out against Essex at Maidstone. But even in 1970, when he won his county cap as a member of the championship winning team, he was batting as low as nine in the order.

His main value to the side was as a medium-paced inswing bowler, particularly in one-day cricket. And it was as a bowler who could bat that he was first chosen to play for England in a one-day international against Australia in 1972. It was in South Africa that he learned to bat up the order, for Natal, and make the ball swing away as well as in.

In 1974 he moved up to number five in the order for Kent, and the following summer, when he was one of Wisden's five cricketers of the year, he made his Test debut against Australia, scoring 33 and 31. In his second match, at the Oval, he scored 149, reaching his century in six and a half hours, the slowest by an Englishman against Australia.

Usually, there was touch and elegance about his batting, much influenced by Colin Cowdrey, and when he scored successive centuries against Australia in 1977 it seemed certain that he would win many more than his 19 Test caps. He scored 1,059 Test runs at an average of 33.09, and in all first class matches 15,772 runs at an average of 33.55. He took 420 wickets at 27.85, but only four for England.

� Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007