The grim hours

The World Cup that seemed doomed to be the most boring in history has captured the headlines, but for all the wrong reasons, writes Ted Corbett.

It was, quite simply, the most dramatic 48 hours in the history of the game. The World Cup had already witnessed the excitement of the tie between Ireland and Zimbabwe and six sixes in an over by the extrovert South African Herschelle Gibbs, but nothing led us to suspect what would happen one weekend on the peaceful islands of Jamaica and St. Lucia.

Pakistan began as clear favourites to defeat an Irish team without fame even in their own country; India were a certainty to stop Bangladesh in their tracks.

Both the Irish — boosted by Australians with grandmothers from the Emerald Isle — and the up-and-coming Bangladeshis won and the major sides were reduced to red-faced, embarrassed mutterings as they tried to explain away their defeats.

But that was only the start.

India went away to lick their wounds quietly but Pakistan, knocked out of the tournament after just two games, faced a reaction that typifies the country's hot-headed answer to defeat.

Perhaps it was not a shock that Inzamam-ul-Haq, their captain and a major force in World Cups going back to 1992, should ring home to talk to his father and then announce that at 37 he was too old for one-day cricket and too long in the tooth to lead the Test team.

Mobs back home set fire to effigies of the coach Bob Woolmer. Some even demanded "kill, kill." I am sure they regret their words now.

Woolmer recorded a radio interview in which he hinted at his own retirement and then went off to spend time alone to consider his future. "It is the worst day of my cricket life," he had said.

Next morning he was found unconscious in his hotel room, whisked off to hospital and immediately declared dead. It does not take much imagination to understand that the strain of this exceptional job — in a country where passion for the game runs high, where heroes become villains in the blink of an eye — resulted in a heart attack.

Even for this easy-going character, always ready to laugh, always optimistic, rarely down for more than a few minutes.

Woolmer was a big man, a diabetic, overweight, under strain, far from home and his wife Gill and two sons. His job, looking after the most mercurial side in the world, was full of pressures unknown to other coaches. He had just had to deal with the drug allegations against Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif, and the dispute around the match Pakistan refused to continue at the Oval.

Ken Barrington, like Woolmer a former Test batsman, suffered the same fate as an England coach in 1981 — also in the Caribbean — and left his young charges in tears. Woolmer's death reduced a Pakistan team that adored him unable to make sense of their sudden departure from the World Cup or their mentor's demise.

They decided to play their final match but it would not have been surprising if they had felt unable to continue. They had gone to the West Indies as potential winners and would soon be leaving desperately unhappy. The World Cup that seemed doomed to be the most boring in history — played on low, slow pitches by teams intent on safety first and filled with players who were either injured or tired as they strove to fulfil the crowded international fixture list — had captured the headlines but for all the wrong reasons.

Andrew Flintoff, an England captain only five weeks earlier, was suspended for one match after a drunken episode with a pedalo in the early hours of the morning. Five other team members were fined for partying with Flintoff after the defeat by New Zealand. England beat Canada comfortably but the whole episode spoke volumes about their attitude to one-day cricket.

Their former captain Nasser Hussain, a tough taskmaster, summed it up: "Footballers don't go out drinking 48 hours before a match," he said. "Our players lacked professionalism." It was difficult to disagree.

Woolmer, who had no such problems with the sober cricketers of Pakistan, would not have tolerated a drinking culture. When he was South African coach he insisted that his players drank three glasses of water before they were allowed a beer after a day's play.

Behind the friendly mask Bob Woolmer was a stickler for discipline. Aged 58, he was contemplating retirement, spending more time at home in Cape Town with his family and concentrating on an ideal future with his coaching website, a little consultancy work and a helping hand to any youngster with the nerve to ask his advice.

"That is the best of cricket," he once told me. "You help a young cricketer develop and see him blossom. That's what makes me happy."

It was during the wretched days of apartheid that I first met Bob Woolmer in South Africa and we began what turned out to be a friendship lasting more than 25 years with a furious row.

I told him he had no right to encourage a regime that subjected one race to such oppression; he defended his right to coach black, coloured and white kids and so bridge the racial divide.

"I think cricket can make a difference in South Africa," he said. "I think coaching can make a difference all round the world too."

He began his coaching career — after playing 19 Tests for England in the mid 1970s and early 80s and playing 16 years for Kent — in South Africa.

He was one of the first coaches in the era that saw cricket become more professional. He knew all the tricks — which batsmen hated the bouncer, those who were harassed by sledging, those who could not play spin — but he also added imaginative touches of his own. In the 1999 World Cup he tried to use wireless communication to keep in touch with the players on the field — and never understood why the game's rulers put a stop to his scheme — and 15 years ago he developed the use of computers, graphics and video to a level that is only now becoming commonplace.

Warwickshire heard of his reputation and — with Dermot Reeve as his captain and Brian Lara as the batting genius who scored his runs so quickly that their bowling attack had plenty of time to take 20 wickets — he did well there for four years. With his reputation established South Africa called him to coach their Test team and he showed that good players could be made great and great players reach their full potential if they received sympathetic advice.

Woolmer never quite achieved his target with South Africa. He wanted them to be the best Test side and the finest one-day team yet they failed to reach either pinnacle.

That may have been because of the evil machinations of their captain Hansie Cronje. Oddly, Bob could still not believe that Cronje was the match-fixer, player-corrupter that he later admitted. Right to the end of his life he thought that one day Cronje would be exonerated.

After a second spell at Warwickshire, Woolmer spent three years in the backwaters, acting as an advisor to the International Cricket Council, building up his coaching website, looking after the needs of the young cricketers in Namibia and Ireland and Canada. Yet he still hankered after the England job, which went to Duncan Fletcher.

It will be the biggest irony of all if Fletcher quits after the World Cup and the job Woolmer wanted becomes available again.

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"The sadness of the way he passed away will always remain with us. No matter what has happened in the past, I am deeply saddened to hear his death. He was a decent human being."

— Javed Miandad, former Pakistan captain and Woolmer's predecessor.

"I am deeply saddened. It is a big loss to Pakistan and world cricket." — Nasim Ashraf, the Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman.

"I am shocked and badly hurt. We have lost a good coach and a good person." — Inzamam-ul-Haq, Pakistan captain.

"The news was pretty devastating. He was a very, very close friend, actually more than as a coach. He was a very respected man. Bob was an extremely professional man, was an extremely soft person, gave his life to cricket and probably paid for it." — Allan Donald, former South African fast bowler.

"We go back many years as cricketers and friends. I valued his company. It's a sad day for the sport and the cricketing fraternity. This is totally unexpected. I knew he was upset and under intense pressure but none could have foreseen this." — Michael Holding, former West Indian fast bowler.

"I think he did his best for Pakistan cricket. He got along well with the players and was a dedicated man. The team did show improvement under him and I don't think we should judge him on the basis of one or two performances." — Ramiz Raja, former Pakistan captain.

"He was a very focused man with a great love for the game but what shone through was the great love he had for players under his charge, everyone meant something to him." — Brian Lara, West Indies captain.

"It's sad that such a tragedy should take place in the World Cup — I feel sad for his family." — Clive Lloyd, Former West Indies captain.