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Something Wicket This Way Comes
Stephen Cannella
April 02, 2007
Everything bad that can happen in sports is happening to cricket
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April 02, 2007

Something Wicket This Way Comes

Everything bad that can happen in sports is happening to cricket

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COACHES OFTEN seek inspiration in books by business tycoons and ancient Chinese military strategists, but Bob Woolmer had a curious volume on his nightstand last fall. During a press conference the coach of Pakistan's national cricket team mentioned he was reading Snakes in Suits, a psychological study of the Machiavellian personalities that can run amok in the corporate world. "It's all about what a psychopath is," Woolmer said. "It is somebody who claims he is behind you 100 percent and then gives you a nice knife in the back. It's strange I'm reading it at this time."

Paranoia? It's not if someone is really out to get you, and last week, with Woolmer at the center of a murder mystery, his taste in books felt especially chilling. On March 18 Woolmer, a burly 58-year-old Englishman who had coached Pakistan since 2004, was found unconscious in his Kingston, Jamaica, hotel room, lying on the floor amid a spatter of vomit, blood and excrement. He died a short time later, less than 24 hours after Pakistan, the No. 4 team in the world, had been eliminated from the Cricket World Cup by lowly Ireland. It was a historic upset, the sport's Miracle on Grass, and Woolmer and his players were burned in effigy on the streets of some Pakistani cities. Early speculation was that stress from the loss had brought on a heart attack or, perhaps, that Woolmer had committed suicide.

Last Thursday the case turned more sinister, a whodunit that made the World Cup above-the-fold news in places where few know a batsman from a bowler. Jamaican police said someone strangled Woolmer—probably someone he knew, since there were no signs of forced entry. No suspects had been identified as of Monday. Police were studying hotel security videotapes and DNA evidence found in the room and awaiting toxicology reports that would show if Woolmer had been poisoned as well.

Cricket's image is that of an upper-crust pastime played by white-clad gents who interrupt matches for tea. But the sport has a sleazier side that may be responsible for Woolmer's murder. Gambling investigations and drug scandals have rocked big-time cricket in the last decade, and conspiracy theories quickly bubbled up out of that swamp. Some in the cricket community felt Woolmer's killer may have been a crazed fan, a notion made plausible by the chants of "Death to Bob Woolmer" that rang out during near riots in Pakistan after the Ireland loss.

There was also speculation that Woolmer was done in by someone afraid that he knew too much about cricket's gambling problem. In the last decade a handful of elite cricket players have been caught in betting scandals. The worst was in 2000, when South African national team captain Hansie Cronje admitted he took money and gifts to throw matches. Woolmer was the coach of that team, and there were rumors he was working on a book that would blow the whistle on widespread match-fixing—perhaps even during Pakistan's World Cup flameout. "I surely feel that he has been bumped off," former Pakistani player Sarfraz Nawaz said. "I have little doubt that certain team members as well as top-ranking [Pakistani Cricket Board] officials were in touch with the betting mafia."

Woolmer's wife, Gill, insisted there was nothing in the book about match-fixing and that there were no threats against her husband. In fact, the only recent conflicts Woolmer was known to have had were with his own team. A former star batsman in England and an innovative coach who pioneered the use of video and computer analysis, Woolmer was well-respected within the sport. But he had been having trouble with his underachieving team in recent months. In February he was accused of using a racial slur against one player, a charge Woolmer denied. He also bickered with bowler Shoaib Akhtar, one of two players who tested positive for the steroid nandrolone last fall. Pakistani players were questioned and fingerprinted by Jamaican police, but none were detained. Most of them flew to London on Sunday, their first stop on the journey home.

Around 3 a.m. local time on March 18, about seven hours before he was discovered by a chambermaid, Woolmer sent his wife an e-mail, telling her he was distraught over the Ireland loss. Earlier that night he had sent a resignation letter to Pakistani cricket officials, saying he was tired of "personal attacks" against him and would move home to Cape Town after the World Cup. Woolmer wanted to coach at the grass roots level; his heart, perhaps, was no longer in elite cricket. The game had lost its soul, Woolmer seemed to think. It may have lost its conscience too.

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