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Woolmer Lived for the Game until Stumps Were Called

Mar 3, 2007:

Bob Woolmer was a softly spoken cricketing philosopher with an observant, probing mind that penetrated numerous layers of the game without ever quite reaching the core. No-one who met him could dislike him yet few knew him intimately. Throughout he was in love with the game of bat and ball, endlessly thinking about it, talking about it, trying to find ways of improving himself and his players. He could discuss batting grips as other men can stocks. It was an unceasing quest that sometimes took him down blind alleys but to stop the process was to deny the self. Woolmer lived and died a cricketing man.

Bob Woolmer

Bob Wolmer in 1999. Photo: PaddyBriggs [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

By and large the relationship was mutual because cricket enriched, almost defined, Woolmer’s existence. To reflect upon his contribution is to observe its constancy and extent. In a career spanning several decades, he served in many capacities and did not fail in any of them. Had he been asked to prepare a pitch or stand as an umpire he’d have agreed. Cricket was his canvass and his laboratory. Fatefully, it also became its life. To fly to close to sport is to suffer the fate of Icarus. At the end there was no-one to tell him that his cause was doomed, that his captain was self-indulgent, that his players lacked humility, that it was not his fault, or that none of it really mattered. Alas it mattered to him. Or what else was his life about?

Truth to tell, Woolmer did not  himself always treat the game well. In his time as coach he presided over teams that took wrong turns, match fixing, ball tampering and steroid taking. Somehow Woolmer never seemed to know about these excesses. Perhaps he was too easily side-stepped. He could excite with ideas but not control with power of personality. Once his insights became stale so the players began to slip from his grasp. He was a fine coach and a poor manager.

Woolmer was first noticed as a buttery boy batting in the lower orders for Kent. It seemed the right county for him. A warm, well bred club where style was appreciated. In those days he was a modest cricketer whose strength lay in his ability to take wickets with steady medium-pacers. He was a serviceable professional apparently destined for a worthy career but unlikely to join the high flyers. But he refused to accept his typecast. Always he could dream and think.

For several seasons Woolmer’s contributions with the bat were restricted to handy runs unhurriedly collected in the lower reaches of the order. Slowly, though, his true qualities emerged. At the crease, he had time to play the ball, and a simple, graceful way of helping it to the boundary. He batted not with anxiety, but comfort. As a bowler he was a functionary, with the bat he was an experiment in white clothing.

Temperamentally, he had much in common with his county’s greatest son, Colin Cowdrey. He learnt to bat in the same classical style, easing the ball away, placing it between fieldsmen. Sometimes he was teased for copying his affable predecessor yet it was not affectation so much as admiration that motivated him. He regarded Cowdrey as the purest exponent of contemporary batsmanship, and was able to study him at close quarters. Perhaps, though, this willingness to adopt another’s style hinted at the emptiness that eventually cost him his life.

Woolmer’s batting kept improving. Concentrate counted amongst his strongpoints. He could bat for long periods without apparent difficulty. Spectators sensed that he was an old-fashioned fellow, slow to anger, a man without violence. Woolmer never raised his voice and seldom lifted his strokes. He batted productively for England and towards the end joined the World series rebellion.

In retirement Woolmer stayed within the game, coaching Warwickshire, forming an potent partnership with Dermot Reeve, joining of the imaginative and irascible. Both were original thinkers, and both had the courage to put ideas into practise. Warwickshire thought and fought as a unit, and attacked the spinners with uncompromising aggression. For several years, the midland county swept the board.

Ambition took Woolmer to South Africa where he joined forces with another strong leader, Hansie Cronje. Leaving the politics to his captain, the new coach concentrated on encouraging players to think outside the small square they inhabited. He wanted them to be more daring and less devoted. Despite the complications of the period, South Africa fared well and almost took a World Cup. Almost. It can be a cruel word.

Eventually coach and country parted. Cronje’s opportunism had been exposed. Although an innocent party, Woolmer had not seemed to notice anything. Pakistan was his next port of call. A respected outsider was needed to rid the team of its factions. Woolmer did his best but his team flattered to deceive. Sometimes it just deceived. Always he had needed a strong captain. Alas Inzaman was idle and indulgent. And Pakistani cricket was ringed by scheming politicians and agitating past players. As usual Woolmer started impressive only to lose momentum as the bad habits returned.

Appropriately Woolmer was last glimpsed as an overweight, shattered figure putting his laptop back into his bag as his shamed team trudged from the field after losing to Ireland. He looked exhausted and exasperated. To a greater and lesser degree all sportsmen die in hotels. That night Woolmer went back to his room with its silences and accusing walls, an isolated figure trying to come to terms with futility.

This article was written for The Age.
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