Former South African coach Bob Woolmer was found dead in his hotel room eight years ago on 18 March, a day after the team he was in charge of, Pakistan, had been beaten by minnows Ireland. The true nature of his death is still not known.
This article first appeared on http://www.cricketcountry.com in March 2013, written by Arunabha Sengupta.
The ninth edition of the Cricket World Cup took off at Sabina Park on 13 March, 2007. Set 242 to win by hosts West Indies in the opening match, Pakistan collapsed to 187 all out, in which captain Inzamam-ul-Haq was leg before wicket for 36.
Pakistan’s second match came four days later, against Ireland. The battle of the greens was aptly played on St Patrick’s Day. In a cricketing sense, Ireland were as green as could be. Yet, Pakistan were bundled for 132. Powered by Niall O’Brien’s 72, Ireland won by three wickets. Pakistan crashed out of the World Cup.
Coach Bob Woolmer was apologetic about Pakistan’s performance. ‘We have to wait and see what happens next. Basically, our World Cup is over. I didn’t think their bowling was anything special. From my perspective, we just didn’t score enough runs.’
Woolmer’s contract was coming to an end after the World Cup, and the result against the Irish side made it abundantly apparent that it would not be renewed.
But, the coach refused to speculate on this. ‘I’d like to sleep on my future as coach,’ he said.
The words would come back to haunt the cricket world ominously. After that night, Woolmer’s sleep was everlasting.
On the morning of Sunday, 18 March, 2007, Woolmer’s body was found on the white tiles of the bathroom of room 374, on the 12th floor of the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. The revolutionary cricket innovator lay naked, on his back, his legs splayed, as blood trickled from his mouth. The walls were sprayed with vomit.
Woolmer was known to be under medication for diabetes, prone to violent coughing fits. The first reaction when the news of his death made its dark rounds was that he had had a heart-attack. Some suggested suicide. However, foul play was never off the table. Pakistan’s performance, the proliferation of bookies, betting syndicates and their nexus with cricketers — all combined into blood-curdling conjecture.
A few hours later, Inzamam announced that he would be stepping down as captain and retiring from One-Day Internationals (ODIs) after the World Cup. It was perhaps the worst piece of timing ever executed by the great Pakistan batsman.
The shocked side played Zimbabwe in their last match on March 21, and the teams observed a minute’s silence before the game. Pakistan won by 93 runs according to the Duckworth-Lewis method, and dedicated the win to their deceased coach.
Barely a day later, it was revealed in a shocking announcement that Woolmer had been murdered. The Deputy Commissioner of the Jamaica Constabulary Force, ex-Scotland Yard man Mark Shields, led the investigation and declared the cause of death as ‘asphyxia as a result of manual strangulation.’
Shields went as far as to say that the Jamaican gangsters were not responsible for Woolmer’s death: the Yardies used guns or knives. He also suggested a towel could have been used for strangulation.
On Saturday 24 March, the Pakistan team were getting ready to board a flight to London from the Montego Bay, 30 miles from the scene of tragedy. A few moments before take-off, Inzamam, assistant coach Mushtaq Ahmed and manager Talat Ali were detained for questioning over supposed ‘ambiguities’ in their statements. As they walked out after questioning, reporters screamed their questions, ‘Did you kill Woolmer?’
Meanwhile, Shields was throwing his leads casually over the huddle of microphones in hastily arranged press conferences. Talat Ai had changed his name into a false one at Pegasus after Woolmer’s death. There were unexplained scratch marks on Mushtaq Ahmed’s face. And there were cuts on the bridge of the nose of the dead man.
Reports emerged of a row between the coach and the players on the team bus after the defeat to Ireland. Rumours were rampant about the fallout between the coach and the captain over religion – the Pakistani team was a devout group and Woolmer had no time for any god. Furthermore, the coach supposedly alleged that some of the cricketers were more into praying than playing. South African journalist Neil Manthorp, a close friend of Woolmer, later said that when the news had broken of the supposed strangulation, his first instinct had been that a religious zealot was to blame.
The departure of the Pakistanis was accompanied by the darkest of suspicions. Asian betting syndicates, three missing Pakistan officials, severely irate Pakistan fans — all sorts of diabolical speculations were rife across the cricket world. Meanwhile, Shields was busy enjoying the limelight.
And suddenly, things changed. Two days later, in a press conference, ticks and shuffles demonstrated the increasing doubt of the Deputy Commissioner. His previous conviction had seemed to have deserted him altogether.
There were other Jamaican detectives unconvinced about murder. They did not discover any mark on Woolmer or any sign of struggle. However, supposedly, their consensus had been overruled by senior officers. And apparently antiquated forensic equipment and techniques added to the error.
Elementary cautionary protocols were disregarded, at least six Pakistan players entered the room after the incident — which in normal circumstances should have been sealed off immediately. Woolmer’s body was kept in a funeral home rather than a morgue.
The murder was also announced far before evidence was concrete. Kingston pathologist Ere Seshaiah initially reported a possible heart attack, and later changed the verdict to suspected strangulation due to a broken hyoid bone. According to medical science, broken hyoids indicate strangulation only if there are other noticeable factors — such as mottling of the facial skin. None of these factors was present in Woolmer’s case. Later, the standard of autopsy was challenged. In Jamaica, supposedly autopsies were performed in 20 minutes, whereas elsewhere it was a process that took several hours.
A month after the death, the investigation had stretched across three continents, and more than 400 people were interviewed. However, nothing concrete was unearthed.
On the other hand, a three-man team of senior Scotland Yard detectives visited Kingston, and their review suggested that one of the main reasons why the murderer had not been arrested was that there had been no murder. No strangler had struggled with Woolmer on that fateful day.
By early May, the increasingly edgy Jamaican police requested British authorities to evaluate Seshaiah’s verdict. Home Office pathologist Dr Nat Carey sent a report to Kingston explaining that Woolmer had not been strangled. The hyoid appeared intact. A Canadian pathologist corroborated Carey’s findings.
On 7 June, a South African strangulation expert, consulted by the Jamaican police, concluded that Woolmer died of natural causes. A week later the case was officially closed.
During this period, further evidence had come to light indicating that Woolmer’s health had been worse than previously believed. The death could very well have been due to natural causes, a violent agitation resulting from what he had eaten could have resulted in the vomiting.
On 12 June, the Jamaican Constabulary Force announced that Woolmer had in fact died of natural causes. Suddenly the elements of a mystery thriller set in the Caribbean dissolved into the saddest of tragedies — of a man who had met his end while going through the most disappointing time of his life.
Finally, on 27 November, a jury in Jamaica recorded an open verdict, deciding that there was insufficient evidence of either a criminal act or natural causes.
On 16 March, the day before Pakistan played Ireland, Pegasus had hosted a pre-match cocktail party. Woolmer had sat in the lobby, chatting happily with a group of Irish cricket writers and players.
According to Mark Townsend, crime correspondent of The Observer, two Pakistani reporters wandered over and an ‘astonishingly aggressive’ exchange followed. After the heated exchange, Woolmer turned to the Irish journalists and accused the Pakistani reporters of trying to ruin him at the behest of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad. ‘They’re spies for Javed and Imran. It doesn’t matter what I tell them, they go off and write whatever they want to.’
When the reporters asked him about suing under libel laws, Woolmer got even more needled saying that nothing of that sort of legislation existed in the land.
A day later, his effigy was being set on fire outside his Lahore apartment by Pakistan cricket fans, most of them charged up by hostile media reports.
On returning to the Pegasus on the evening of the Ireland match, Woolmer headed straight for room 374.
He had taken the lift with Shoaib Malik and had walked to his room. At 3:12 am he had sent an email to wife Gill, elaborating on his disappointment with the team’s performance. His body was found seven and a half hours later.
Woolmer had performed the Herculean tasks of coaching the South African team during the phase of transformation from an all-white team into an integrated one. He had taken them to the summit in ODI rankings, and just behind Australia in Test cricket.
He had stepped down as coach a year before Hansie Cronje had been implicated in match-fixing controversies. Woolmer had resolutely stood by his friend during the harrowing period right up to his death.
Woolmer had never been entirely happy coaching Pakistan, complaining often about the politics that cut across every level of the game’s landscape in the country. It was the most stressful job in sport, but he had survived the 2006 ball-tampering row at The Oval, the incident of Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif taking drugs and other difficult tests thrown in his way. But, he had found this last challenge too difficult to overcome
There are many who still believe in the conspiracy theories. It stretches the imagination to categorise the mysterious deaths of Woolmer and Cronje as coincidence.
Clive Rice is still adamant that he was killed. “I have no doubt whatsoever. Around the time of Woolmer’s death, there were occasions when the entire Pakistan team were all out caught. All dismissals in an innings caught. What are the odds [of that happening]? It has happened very rarely in the history of the game,” he recently said in an interview given to Cricketcountry. ‘There were statements made after Bob’s death. First we heard that the trachea had been damaged. Then we were told of a heart attack. How does a doctor say trachea damage first and then heart attack? It would have been disgraceful for image of the World Cup organisers if a murder was revealed. We in South Africa made a mistake. We should have performed an autopsy on his body when it arrived in the country.’
Indeed, there is a reason why Inzamam’s leg-before dismissal in the first match is mentioned in the first paragraph of this article. In the two matches against West Indies and Ireland, across the 20 Pakistani dismissals, that was the only wicket not falling to a catch. Against West Indies, nine men had been caught. Against Ireland, all. It is rare for this to happen – very, very rare.
Is it extraordinary to believe that a man who had pioneered the use of laptop by coaches, and scientific look at data for analysis had been equally intrigued by the way the batsmen got out? Had he smelled some rat that was busy being shoved under the carpet?
We will perhaps never know.
What we do know is that he was a man much loved and respected. According to Ivo Tennant in The Wisden Cricketer, he will be remembered as ‘for his gentleness, enthusiasm and generosity with his time and money. He gave too much of himself to too many people, some of whose motives he might not have recognised. Above all he was trusting of the human race.’