Pakistan coach's death reveals cricket's dark side
LONDON; AND ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN
The murder of top international cricket coach Bob Woolmer the day after his mercurial Pakistan team crashed ignominiously out of the World Cup has exposed the murky side of a game once considered the epitome of fair play. (So clean, in fact, was the reputation of cricket that the English used the phrase "it's just not cricket" in reference to anything considered improper.)Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Pakistan's defeat on March 17 to debutant Ireland – akin to, say, the US Olympic ice hockey team losing to Luxembourg – has overshadowed the seven-week World Cup in the Caribbean. The story dominated British headlines all last week, while Pakistan is aghast at the loss (even President Pervez Musharraf expressed his grief).
"It's a double tragedy," says Imran Khan, a cricketing great who played in five World Cups and led Pakistan to victory in 1992. "There is huge disappointment [at the defeat], but also people are very upset about Bob Woolmer."
A former England player who had become one of the world's best known coaches, Mr. Woolmer was found unconscious in his room at the Pegasus Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica, and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. After several days of forensic tests, police said Woolmer had been strangled. Nothing was taken from his room, and there were no signs of forced entry, suggesting that he perhaps knew his killer.
The entire Pakistan team has been fingerprinted and three members were questioned by police investigators, but all players were allowed to leave Jamaica Saturday. Police are reviewing closed-circuit TV footage of the Pegasus Hotel.
Theories have so far centered on a deranged fan, an angry gambler, or the possibility that Woolmer may have known about match-fixing skulduggery, the likes of which has bedeviled the game for years. The sadness for cricket, and for international sport in general, is that few will be surprised if any one of these theories proves correct.
The obsessive nature of some fans has curdled the relationship between top international sportsmen and women and their support base. The courtside stabbing of tennis star Monica Seles 14 years ago demonstrated that danger as well as devotion can lurk in the crowd. Stalkers hound tennis stars; footballers are at risk of stadium jetsam; just last week, a top English footballer narrowly avoided a punch thrown by a pitch intruder.
Cricketers from the Indian subcontinent probably suffer more than anyone. Supporters revere their sports idols, but vilify them when things go wrong. Fans routinely burn effigies of their players, and chant death threats when they lose.
When India lost its first match of this tournament, fans back home ransacked one player's house. In anticipation of the Pakistan team's return, "people are buying rotten eggs," says Syed Shafqat Hussein Shah, a gas station attendant in Islamabad. "They're going to bombard the team."
But the demented-fan theory may not stick in the Woolmer case. Imran Khan admits that passions run high at World Cups, but adds: "It's nonsense that a fan could get into his room to strangle him." Jamaican police say the coach probably knew his assailant.