Pakistan coach's death reveals cricket's dark side

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.)

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.

The match-fixing theory may be more likely. Woolmer was planning to publish a book, and some say it could have exposed practices that have poisoned the game. But the cowriter of Woolmer's autobiography, Ivo Tennant, said the book wouldn't cover that topic.

In recent years, several international players have been banned for fixing parts of games for shadowy bookmakers. The Pakistan team has been scrutinized by match-fixing probes before, most notably during the 1999 World Cup when they sensationally lost to cricketing minnow Bangladesh.

Cricket's ruling body, the International Cricket Council, launched a probe seven years ago that concluded match-fixing was rife. Since then, high-profile members of the cricket community say things have improved but the practice persists.

Matthew Thacker, publisher of All Out Cricket magazine, says that Pakistan often falls under suspicion because the team is full of unpredictable talent. "They can beat the best and lose to the very worst and have players who sometimes look as though they aren't trying," he says. The team has also been plagued in the past year by separate scandals involving performance-enhancing drugs and tampering with the ball.

But it's not just Pakistan. Perhaps the most stunning episode of match-fixing involved South African captain Hansie Cronje, who was banned for life in 2000 after admitting to taking six-figure sums for fixing games.

In a curious coincidence, Woolmer was coach of the South African team at the time. He was never implicated.

Allan Donald, Cronje's teammate under Woolmer, told the BBC that if his former coach was killed "because he knew too much and was about to blow the whistle on some bookmakers, then this thing will be even more sad."

Could Woolmer have discovered a ploy by his charges to throw the game against Ireland? Odds quoted before the game were 50-1 and higher for an Ireland win.

Pakistanis are skeptical. "There's no way that someone can kill their own coach," says Feda Hussein, a gas station attendant in Islamabad. Shazi Malik, a lawyer from Lahore, leaves a little more room for doubt. "I just hope it wasn't one of the players. "That would just destroy cricket in Pakistan."

The third theory revolves around gambling-related revenge. It is thought that the 1994 murder of Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar might have been orchestrated by angry gambling interests who lost big money on the game after Escobar accidentally scored a goal for the other team. The Asian subcontinent is rich in large betting syndicates with links to menacing criminal groups. But Jamaican police have refused to speculate on whether Woolmer's murder was similarly motivated.

Woolmer's murder illustrates the life-or-death stakes at play in international sport, where money and ambition form a potent cocktail. Some, including Mr. Donald, have called for the World Cup to be canceled, but with a multi-million-dollar tournament at stake, cricket officials have vowed it will run to completion in late April.

But some fans now say that continuing the Cup is, well, "just not cricket."

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