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Something Wicket This Way Comes

April 02, 2007
April 02, 2007

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April 2, 2007

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Something Wicket This Way Comes

Everything bad that can happen in sports is happening to cricket

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

This is an article from the April 2, 2007 issue Original Layout

Paranoia? It'snot if someone is really out to get you, and last week, with Woolmer at thecenter of a murder mystery, his taste in books felt especially chilling. OnMarch 18 Woolmer, a burly 58-year-old Englishman who had coached Pakistan since2004, was found unconscious in his Kingston, Jamaica, hotel room, lying on thefloor 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 beeneliminated from the Cricket World Cup by lowly Ireland. It was a historicupset, the sport's Miracle on Grass, and Woolmer and his players were burned ineffigy on the streets of some Pakistani cities. Early speculation was thatstress from the loss had brought on a heart attack or, perhaps, that Woolmerhad committed suicide.

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

Cricket's imageis that of an upper-crust pastime played by white-clad gents who interruptmatches for tea. But the sport has a sleazier side that may be responsible forWoolmer's murder. Gambling investigations and drug scandals have rockedbig-time cricket in the last decade, and conspiracy theories quickly bubbled upout of that swamp. Some in the cricket community felt Woolmer's killer may havebeen a crazed fan, a notion made plausible by the chants of "Death to BobWoolmer" that rang out during near riots in Pakistan after the Irelandloss.

There was alsospeculation that Woolmer was done in by someone afraid that he knew too muchabout cricket's gambling problem. In the last decade a handful of elite cricketplayers have been caught in betting scandals. The worst was in 2000, when SouthAfrican national team captain Hansie Cronje admitted he took money and gifts tothrow matches. Woolmer was the coach of that team, and there were rumors he wasworking on a book that would blow the whistle on widespreadmatch-fixing—perhaps even during Pakistan's World Cup flameout. "I surelyfeel that he has been bumped off," former Pakistani player Sarfraz Nawazsaid. "I have little doubt that certain team members as well as top-ranking[Pakistani Cricket Board] officials were in touch with the bettingmafia."

Woolmer's wife,Gill, insisted there was nothing in the book about match-fixing and that therewere no threats against her husband. In fact, the only recent conflicts Woolmerwas known to have had were with his own team. A former star batsman in Englandand an innovative coach who pioneered the use of video and computer analysis,Woolmer was well-respected within the sport. But he had been having troublewith his underachieving team in recent months. In February he was accused ofusing a racial slur against one player, a charge Woolmer denied. He alsobickered with bowler Shoaib Akhtar, one of two players who tested positive forthe steroid nandrolone last fall. Pakistani players were questioned andfingerprinted by Jamaican police, but none were detained. Most of them flew toLondon 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 achambermaid, Woolmer sent his wife an e-mail, telling her he was distraughtover the Ireland loss. Earlier that night he had sent a resignation letter toPakistani cricket officials, saying he was tired of "personal attacks"against him and would move home to Cape Town after the World Cup. Woolmerwanted to coach at the grass roots level; his heart, perhaps, was no longer inelite cricket. The game had lost its soul, Woolmer seemed to think. It may havelost its conscience too.

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Reversal of the Week

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Nonauction of the Week

AN OUTDOOR grill said to belong to Boston leftfielderManny Ramirez went up on eBay, but the claim may have been specious, and thetop bid ($99,999,999) certainly was. Tired of looking up the word"specious," eBay officials took the grill off the block.

 

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELANDPHOTOBRITA MENG OUTZEN/AP (RAMIREZ)PHOTOTOM DIPACE (PAPELBON)