It is a norm to celebrate dead men. Tributes have been flowing from people the world over since yesterday. Suddenly we have woken up to celebrate how good a coach Bob Woolmer was. Needless to say these are the usual, mundane versions of celebrity obituaries. “He was the most innovative coach, he was the best cricket brain of modern times, he was the most tech savvy modern coach and he was the pillar of the South African success at the turn of the century” are statements going round the cricket world since the time it was made known that Woolmer was no more. The interesting thing is that all of the above are perhaps true. However, none of the above captures Bob Woolmer the real man. A person who over a drink at the Kings Arms Pub in Oxford could lament that his participation in the Packer circus was a mistake, it had robbed him of several good years of international cricket.
It all happened rather strangely. I, after a hard days work at the Indian institute library, was walking back to my college, St Johns. The pub, for those who haven’t been to Oxford, is bang opposite the Indian institute. Soon after I had stepped out of the library, I spotted a very familiar figure sitting outside the pub in one of the many wooden benches with a mug in front of him. To be candid I don’t exactly remember what he was drinking. But what I do remember is that I was trying to convince myself that the man sitting in front of me was one of the best cricket coaches of our time. The quintessential Indian in me went round the library to try and figure out if he was truly Bob Woolmer. My fertile brain may have thought that looking at him from another angle would surely provide me with a satisfactory answer. Finally, my curious Bengali mind forced me to go up to him and ask, “Are you Bob Woolmer?” He looked at me with a wry grin on his face and said, “I have been studying you for the last ten minutes. You needn’t have gone round and round to find out who I was. I would rather have come up straight and asked what you just asked. Why don’t you sit and have a drink with me?”
The first five minutes was the most amazing rapidfire cricket quiz I have been involved in. Questions were tossed at me in a flurry and having answered them to his satisfaction, I had made a mark. He was convinced that I was a serious and a passionate cricket fan, one who was worthy enough of a proper cricket conversation. More, I was worthy enough of spoiling a quite leisurely Oxford afternoon bathed in sunshine.
When I asked him whether he considered the Hansie Cronje earpiece affair blatant cheating, he came up with another wry grin. “I am a professional cricket coach. It is on you and your team to point out that you don’t agree to it. The moment the umpires objected I stopped it. But I did not find any harm whatsoever in trying the method.” My second question was the inevitable one. “Did he consider the defeat to Australia in the 1999 world cup semi-final the worst in his life?” Woolmer dispatched the Yorker for a straight six. “Look, the world knows and we know that the South African team was the best team on show in England in 1999. What happened to us was an accident and one that adds to the charm of the game. We take heart from the fact that Australia, arguably the best team in the world, was always on the back foot and literally sneaked their way out of a hole in that game. Sore point yes, but not one that I would keep cribbing over.” He then went on to explain his cricket philosophy. “Cricket is a scientific game you see. It depends on field placings, timing, the length of the ball, the weight of the bat etc.” No game is as much dependant on science as cricket is. And science, as you know, looks to eliminate risk all the time. My cricket philosophy is derived out of this principle. It is simple. Why hit sixes and fours when singles can do the job. Take a single every ball and you have 300 at the end of the innings. That’s what I call risk free total cricket.” He was insistent that Cronje, pre fixing days, was the best cricket captain he had seen and also a gem of a person. “He was a victim of circumstances. Anyone who has known Hansie would agree that he was an honorable man”, was his straight assessment.
As the conversation went on and on, Woolmer grew more and more nostalgic. And I could see the real Woolmer coming out. When I asked him his favorite cricket moment, it did not take him even five seconds to come up with the answer. “I had the courage to bat eight hours against Australia to save the game for England. That, incidentally, was also my first Test century” he went on to say. In the meantime we had both ordered another drink each and finished of some packets of crisps, which, needless to say were mostly consumed by me. “Take care of your health my friend was his affectionate advice. Someone doing a Ph.D. on cricket should at least be fit.” It was the second time I had heard this comment, the first being from my Rhodes interview board.
My final question brought out the best answer from him. “Would you ever consider coaching India?”, I had asked. “Coaching teams from the sub-continent is the best challenge for any cricket coach” was the immediate retort. Unfortunately, it was the pressure of this high profile job that has taken him away from cricket. For me personally, that afternoon at the Kings Arms with Bob Woolmer will always be special.