It’S been just under 30 months since Bob Woolmer was appointed as Pakistan’s first ‘supercoach’ — a reluctant admission from a wary administration that a stable foreign hand, one far stronger than Richard Pybus (the South Africa-based Englishman who was there in three stints), was needed.
It’s been a period he described just after his arrival in India a couple of days ago, as “the most interesting period of my life. Very different but very interesting.” It’s been a period of peace at one level, as far as his own tenure as coach in Pakistan’s notoriously unstable team management goes and in the way he has handled his relationship with Pakistan’s authoritative skipper, Inzamam ul-Haq. And even while Pakistan’s internal politicking has gone on, Woolmer, an outsider on the inside, has remained detached. At least on the surface.
On Monday, asked how he managed to handle the intense politicking of Pakistan’s explosive cricketing establishment and the plethora of fire-breathing critics it breeds, Woolmer shrugged. “Politics? What politics? I don’t know politics.” And then laughed. “I’m getting to used to it.”
But is he really? Or is he just playing to the gallery? Like he did when he said on Saturday, “We (Pakistan) are a very proud cricketing nation”. Woolmer ought to be a seasoned campaigner in the political stakes, after all, he was with a South African board coming to terms with multifaceted changes long enough and more importantly, South African coach during the controversial Cronje regime.
It may be recalled that one of the first things he did after taking over Pakistan in June 2004 was to try and placate Javed Miandad, the man held responsible for Pakistan’s traumatic Test and one-day series loss to India at home earlier that summer.
Miandad had termed his removal as “unethical”. Woolmer asked him for advice. “I’ve played against Javed, I’ve been to his house in Pakistan for a meal. It’s his decision, but along with others in the country his advice would be invaluable. It’s up to me to sift through the advice, and bring the whole of Pakistan cricket together.”
Whether he has actually done that is debatable, given that Pakistan’s cricketing record under him is as erratic as ever, moving from periods of brilliance, sparked by flamboyant individual performances, to downright dismal shows. Still, Woolmer somehow has survived it all without too many questions being asked of him — at least not that we know of.
Woolmer’s story of survival despite the constant turmoil within Pakistan cricket and its cricketing sideshows is all the more fascinating when you juxtapose it against how his far more illustrious colleague, Greg Chappell, has been perceived.
Chappell has moved from being the messiah who would bring back Indian cricket from the gates of Hades it had almost reached (according to some quarters) to an ordinary mortal whose very terms of engagement are being questioned. He has been castigated in no uncertain terms even while India perhaps, have not done as erratically under him as Pakistan have during Woolmer’s longer tenure.
Still, Woolmer doesn’t seem to have received that same adverse reception. Ergo, he is a survivor. He has even weathered minor storms well. Rumours of disagreements with powerful PCB mandarins including Saleem Altaf and the reported initial differences over his style of coaching with Inzamam. His captain, who stated quite clearly that he was not consulted by his Board when Woolmer was appointed (“I have absolutely no idea about it”) and he now speak in almost the same voice. Nothing perhaps more evident than on the issue of disciplining the volatile Shoaib Akhtar time and time again.
The one thing that disappeared when he took over two years ago was the overt religiosity symbolised by the public team prayers. As were the obvious divisions in the team, with seniors on one side and the fringe players desperately trying to fit in.
By every account though, they are still there, evident from Younis Khan’s not so subtle outburst a few days ago. But Woolmer continues in his own style. For instance, look at how he sheltered Younis when the media heat got too heavy after the reinstated Khan landed in Delhi. It was diplomatic cover at its smoothest. On Monday, though, he switched tack. The strategist was back. And the mindgames began.