The World Cup had always been cruel to Bob Woolmer. He will be remembered as one of cricket’s most pioneering coaches, yet the premier tournament brought him only regret and, ultimately, it has led to his death at the age of 58. Woolmer had admitted to the BBC after Saturday’s defeat against Ireland that his sacking as Pakistan coach was inevitable.
It was failure in World Cups that will prevent Woolmer being acknowledged as a master of his craft. In June 1999 a formidable South Africa side, of which he was coach, tied with Australia at Edgbaston and were narrowly edged out of the final on run rate.
He was born in Kanpur, India, in 1948, and spent 18 months at ICI after leaving school before joining the Kent staff, for whom he made 34 first-class hundreds. It was here that he came under the influence of Colin Cowdrey, who said of him: “He understands more than most players I have played with that you cannot afford to stand still; the game soon overtakes you if you are not alert to change.”
He was a decent, if not outstanding, Test cricketer. He played 19 Tests and six ODIs for England, a serene offside driver who made three hundreds and averaged 33.09. He bowled gentle medium pace and, although always on the plump side, he was a good close catcher. A pair against Australia at Trent Bridge ended his career and he played his last Test at Lord’s later that summer, joining a rebel South Africa tour in 1981-82. Wisden named him as one of their Five Cricketers of the Year in 1976.
His lifelong appetite for innovation contributed to him abandoning England for the rival World Series championed by Kerry Packer. He emigrated to South Africa in 1984, teaching and coaching in the Western Province. Warwickshire was where he made his coaching reputation. between 1991 and 1994 he turned Warwickshire into the dominant force in county cricket. South Africa appointed him as coach in 1994. It was to cricket’s lasting benefit that Woolmer was involved with South Africa during its readmission to international cricket. His fair-mindedness helped to soothe any lasting resentment between black and white; his appetite for technical innovation ensured that the team adapted to new methods quickly and successfully. He was among the pioneers of video analysis as a coaching aid. He always preferred to guide rather than dictate and a gentle, caring and always humane approach to life was regularly evident.
He was proud of South Africa’s record: wins in 73 per cent of their one-day matches and 10 of 15 Test series. When criticism came, it was for his personal loyalty towards his disgraced captain Hansie Cronje, when his role in match-fixing was uncovered. Woolmer’s criticism, when made, was couched in forgiving terms.
He was appointed coach of Pakistan in 2005. His innovative methods sat uncomfortably at times with both South Africa and Pakistan but by a process of persuasion he sought to modernise their methods. In 2006 he responded to ball-tampering allegations against Pakistani bowlers on their tour of England by advocating that the practice should be made legal.