Only the memory remains
The dead don't speak. And to write about them, when you know they are incapable of a response, is as difficult as visualising life after death.
Bob Woolmer was to many one of the finest coaches in the world, a pioneer in introducing laptop technology to cricket. He is also credited with making South Africa one of the strongest outfits in the world after their return to international cricket in the post-apartheid era.
It is nothing short of a tragedy that his last day in office, his last day in this world, was his worst as a professional. Whatever reasons one may attribute to Pakistan's loss to Ireland, some of the blame will always stick to Woolmer, the coach of the team.
No one will ever know the real reason behind his death. Was it the shame of that defeat that he could not bear? Was it a natural failure of the heart? Or did coaching an intrigue-ridden team and dealing with an equally self-seeking, ambitious administration finally take its toll and bring to a premature end a life fully lived? One will never know, whatever be the final verdict of the doctors.
I have a few memories of the man, a few shared moments that are now suddenly acquiring a meaning and a life of their own in my mind. When Pakistan toured India in 2005, Woolmer endeared himself to a lot of people, including journalists with whom he came in contact.
He would often be seen reading a book while sitting in the hotel bar in the evening, sipping a pint of lager. He, strangely, would open up to people and would not mind sharing a secret or two with even unknown journalists while talking about the Pakistan team.
On that tour, the Pakistan tour manager, the tall and the rather overwhelming former paceman Salim Altaf, became a good acquaintance and a tennis partner. I, thus, unwittingly became a witness to the soured relationship between the two. Woolmer was not liked by a certain section of the Pakistan Cricket Board and was surviving only because of the support of the then PCB chairman, Shahryar Khan.
On the final leg of the tour, Altaf said that Woolmer wanted to meet the man who exposed the match-fixing scandal in which Hansie Cronje, his beloved captain, was charged with taking money to throw away matches. Could I arrange the meeting?
The day the Pakistan team was to leave for Karachi, Woolmer and I met Delhi police chief KK Paul at his residence in the morning. For an hour and so, Woolmer defended Cronje and Paul very firmly defended his stand and told him that the case was based on facts. To the surprise of both Paul and me, Woolmer disclosed many secrets of Pakistan cricket, which won't be right of me to reveal here, for dead men never speak.
On our way back to the hotel, Woolmer said he was writing a book, an exposé on a television scam that involved the embezzlement of a lot of money.
My second meeting with him was in his hotel room in Islamabad last year, when he talked about the pressures of coaching a team that was rooted in orthodox, religious upbringing. He did not think language, food habits and a different religious environment from his were in any way an impediment to his functioning as a coach. In fact, he felt that religion was a binding factor for the outfit. But he had his problems with the administration and said that the day Shahryar Khan goes, he too would put in his papers. But whatever his inner turmoil at that moment, he was outwardly calm, unhurried and in control.
A lot has happened since then — the Oval fiasco, a string of defeats, Shahryar's exit and the advent of a new PCB boss. I wouldn't know what his relationship with the new regime — of which Altaf remains an integral part — was, but it is safe to assume that it must have been very strained.
The day the Pakistan team arrived in Montego Bay on the eve of the opening ceremony, Woolmer appeared to be his usual self and had a smile on his face while greeting people around him.
No one could have even dreamt at that time that his end was near, and that too in cruel, tragic circumstances.
Ironies never cease, even in death; he was part of the disgraced team whose captain Cronje later died in a plane crash. Woolmer, a man widely respected, passed away after he had seen the worst defeat of his cricketing life. Two unrelated incidents, but they go on to show that death, like life, is under no one's control.