In an age in which people assume character by observing idiosyncrasies, Bob Woolmer’s laptop had taken on profoundly different meanings for fans spread out across the vast spectrum of the game’s politics.
Many admired it as a sign of his openness to change, and his attention to detail. Others derided it gently in public and viciously in private, dismissing it as a child’s bauble in a man’s game, jocularly confident that it could shed no new light upon a sport so thoroughly illuminated over the decades that it sometimes seems almost bleached. Some simply glanced at it, briefly wondering what he could be gazing at, and turned back to the field.
During the Cronje years, I too had often wondered what insights percolated inside that thin plastic case, but over the course of the last two years I have been given more than a glimpse, and the last of those, in October, spoke volumes.
As he powered up the gadget to find a better example of a problem he was explaining, the desktop appeared. Splattered across it like Post-Its were files, most of them photographs of cricketers doing something fractionally late or with a worryingly bent knee: this was the desk of the busy modern professional, who would, one imagined, organise the chaos in the quiet of a winter weekend.
But behind the swarming icons was another photograph. It wasn’t of Bob in his England sweater — that one was in a more private place. It wasn’t him standing owlishly behind Gary Kirsten or Mohammad Yousuf, or any of the other batsmen he has lifted to greatness. Instead it was a slightly blurred study of his cat, poking about in the shrubbery of his Pinelands family home.
It might have seemed uncomfortable, this muddle of the public and private. But it was no more incongruous to have Hawkeye graphics stalked by a beloved pet than it would be for a village cricketer to be applauded by his sweetheart from the boundary. Life and cricket were very much the same thing for Bob.
It is all still raw and awful, and investigations will no doubt continue, but one cannot help wondering if the same blurring of life and cricket could have been the motive behind what may turn out to be the murder. Hours before the numbing news from Jamaica, reports spoke of Pakistani fans calling for Bob’s death. One hopes that, even if they are absolved and the culprits turn out to be elsewhere, these hypocrites who burn effigies and stone cars will no longer be tolerated, or at least no longer allowed to babble their insane macho threats as if brutal rhetoric was all just part of the game.
For decades cricket writers have jovially described Asian fans as fanatical; but if it is revealed that it was indeed a fan who killed Bob, or even the agents of fanatical fans in the form of the betting mafia, that label will henceforth carry a terrible weight.
The enemy of fanaticism is knowledge, and for those of us working with Bob it was a bitter moment when, on Monday, the team hotel in Pakistan let his publishers know that the page proofs of his book had just arrived in Jamaica for his final perusal. For over five years Bob had been working with Professor Tim Noakes and academic Helen Moffett in producing the definitive book on the game.
I have been helping them for two of those years, and have seen the gigantic work take shape. If ever there was a monument to reason, science, humanity and patience in cricket — everything, in other words, affected by Bob’s death — it is this book; and when it is at last published, the clarity of Bob’s mind, and his love for the game he served, will stand strong and bright and vigorous, a legacy that will continue to nourish the game long after the pain of this time has eased.
Bob the international cricket coach had already proven himself remarkable: in another ten years he would no doubt have been remembered as phenomenal. Many reputations are built on being in the right place at the right time, but it cannot be entirely coincidental that when South Africa rampaged through the ranks of limited-overs cricket in 1995 and 1996, or when Jonty Rhodes legitimised the reverse-slog, or when Kirsten became the most dependable opening batsman in the world, or when Jacques Kallis was blooded, it was Bob who was up on the balcony with his laptop.
His influence on the young Alan Donald is a matter of record; and one has to wonder whether the modern game would look the way it does had Woolmer not been coaching Warwickshire when Dermott Reeve began reverse-sweeping.
But it is Bob the teacher who I saw, and who I admired so greatly, with the inexhaustible pleasure he took in instructing willing listeners: even though we all knew what a backward defensive looked like, Bob would suddenly be up off the chair, going back and across to an invisible fast bowler, adding a sound-effect (“Didn’t even smell it! Wooosh!”) and a heavy-lidded grin.
If he managed to charm, hypnotise and inspire an amateur, one can only imagine the profound effect he had on the minds and bodies of those men he urged to play better, more intelligently and more scientifically.
Tom Eaton was involved in the writing of Woolmer’s Discovering Cricket: the Art and Science of the Game, a coaching manual as well as a scientific investigation into the physics, physiology and psychology of cricket