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More than a laptop coach
- Remembering the very special Bob Woolmer
Bob Woolmer

Calcutta: He hadn’t yet been dubbed the ‘laptop coach’, but had come to be recognised as Allan Donald’s mentor at Warwickshire.

Having seen his photographs during England’s 1976-77 tour of India and (later) with Donald, it wasn’t difficult identifying the quiet man on crutches as Bob Woolmer.

It was New Year’s Day 1993 and Woolmer (despite a mishap which forced the crutches) had come to watch Donald at Newlands.

In blustery conditions (so typical of Cape Town), Donald was warming up for the inaugural India-South Africa series’ final Test.

I wasn’t sure how somebody who wasn’t exactly well would react to a request for an interview, but took the chance.

I’m glad I did, for that started a 14-year association.

“Did you say The Telegraph from Calcutta' I’ve spent quite some time there… Has it changed a lot'” Woolmer asked.

I knew he’d been born in Kanpur, but had no idea about his Calcutta connection.

The Calcutta bit helped and Woolmer spoke for what must have been close to an hour.

He informed his father (Charles) had been with the Royal Exchange Insurance Company and, till he was 11, would spend his school vacations in Calcutta (“4 Alipore Estate”).

His father, incidentally, captained United Provinces in the only first-class match he played, in the late 1940s.

“I made the trips from England… I can’t recall where my parents would take me around in Calcutta, but the neighbours’ sons did teach me hockey… I also have fond memories of my ayah, Sushila,” Woolmer said.

He’d become nostalgic.

Within two years, Dr Ali Bacher appointed him South Africa’s coach and, with his advent, the Proteas began climbing the next level.

The two fell out in later years, but for quite a while, the Woolmer-Hansie Cronje-Dr Bacher combination made a big impact on world cricket.

Technologically savvy — looking to innovate, he had a run-in with the current Pakistan manager Talat Ali, who’d been a Match Referee during the 1999 World Cup, over captain Cronje using an earpiece against India in Hove — Woolmer will chiefly be remembered for daring to be different on and off the field.

Woolmer’s wonderful innings with South Africa ended with a heart-breaking defeat in the 1999 World Cup semi-final (at the hands of Australia) and it wasn’t until the October 2000 ICC KnockOut in Nairobi that one met him again.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had then been looking for somebody to succeed Kapil Dev as full-time coach and Woolmer indicated he would be game provided the terms and conditions were acceptable.

Besides filing a ‘safe’ story, I conveyed Woolmer’s thoughts to somebody very influential in the BCCI. Surprisingly, he wasn’t keen on a dialogue. “Why him'” was the gentleman’s answer.

One still hasn’t got over it.

Not much later, the International Cricket Council (ICC) grabbed Woolmer and he went globe-trotting coaching a number of Associates — ironically, he’d worked with Ireland too.

It was in the summer of 2004, after Pakistan lost the Test and ODI series to India at home, that the then Board chairman, Shaharyar Khan, invited (among others) Woolmer for a brainstorming session in Lahore.

With there being general disenchantment with coach Javed Miandad, Shaharyar offered the job to Woolmer.

Woolmer took his time before saying ‘yes’.

More than anything else, the “challenge” of coaching in the subcontinent is what clinched it.

Woolmer, of course, knew what he was getting into — indeed, till his death, vast sections of the Media (and many high profile former cricketers) kept tearing into him — but still decided to make Lahore his new second home.

He preferred to stay in the residential wing of the Academy, a stone’s throw from the Gaddafi, instead of any five-star hotel.

Woolmer was “upgraded” to a bigger room after the first year and that allowed space for books and video footage. They were prized possessions.

The laptop, predictably, wasn’t ever placed out of arm’s reach.

For much of his tenure, handling Shoaib Akhtar had been Woolmer’s biggest headache.

In fact, in early 2005, he showed a rather stern one-and-half page letter (I wasn’t to report a word) which he was about to “slip” under the temperamental speedster’s door at the Academy.

During camps in Lahore, the players stay there and not at the Pearl Continental.

It’s not clear what happened on the recent tour of South Africa, but Woolmer had been more than willing to help Shoaib.

“He has to be eager, though, and follow what’s laid down for everybody else,” Woolmer once pointed out.

Of course, he would never compromise on discipline. “In life, some things are just not negotiable.”

Some of the players didn’t think twice about derisively calling him “gora coach” in private, but the Inzamam-ul Haqs had nothing but respect for him.

My last meeting with Woolmer was five months ago, during the Champions Trophy. We were to have a chat in Jaipur, but the doping scandal intervened.

However, Woolmer kept his word (as always) and spared almost an hour at the Taj in Chandigarh.

The doping scandal wasn’t many days old and the ICC was about to discuss The Oval Test fiasco, but he was calm.

That was a remarkable trait.

“Control things you can have control over,” Woolmer advised, grinning, at the end of our one-on-one.

Pakistan lost both matches in neighbouring Mohali — to New Zealand and South Africa — and made a quiet exit.

After his last Media conference there, I asked Woolmer what next. “Life will go on… There will be fresh challenges…”

He offered no excuses for a poor show from an admittedly depleted team.

Destiny decreed that one who began coaching almost 40 years ago (at an indoor school in Tunbridge Wells), and stood by his wards in their darkest moments, didn’t have a soul by his side when he could have done with a helping hand.

What a tragedy.

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