Despite the inevitability of death, it is difficult to associate death with sports. The latter is traditionally related to zest for life, to leisure, to relaxation and fun. The death of Bob Woolmer, the coach of the Pakistan cricket team, has suddenly and tragically highlighted the fact that death stalks modern sports almost too closely for comfort. The end of Woolmer’s life came in the immediate aftermath of his team’s ignominious exit from the ongoing World Cup. This chronological contiguity makes it impossible to say that Woolmer’s death and Pakistan’s departure were unrelated. Facts suggest exactly the opposite. Pakistan’s defeat heightened levels of stress to such an extent that Woolmer’s heart could not take it anymore and, therefore, just packed up. In a bizarre way, Woolmer’s death is linked to certain trends that he pioneered in the world of cricket. He was one of the earliest professional coaches in the realm of one-day cricket. He brought to coaching the laptop, the systematic analysis of the game and video recordings of all matches. All this, now the staple of all coaches, brought a scientific dimension to coaching in cricket. All this was wonderful. It made cricket more professional and competitive. It placed the coach at the fulcrum of a team’s training and performance. The downside and the neglected side of this development was the enormous pressure it put on performance. This was as much true for the players as for the coaches. As the pioneer, Woolmer paid the first and the highest price.
Stress has become the flip side of professionalization. This is clear from what is happening in corporate spheres and in management circles. The rat race has aggravated stress. This has now intruded into the world of sports, especially cricket in the subcontinent. A successful cricketer in south Asia is not just a sportsman, he is a brand and an icon. Sales of commodities depend on a cricketer’s endorsement, and the cricketer earns enormous amounts of money through this. But the iconic status is also a slippery slope. Failure can destroy the iconic status almost overnight. This fragility puts pressure on performance; the fear of failure increases stress. All well-wishers of the game of cricket in south Asia will have to pause and consider ways of taking the frenzy element out of cricket. This is necessary not only to save the game, but also, as Woolmer’s death suggests, to save lives.