John Young distinctly remembers the day when the arrival of his guru, Bob Woolmer, had spread a chill through the indoor cricket academy hall in Cape Town where he worked as an assistant coach. It was a cold and brutal June, the month the mercury dives in these parts of the world, but the weather couldn’t be blamed for that Woolmer-induced eerie freeze.
It was just a couple of days after South Africa’s Edgbaston tragedy — even today the mention of the last-ball 1999 World Cup tie with Australia makes this nation pensive — and Young, the eight-year-olds in training and their parents in the stands didn’t know if they could come up with comforting words, or even sympathetic expressions, on meeting the coach whose team had so spectacularly choked. The multi-dimensional Young, a one-time teacher and a life-long student of cricket and history, takes you back in time and to that very uncomfortable moment. He misses no details.
“We were waiting for the coaching to start, it was the first day of the winter training camp for the first batch, all eight-year-olds. It was 8.30 am and the parents were already in the stands. And suddenly, Bob walked in and silence came over the hall. It was the middle of winter in Cape Town and it was quite dark and gloomy outside.”
After beautifully painting the frame from his memory, he adds life to it. You almost hear Young say, “Action.” And Woolmer moves in. Back to Young: “Bob walks in, he looks up and says in this very cheerful voice ‘Anyone got a run for me, just one run?’ Everybody burst out laughing .. and 20 minutes later he was on his knees throwing balls to eight-year-olds as he would have been doing to Lance Klusener a few days back.”
That was Woolmer, an institution in this part of the world, but a man whose legacy and contribution world cricket often forgets.
For Woolmer, an out-of-the-box thinker, coaching was a life-long pursuit. “I feel like the luckiest man alive as I found my calling,” he would tell Young in an interview. The Kanpur-born coach was a cricket tragic, some call him a romantic, who died on an assignment, breathing his last while still in his work clothes.
The “Anyone got a run for me, just one run?” story shows the indefatigable positivity of a committed coach who could joke about that precious missing run that could have changed South Africa’s cricket history. It also speaks about a man who gave his best, took fate’s cruel blow on his chin and moved on.
And it, sadly, adds another layer of intrigue, especially for those of us who covered his death during the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies, about that night at the Pegasus hotel in Jamaica after Pakistan’s shock defeat to Ireland. There are many in Cape Town who will vouch that Woolmer wasn’t the kind who would drown himself in the sorrow of a cricket defeat.
Woolmer’s storied cricket journey that ended miles away from home had a false start. At Cape Town, in the 1970s, the decision-makers at Western Province didn’t consider him worthy to be even the area’s development officer. The trip back home after his retirement from first-class cricket and also the World Series hadn’t gone according to plan. “They appointed a rugby referee instead, I mean I can’t believe it, but that’s what happened,” says Young.
This started an early chapter in the ‘Making of Woolmer’ that the cricket-playing world might have not read. There is much more to the South Africa coach who gave Hansie Cronje the ear-piece. Woolmer was also a hockey coach with a glorious legacy, and Cape Town will never tire to tell you about. And in case you are speaking about Woolmer to someone from Langa, the black township outside Cape Town, the tone has an extra layer of reverence.
Interestingly, the Woolmer hockey story too can be traced back to a cricket World Cup year. Though, this time around, Woolmer wasn’t there to deliver the punchline. Once again, it was a winter morning and an arena that had kids and parents.
Ezra Cagwe, a Western Province development officer, speaks of the day the first astro-turf was laid at the township not far from the Cape Town airport. “It was just months after his death. The city council were enhancing the hockey facility and were rolling out this new surface at Langa. Bob had died, so they called his widow and the two sons. There was a minute’s silence and there was a message read out that spoke about Bob’s contribution to hockey in the black areas.”
Young has all the details about Woolmer’s hockey days and why the departed cricket coach is remembered at an astro-turf inauguration. “Once he didn’t get a cricket job, he started working for Western Province hockey. Bob had played hockey for his province. However, the first thing Bob did to increase the pool was to introduce the game to the young black boys at Langa,” he says.
For a start, he filled his car with hockey sticks and drove to the township. With the kids at Langa more into cricket, Woolmer sold the new game to them by saying he was giving them “hockey bats”. It didn’t take long for things to move.
Cagwe, Langa’s long-time cricket coach, says that the boys from the township picked the sport quickly. “They were natural, they were fluid in their runs and very skilful.” After creating a strong team from the township, Woolmer suddenly started getting cricket offers, and hockey had to take a backseat. But he continued to follow the promising bunch of boys he had initiated into hockey.
The rise of Woolmer’s Langa boys was phenomenal. Virtually every season they started getting promoted to the next level. The rise of the Langa boys was Cape Town’s feel-good story. Once Young accompanied Woolmer, now the Proteas coach, to a Langa hockey game which they won 9-0. The coach would go to the dressing room and deliver a stunningly inspirational talk. “The one important message he conveyed was how they were the hope. He told them about President Thabo Mbeki talking about the African renaissance and how they were the African renaissance.” That night, the dreamy eyes of Langa Hockey Club’s boys wouldn’t have shut.
Woolmer was never about hollow talk though, he believed in action. “Once he was sitting at Newlands as coach of the South African team, and he called the car hire company that was sponsoring the Proteas (the national cricket team) and told them to donate a bus to the hockey team in the township. Once they held an auction in Johannesburg where he was to give a talk, he returned to Cape Town with 15,000 Rands in a bag and gave it to the hockey team,” he says. There were also instances of him secretly writing cheques for young black boys who had to fly to Durban for some tournament. And with an expression that says ‘I have several more instances but wouldn’t bore you with them’, Young concludes: “He was an open guy and very generous.”
Woolmer was open to embracing other cultures and had compassion for his wards. This ensured he was not reluctant to take the extra step to connect with them, which would be highlighted in his stint with Pakistan cricket. Years after his death, senior Pakistan players talk about the coach who treated his team like family and officials remember him for putting up with a set-up that wasn’t quite peerless.
One of his sons and widow still stay in Cape Town. Young speaks about the son’s effort to keep his father’s legacy of innovation alive by developing a special extra-spring bat for kids. “Bob always believed that kids should have different equipment, the kind that would see them hitting the ball longer.”
Woolmer, the writer of cricket’s ultimate and definitive guide called ‘Art and Science of Cricket’, wanted his cricketers to ponder and reason. Young talks about how Woolmer was the guy who introduced science to cricket. He had seen it all coming; he had reached out to science and innovation much before T20’s modern-day over-reach.
He went to South Africa’s leading sports scientist Tim Noakes, with whom he later co-authored Art and Science of Cricket, to give cricket a step up and coaches around the world a Bible to fall back on at every step. “He went to Noakes and said ‘I don’t know nothing about science and you know nothing about cricket; let’s learn from each other’.”
The collaboration would see the Kanpur-born Woolmer become the first to get a laptop in the dressing room. He pioneered computer analysis in cricket, though it was nothing but a brilliant mind that dreamt up revolutionary angles – like the reverse sweep.
“It was a famous partnership with Noakes,” says Young. “Unfortunately, Hansie wasn’t in favour of that partnership. It wasn’t pursued as hard as it could have been but it certainly infused a new spirit of inquiry into South African cricket and since then we have had that science,” he said.
Woolmer had it all sorted in 1999. But he fell short by just one run – the one Woolmer begged for on the cold wintry June morning of 1999 at the kid’s camp in Cape Town – in being cricket’s most famous coach ever. Still he does get remembered as the man who pushed the envelope, for he wanted cricketers to think about the game. For him, the ideal team would be the one that would have 11 captains, each mindful of the bigger common good of the team.
In life, or death, Woolmer forced you to think.