It’s been years but the memory of an unanswered phone call has often left me queasy. The trauma dates back to the 2007 cricket World Cup in West Indies. It was the morning after Pakistan, one-time world champion, was upset by Ireland, a rag-tag amateur unit that had a school teacher, a postman, a farm hand, a trucker and a farmer. As asked by the Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer, a day back, I had called Room No. 374 around breakfast time from the lobby of Hotel Pegasus in Kingston, Jamaica. Woolmer didn’t answer. I called a second time, no reply again.
The previous evening, Woolmer, 58, walking in a daze after an emotional press conference, had stopped on seeing me. At the start of the tournament, we’d had a long conversation on Pakistan cricket. The Kanpur-born coach always had time for Indian reporters. He was a distinguished man with an exuberant disposition and kind grandfatherly eyes. That day, though, he looked broken. It was painful to see the charming conversationalist strangely silent. “Mr Woolmer, isn’t coaching Pakistan the most difficult job in the world?” I had asked him sympathetically. He stared blankly for a bit and replied: “I’ll sleep on it and tell you tomorrow.”
The next morning, Woolmer never woke up. The tell-all interview never happened, the promised tomorrow never came. Police records say he was found sprawled near the bathroom. There was also blood in the room. Reports mention the room-service lady finding him on the floor at 10.45 am.
I have often replayed that morning in my mind. I am pretty sure that I had called his room at around 10 am. All those March 18, 2007 flashbacks come with the eerie realisation that those long-drawn rings of my unanswered call were echoing in the room that was enveloped in deathly silence.
For most Indians, the World Cup in West Indies was a forgettable experience. Rahul Dravid’s boys, more popularly known as Greg Chappell’s divided team, failed to go past the group stage. Even today, fans of the Tricolour hue avoid revisiting 2007.
I keep going back to those 15 days in Kingston. It was a fortnight that taught me a few important life lessons. It got me thinking about the frailty of human life. It’s where I saw indefinable joy and searing pain rub shoulders from very close quarters. When I had decided to cover the group that had Pakistan, West Indies, Zimbabwe and Ireland, I thought this would be easy. I never thought Group D would turn out to be the Group of Death.
But before death, there was life, lots of it. Covering two Ireland games — a tied match against Zimbabwe, followed by the momentous win over Pakistan — was like being at a party. Travelling Irish fans, mostly friends and family of the players and officials, would occupy the Sabina Park grass banks. They would keep the barman busy, wear funny hats; their “Ole, Ole …” anthem would never stop.
When a rival wicket fell, the hill would explode. A leprechaun, slapping his fake beard to the cheek, would run down the hill. A group of children would roll down behind him. The rest would leap in the air and throw their glasses, filled with beer, in the air. You needed to be on the hill, and inadvertently under the beer shower, if you wanted to capture that World Cup’s enduring fairytale.
I remember reaching my base, a homestay that turned out to be true to its name, after the Ireland-Zimbabwe tied game. My hostess, the ever-smiling 80-year-old Mrs Joyce McKenzie, a maths teacher, gave me a mock stare at the door. Between deeply audible sniffs, she said, “You told me you were going to the stadium to write on cricket?” “That’s where I was,” I replied. “Yeah, right!” she said sarcastically. That also explained my regular taxi driver — more of a friend and a guide — Victor Taylor’s tone when he asked: “You seemed to have had a great day.”
So used to covering the superstar Indian cricketer from behind the iron curtain, the Irish experience was a breeze, a breath of fresh air. There were no pesky media managers, nosy agents or obnoxious hangers-on to dodge. Not just the players, even the wives and partners would share their stories, not missing any details.
While interviewing a crowd of euphoric Irish fans, I introduced myself to a very excited young mother. “I am Vanessa, wife of the Irish captain Trent Johnson,” she shouted, trying to be heard over the din. There in the middle of wild celebrations around, she narrated the story of her life — how she and Trent met and got married in Australia, but later, moved to Dublin to be around her aging parents; how her husband, working as a textile salesman, would one day see a cricket field and get hooked to the game again. She asked her daughter to say hello and even introduced us to her in-laws, who had also flown with them to West Indies.
There were more surprises. The players would casually walk down from the dressing room to be part of the celebrations. They would take a few swigs from the Red Stripes plastic glasses the fans offered them while they made their way to the team bus.
There was a memorable frame of unadulterated revelry. Irish pacer David Langford Smith had walked towards his girl Maeve to give her a big hug. The crowd gave them a big roar of approval and went on to drench them in the beer shower.
I would meet David again after the Pakistan game outside Hotel Pegasus. The team was planning a grand party. But he made time to share his joy and struggles. A farm equipment salesman, he earned $300 a week. Life was tough; cash crunch was a constant crisis. Now, suddenly, here he was on the World Cup rollercoaster. He was staying in the best Caribbean hotels, was on television and a darling of the media.
David, though, wasn’t getting carried away. “We are ordinary people who play cricket only because it’s our passion, but we defeated the multi-millionaire pros who stay in palaces,” said the affable pacer. We would keep in touch. A year later, in 2008, he retired. His new job of painting houses was too demanding. Cricket was no longer a priority for the family man. In Ireland, unlike in India, one didn’t have the luxury to just play cricket and get paid handsomely. You didn’t paint the town red like spoilt brats, you painted houses in whatever bland, uniform colour the council mandated.
Other part-time Irish cricketers, too, had shared their numbers. Four years later, when the Ireland team defeated England in the 2011 World Cup, I called a batsman from the Class of 2007. Kenny Carroll was excited about the triumph but said that he had caught the Bengaluru game only in snatches. While on the job, delivering letters door to door, the postman would try and get regular updates about the game the whole of Ireland was hooked on to. The seeds that were sowed in 2007 had sprouted beautifully. Now, they were beating the big brother next door.
But still nothing could beat the 2007 journey of the pioneers. For me, the most poignant image was the one after the Pakistan victory. It has been immortalised by documentary filmmaker, Paul Davey, who made a fly-on-the-wall film about the Irish boys in the West Indies. As Ireland unexpectedly finished among the Top 2 in the group and qualified for the Super 8, Davey was allowed inside the dressing room with his camera.
There were victory songs and catchy football chants, too, but the loudest chorus to hit the spirituous locker room air went thus: “Four more weeks, four more weeks”. For the salesman, postman, farm hand, teacher and the trucker, the win meant “four more weeks” away from the everyday 9-to-5 drudgery. You could understand that feeling of elation. One has always struggled to discern the heady feeling of elite athletes standing on the podium with medals around their necks, but the joy on the faces of working-class men celebrating an unexpected extension of an all-expenses paid break from office was so relatable.
And then the script changed dramatically.
Hindi movies from the last millennium had a hackneyed formula. One knew that the twist in the tale was around the corner when a family would launch into a happy song of saccharine-sweet bonhomie. It was mostly a heart attack, news of bankruptcy, some ugly betrayal or, the other favourite, a road accident. Believe it or not, old Bollywood had a way of preparing you to face life.
After the wild Irish party, the scene would shift to the hospital, morgue and the sombre prayer service. Cricket writers were now crime reporters.
For me that turn came about when I was on way to the West Indies training session, deeply disappointed that the Woolmer big interview hadn’t worked out. I was in a taxi, sharing my plight with Taylor, over his favourite orange-flavoured energy drink, when I got a call from a television reporter friend, Vimal Kumar. While he was at the nets watching the West Indies train, he had got a call from his source in the Pakistan camp that Woolmer was being rushed to the hospital. Taylor and I picked Vimal up and headed to the emergency wing of the University Hospital.
Without realising, we had turned our backs on cricket. We would be on that detour for close to a week.
Having Taylor around was a massive help. A policeman on a permanent night shift, he moonlighted as a taxi driver when the sun was out. There wasn’t a place where Taylor wasn’t greeted by a wave. He knew every street, building or vista. He knew everyone.
It was close to noon in Kingston. In India, midnight was approaching. My phone battery was dying. This all-important news break couldn’t have come at a worst time. Step in Man Friday, Mr Taylor. He lent his full-charged phone and switched the SIMs. I called office. The Page 1 in-charge that day was Rakesh Sinha, a veteran of several international assignments. He said I needed to just update him on phone and he would do the rest. Relief.
Then there was a stroke of luck. I called a Pakistan official who I had seen walk around with several phones. He took the call but he seemed to be talking on the other phone. He was giving details about Woolmer’s death to someone. I informed Rakesh, the story made it to the front page. Some news breaks don’t come with a sense of achievement or thrill. On that strangely windy afternoon, after a full day of work, I felt empty.
In the coming days, the plot would get murkier. Leaning on the autopsy report, the Jamaica police suspected that Woolmer was murdered. Soon, the world would air drop into Kingston. Even the non-cricketing nations were interested in the story where the coach was killed during a World Cup.
For the Irish boys, the change in mood was drastic. Part of the murder investigation now, like everyone else at the Hotel Pegasus, they were asked to give their fingerprints. For the Pakistan team, the nightmare was unending. Every day, conspiracy theories about their involvement with the crime were being floated. Even their journalists were not spared. There was talk that the team wouldn’t be allowed to leave Kingston till the investigation was on.
And then suddenly, the drama ended, as abruptly as it had started. One fine morning, a couple of top Pakistan diplomats landed at the Hotel. They had a long chat with the local investigator. The Pakistan team was allowed to fly out. Taylor would let out a hearty laugh when informed about the development. A god-fearing man, he never judged anybody.
Mrs McKenzie had kept pulling my leg since the first time the alcohol-drenched shirt didn’t quite tie in with “covering cricket”. As events of Woolmer’s death unfolded, and I was everywhere but the stadium, she would keep repeating, “You told me you were going to the stadium to write on cricket? Yeah right.”
On my final day in Kingston, Mrs McKenzie would ask me to invite the entire Indian media contingent for a grand Jamaican meal. In this so-called crime capital, while following a story of death and murder, I would meet the nicest Jamaicans.
Later, Taylor would drop me to the airport. He waited as I got my bag from the boot. We had spent most of the eventful week together. We shook hands, thanked each other for the company. A man of few words, he asked me if I was returning to Kingston for the semi-final. I didn’t have an answer. After those 15 days, I had understood life’s fleeting nature. You never know what lies ahead on a journey.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Matter of Death and Life’