Remembering Bob Woolmer: a story of immortal friendship – Sport

The West Indies and the USA are jointly hosting the T20I World Cup which starts on 2nd June; will bring back some sad memories for cricket fans in Pakistan.

It wasn’t just another Saint Patrick’s Day. On a gloomy afternoon in Kingston, Jamaica, the Ireland cricket team did the unthinkable — they not only beat Pakistan but also knocked out them of the ODI World Cup in the Caribbean.

Except for the sombre Pakistan team and fans, the rest of the cricketing fraternity was jubilant as most people are after an underdog’s triumph.

Bob Woolmer and Inzamamul Haq chat after Pakistan’s shock defeat against Ireland, Jamaica, March 17, 2007.—AFP/File

On that day and night of mixed feelings, the Pakistan team’s head coach at the time was found dead in his hotel room in Jamaica, just a few hours after facing a shocking defeat against Ireland by 3 wickets.

It’s been seventeen years since Bob Woolmer left this world, but Kobus Olivier still feels the lingering pain of losing his mentor and friend.

“I will never forget that. It knocked me off my feet. I was in a state of shock for quite a few days,” Olivier said.

Olivier is a cricket nomad from South Africa — after hanging his boots as a player he worked as a teacher and coach in different parts of the world including Kenya, the Netherlands, Dubai, and Ukraine.

When war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, Olivier had to flee Kyiv with his four dogs and currently, he’s based in Zagreb, Croatia.

Some bonds are immortal — ‘Bob’ and ‘Kobus’ had one such fellowship.

Pakistan team members at a memorial service for Bob Woolmer in Kingston Jamaica, March 21, 2007.—AFP/File

Olivier was incredibly close to Woolmer.

“I was in Cape Town at that time. I was in my office at the University of Cape Town when calls started coming through. It was all over the headlines that Bob had passed away in the West Indies. It was terrible. It was just an unreal feeling,” Olivier said.

“A couple of days after his death I spoke to Garry Kirsten, Daryll Cullinan and Jonty Rhodes; they were all in absolute shock,” he said.

“I thought afterwards, probably that’s how Bob would’ve liked to go. I can’t see him an old pensioner sitting in the garden, he passed away doing what he loved most in his life,” he added.

Woolmer and Olivier had a very special friendship that went back many years.

Olivier was ten years old when Woolmer first came to South Africa as a young Kent 2nd XI player to gain experience.

As a young pro, he visited South Africa to coach during the off-season in England and also went to Olivier’s school in Johannesburg.

Bob Woolmer shakes hands with Mohammad Asif.—AFP

“I will never forget that, we were at a cricket practice at our Auckland Park Primary School when Bob came to coach our teacher. He was wearing cricket whites and a Kent 2nd XI sweater with the Kent horse at the front and underneath the horse, there was a tree which later on I came to know that it represented 2nd XI. Bob had a Gray-Nicolls kit,” Olivier said.

“I had never seen Gray-Nicolls before — the guys I used to see wore County pads and Zenith gloves. It was the first time that I saw all matching Gray-Nicolls kit,” he said.

It wasn’t just the kit that had an impression on Olivier; Woolmer also had a Kent cricket coffin with a Kent horse printed on it as well.

“It had wheels and he was pulling it that made such an impression on me, it was incredibly impressive for a 10-year-old boy,” he said.

Woolmer coached for a season and he used to visit the school nets in the afternoon.

“I was hanging on his lips and that’s when I decided to become a professional cricketer one day, it became my dream. The other kids wanted to be firemen and policemen, but I used to tell all my friends that I wanted to become a cricketer.”

Years later Olivier was at the Stellenbosch University, playing in their 2nd XI and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Pieter Kirsten, Garth Le Roux, Eddy Barlow and Kepler Wessels who played for the same university.

Bob Woolmer is surrounded by Yasir Hameed, Shoaib Akhtar and Shahid Afridi ahead of the first Test against Australia, Perth, December 15, 2004.—AFP/File

“Out of the blue, one day I got a call from Bob,” he recalled.

“He got my number from the university. He was retired but still played club cricket for Avendale at one of the townships,” he added.

At the time Woolmer was doing development work with coloured kids and he used to get overseas players every season, mostly Kent players including Mark Benson, and Alan Igglesden to play for the multi-racial club Avendale.

“He phoned me and asked me if I could play for Avendale Cricket Club. He gave me the opening position in the premier league and said it is better than 2nd XI so I joined the club and opened the batting with Bob,” Olivier said.

“It was a wonderful experience, we talked about the days he coached me at the Auckland Park Primary School and now we were opening the batting together at club level,” he said.

“It was quite funny, I have the utmost respect for him and always called him Sir when we were running between the wickets and I would say ‘yes sir’, he said: [Stop calling me ‘sir’, just say ‘yes Bob, no Bob’] but it was so instilled in me,” he added.

Olivier believes that Bob Woolmer and Eddie Barlow had an immense influence on his humble cricket career, especially ‘Bob’ who had a huge impact on his development as a cricketer.

Woolmer chats with Inzamam during Pakistan training ahead of the one-day series. Lahore, December 8, 2005.—AFP/File

“I was only good in one thing in my life: I could play cricket and Bob’s coaching made all the difference.”

Woolmer lived in Pinelands in the suburbs of Cape Town with his son and wife. Olivier often used to visit his house.

“His study was full of cricket books and memorabilia,” Olivier recalled.

“We had a little plan to start a business together. He said the future of cricket is in T20. At the time, the format had just started and a few of the counties were playing T20 warm-up games,” he said.

“Bob had the vision and said that’s where the money’s going to be, women and children will come and watch. Bob predicted all that long ago before other people,” he said.

Woolmer was interested in organising pre-season warm-up games for English counties in Cape Town, the weather was perfect, the facilities were good — two ovals with floodlights, and not to mention he had connections in Warwickshire and Kent counties.

He planned to bring a few county teams there for ten days and play two games in a day.

“One day he called me and said: ‘Come to my house we need to talk.’ He said: ‘We have to shelve the idea because I’ve just been appointed the national coach of Pakistan.’ I was one of the first people who he told that. He had about two weeks to get himself over to Pakistan.

Bob Woolmer shares a light moment with his new charges, July 2004.—AFP/File

“We kept in regular contact whenever Bob had a break and he was in Cape Town we would meet for a coffee or tea, sit and chat, he told me about the unbelievable talent in Pakistan cricket, and he said you’d go to a net session and they get some net bowlers into to ball to Pakistan Test batters,” he said.

“There would be one or two fast bowlers, some little leggie, and with a little bit of coaching, they could all go and play Test cricket,” he said.

“He said he has never seen a country with such raw talent as these young Pakistani cricketers. He couldn’t talk enough of the talent in Pakistan,” he said

“He had a huge impact on the South Africa cricket team,” he said.

Bob Woolmer, Shaun Pollock and Alan Dawson celebrate South Africa’s victory in the Commonwealth games, 1998.—AFP/File

“I’ve never met Pakistan players, but I believe he had the same impact on the Pakistan team as well. They always had great bowlers but in Bob’s time Pakistan batters flourished under his coaching.”

Woolmer did have an impact on Pakistan players including the likes of Younis Khan, Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Yousuf, Mushtaq Ahmed, and Inzamamul Haq.

Ask them about the best coach they’ve worked with and they will all say Bob Woolmer. And they have nothing but praise for him.

“He was not just a well-liked but a well-loved coach and a peoples’ person. Not one player he coached and didn’t touch his life. The players got really close to him and he wasn’t just a cricket coach for them,” he said.

Mohammad Sami and Bob Woolmer share a light moment in the swimming pool, Trinidad, March 7, 2007.—AFP

“He always inquired about if you had a problem at home, Bob would ask you what was wrong and he was like a father figure or an elder teacher. He had this personal relationship with all the players,” he said.

Woolmer was always busy with new theories and ways to do new things.

“He was always developing as a coach, even later in his life he was still developing as a coach. He was inventive, years ahead of his time. Bob stood out in a way because of his vision. He was years ahead of anyone else in cricket.”

In the 1999 World Cup in England, South Africa captain Hansie Cronje and fast bowler Allan Donald wore earpieces on the field in their opening game against India, but during the drinks break the match referee asked both players to remove them.

“That was just typical Bob,” he said.

“Cricket was his passion. I called him ‘Mr Cricket’. I know later on Michael Hussey and other guys were called by that name, but to me, Bob is Mr Cricket. He lived for cricket, whenever you talked to him, in seconds the conversation would go to cricket.

“When people took T20 for fun he told me that this is going to be the future of cricket. I listen to many modern-day coaches and I have a lot of respect for them, but Bob had so much more knowledge.

“He was at another level. He was like a walking cricket encyclopedia. You could ask him anything about cricket and he didn’t have to think, it just rolled off the tip of his tongue.

“You meet players and coaches; they come and go, but Bob is one you never forget. I see him as the best coach cricket ever had. Bob would’ve been the best T20 coach in the world.

“It suited his style of coaching, looking for new ways and new shots to score. If he was alive now, especially with T20 cricket and new innovations, this would’ve been so unbelievable for him to be involved right now.”

Bob Woolmer and Younis Khan shares a light moment during training.—AFP

“I do miss him,” Olivier said. And he’s not the only one.

The West Indies and USA are jointly hosting the T20I World Cup which starts on 2nd June and it will bring back some sad memories for cricket fans in Pakistan.


The author is a cricket journalist published in The Cricketer, Dawn, and BBC Sport among others.

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