Bob Woolmer in Cape Town
© PA Photos


The man who saw tomorrow

Bob Woolmer died ten years ago, but some of his underrated contributions to the global game are finally bearing fruit

Tim Wigmore  |  

In late 2001, Bob Woolmer was out of a job. After years of working relentlessly in county cricket and for South Africa, one of the most creative and original coaches of his age was in need of a new challenge. He would find it in an unlikely source: the ICC, and its new position for a High Performance Manager, charged with improving leading Associate nations.

For a man with Woolmer's drive, the role had an obvious limitation: it needed him to work with players of far lower quality than he was used to, in games that often barely pricked the cricketing world's consciousness.

Yet there were significant attractions too. At a time when the ICC was in thrall to globalising the game, the role was lucrative. It would be an antidote to the relentless pressure and scrutiny Woolmer faced on the international circuit. The job was something like a "sabbatical" for Woolmer, says his friend and fellow coach Neil Burns, giving him a chance to reflect and develop his ideas away from the stresses of day-to-day coaching. "Bob was never one to rest, but sometimes a change of scenery is as good as a rest."

The role also appealed to Woolmer in another way. "If ever a youngster could have been said to eat, drink and sleep cricket, then surely it was Bob Woolmer," noted Wisden in 1976, when he was a Cricketer of the Year. This unbridled passion ran through much of what Woolmer had done since, from coaching at Avendale, a coloured club in South Africa, to innovative use of computer- and video analysis as South Africa coach.

Peter Ongondo, the Kenyan fast-medium bowler, remembers Woolmer telling him, "A good ball is still a good ball whether bowled by Waqar Younis or Peter Ongondo"

These traits meant that he stood above the others, including several with international experience, who applied for the job. Andrew Eade, then global development manager at the ICC, interviewed the applicants for the new role. "The reason we went with Bob," he recalls, "was his clear passion for developing cricket in the countries he would work with - he was a global citizen."

That much came across in how Woolmer threw himself into the role. He led coaching courses for Associates in Lahore and Nairobi, and visited Uganda several times. In Namibia he liked to travel through the desert, climbing the world's highest sand dunes while discussing the game. "He spoke for many hours about cricket, his enthusiasm for the game as well as his many experiences with players and people throughout the world," recounts Laurie Pieters, the former chairman of the Namibia Cricket Board.

Woolmer took up his post in September 2001. He was given an 18-month contract to help the top Associates, focusing particularly on Canada, Kenya, Namibia and Netherlands, the four to qualify for the 2003 World Cup.

Visiting the top six Associates two or three times a year, normally coinciding with national squad training sessions, Woolmer coached the senior players, devised programmes for juniors, and attempted to professionalise the way the game was run in these outposts.

But he was clear about what he would be judged on above all else: performances in the World Cup. He knew that the expansion of the sport could be hindered by a poor Associate showing at the sport's flagship event. "He really wanted one of the Associates to turn over one of the big boys," recalls Dougie Brown of Scotland, who coached Namibia in the World Cup after being recommended by Woolmer, his old Warwickshire coach.

As the World Cup drew close, Woolmer's role moved from directing cricket towards using his expertise to prepare their players for the tournament. His work focused on three main areas.

First was fitness and fielding. "He told us that we would not learn to bat or bowl as well as pros in such short time, but we could learn to field as well as them and had to be as fit as them," remembers Tim de Leede, who played for Netherlands in that competition. Woolmer encouraged the use of technology and scientific analysis: at his suggestion, Namibia and other teams conducted eyesight and reflex tests.

Namibia coach Dougie Brown talks to Woolmer, his former Warwickshire coach, in Port Elizabeth during the 2003 World Cup

Namibia coach Dougie Brown talks to Woolmer, his former Warwickshire coach, in Port Elizabeth during the 2003 World Cup © PA Photos

On tactics and technique he worked especially hard with players on scoring freely against spin, encouraging them to play the slog sweep and reverse sweep, and to explore what he called the "roll-over sweep" - the ramp shot. More prosaically, he emphasised the need to work the ball to leg, making batsmen practise with just their bottom hand. "We always had been told the top hand was the most important one," says de Leede. "He said, 'Use the bottom hand as much as you can, as that is the hand that times the ball. But make sure the bat comes down straight, so turn the bottom hand on the bat handle.'" Using his knowledge of South African conditions, Woolmer emphasised that most World Cup wickets would be slow, and advocated keepers standing up to medium pace with fine leg up.

But perhaps most important was his work on the Associates' self-belief. "He didn't buy into the inferiority complex," recalls Andy Tennant, a Cricket Scotland stalwart. Peter Ongondo, the Kenyan fast-medium bowler, remembers Woolmer speaking to him before the tournament. "He said a good ball is still a good ball whether bowled by Waqar Younis or Peter Ongondo."

A week before their first World Cup match, against India, Netherlands played their final warm-up game. They were thrashed by ten wickets by Western Province, and left moping around in despair, fearing what India would do to them next. "We were sitting in the dressing room with our heads down," de Leede recalls. "On these flat decks they would get 500 at least."

From a seat in the corner of the dressing room, Woolmer spoke about a time during his playing days at Kent when their illustrious team could barely win a game and no one seemed capable of taking responsibility until their coach intervened. "It is time you guys say: I will do that and have to be better in the field or prepare my innings better or get fitter or bowl a tighter line and length for longer spells. Don't count on others to perform. Make sure you cannot be blamed."

It was over dinner during that 2003 World Cup that Woolmer and Eade set out to answer a simple question: how could the Associates become better?

Woolmer, always demanding professional standards from amateur sportsmen, now implored Netherlands to do the same. The following week de Leede took 4 for 35 as Netherlands bowled India out for 204, and threatened a monumental upset.

There were tensions inherent in Woolmer's job. Since it was a new role, it was not clearly defined, and Woolmer was not the type to limit himself. Occasionally full-time coaches could feel "encroached" upon because of his involvement with the players, recalls one man involved with the Kenyan squad in 2003. Yet, for all the challenges, the four victories over Full Members by Associate nations in the 2003 World Cup remain a record.

While Canada defeated Bangladesh by 60 runs, and against West Indies their opener John Davison broke the World Cup record for the fastest century, the great Associate story was Kenya. They defeated Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and, with a little help from New Zealand, who pulled out of their match in Nairobi, made it to the semi-finals.

It was a staggering achievement, especially considering that Kenya had been in turmoil, with internecine wrangling between the players and the board, a player strike, and a ten-wicket defeat by South Africa in their opening game. The campaign had many heroes - the leadership, runs and wickets of Steve Tikolo; the all-round craft of Maurice Odumbe; the prodigious legspin of Collins Obuya; the left-arm guile of Aasif Karim. But a forgotten one was Woolmer.

"That was the side that he was most heavily involved with," Eade recalls. "Bob took a real hands-on role, more than with other sides."

Woolmer was a well-loved player and coach among cricketers as well as fans

Woolmer was a well-loved player and coach among cricketers as well as fans © Associated Press

Woolmer improved Kenya's training culture and their pre-match analysis of opponents. He worked on the batsmen's trigger movements to improve their balance against fast bowling. Ongondo also remembers long sessions on reverse swing and using the old ball at the death. "We went in with enough knowledge to tackle the big boys," he remembers. And soon after the tournament, Woolmer used his Warwickshire connections to help Obuya land a contract.

It was over a dinner during that 2003 World Cup that Woolmer established the most important part of his legacy. After Namibia had threatened to upset England in Port Elizabeth, he and Eade set out to answer a simple question: how could the Associates become better?

"The interesting question that I remember asking Bob is, 'Do you think you can become a really great one-day player without ever having played four-day cricket?' He was quite strong in thinking that you couldn't. He thought four-day cricket was where you would learn a lot of the whole craft, both mentally and technically, that would allow you then to be a great one-day player."

Out of this belief was born the ICC Intercontinental Cup, the first-class competition for Associate nations. Launched in 2004, it was designed primarily to improve Associates in one-day cricket, yet Woolmer's vision went further. "Bob was convinced that some of the Associates had the potential to take on the Full Member in ODIs and eventually in Test matches," says Ehsan Mani, president of the ICC from 2003 to 2006.

Woolmer outlined his vision in interviews during and after the 2003 World Cup. "I don't think we have scratched the surface, in terms of what we can achieve," he declared. He envisaged the Intercontinental Cup functioning as the second division of Test cricket, and advocated two leagues of eight teams, with promotion and relegation. His ambition extended to the teams who didn't qualify for the 2003 World Cup. "He told us we [Scotland] could play Tests one day," Tennant recalls.

"He laid the groundwork for everything that followed. He'd absolutely love the Afghanistan story" Andrew Eade

Underpinning everything Woolmer did was the belief that cricket need not arbitrarily limit itself to a select coterie of nations, but that the game could expand, just as football had done several decades earlier - no African nation won a match in the football World Cup before 1978, and only one Asian country did before 1994. Woolmer "certainly did not accept the status quo", says Malcolm Gray, ICC president from 2000 to 2003, who credits him with raising not only Associates' performances but also their profile and importance within the ICC. Woolmer championed two changes that were introduced after he left the job: expanding ODI status to 16 nations, and increasing the size of the 2007 World Cup to 16 teams.

The role of High Performance Manager was not merely a stopgap in between Woolmer's other jobs. Immediately after the 2003 World Cup, he turned down the job of Sri Lanka coach to remain in his ICC role, signing a new two-year contract. It was also a reflection of how impressed the ICC was with his work. "Bob developed plans for each of the countries and identified countries that had potential to challenge Full Members," Mani remembers.

Woolmer had even spoken about remaining in his post longer than 2005, but then a vacancy as Pakistan coach opened up. The opportunity was too alluring. "Despite his high ideals, he yearned to be back at the highest level and working with the best players who had the talent to implement his thinking on the biggest stage," says his friend Burns. In 2004 the ICC reluctantly gave Woolmer exemption to leave before the end of his contract.

Yet Woolmer remained a friend of Associate cricket. While it became fashionable to denounce the presence of 16 teams in the 2007 World Cup - the editor's notes in Wisden 2006 warned it was "wrecking the game" - in an interview to the Scotsman, Woolmer pronounced himself "all for the expansion of the game worldwide".

Kenya were hit by clashes between the board and the players before the World Cup, but Woolmer managed to turn their focus towards training and technique, and they ended up reaching the semi-finals

Kenya were hit by clashes between the board and the players before the World Cup, but Woolmer managed to turn their focus towards training and technique, and they ended up reaching the semi-finals © Getty Images

In that World Cup, Pakistan, coached by Woolmer, met Ireland, one of the teams he had nurtured. "Ireland are probably the best of the Associates," Woolmer said in a television chat on the morning of the game. "The ICC wants an Associate nation to cause an upset. I just hope it's not us."

When Ireland toppled Pakistan the irony was unmistakeable. In the agonising moments after defeat, Woolmer sought out Niall O'Brien, who had made a magnificent 72. "He just said, 'Really well played - that was a special innings,'" O'Brien recalls. "I was touched by that in such a tough moment for him."

Even in defeat, Woolmer reaffirmed his commitment to growing the sport. "I'm fully in favour of 16 teams. Playing against such teams can be a banana skin, and you saw that today, with Bangladesh beating India as well. I think you can say that March 17, 2007 will be a historic day for cricket."

Yet the day soon acquired an altogether different significance. The next morning he was found collapsed in his hotel room. A few hours later he was pronounced dead, aged 58. Speculation over what had caused his death - the coroner returned an open verdict - permeated the rest of the tournament and beyond.

The tributes to Woolmer after his passing revealed the astonishing warmth in which he was held. Yet for all his achievements - three Ashes centuries, a storied coaching career, and Bob Woolmer's Art and Science of Cricket, a seminal book on coaching - perhaps his greatest legacy was in expanding cricket's global footprint.

Underpinning everything Woolmer did was the belief that cricket need not arbitrarily limit itself to a select coterie of nations but that the game could expand

"He had a foresight about the game," says Richard Done, who succeeded Woolmer as High Performance Manager and remains in the post. "His legacy really was in three parts: developing the Intercontinental Cup as a cornerstone and important competition to develop the skills of the leading Associate countries; starting the process in changing Associate expectations and belief at global events, from just being there to becoming competitive; and first exposing the leading Associates to what was required to prepare for top-level cricket."

In the years since, the non-Test world has built on what Woolmer helped start. As more money from the ICC television rights flowed to the non-Test world - US$65 million from 1999 to 2007 became $250 million from 2007 to 2015, then an estimated $300 million from 2015 to 2023 - teams were able to professionalise.

While following Associate cricket was long the preserve of cricket hipsters, its appeal has now spread. From 2012 onwards, the World T20 qualifiers have been live-streamed. "We needed to not only get better at participation and performance, but needed to get better at telling the story," says Tim Anderson, the ICC's head of global development from 2010 to 2016.

The first two qualifying tournaments were streamed at considerable loss to the ICC but by 2015 the ICC made an overall profit on the event, and there were 13 million video views of the qualifiers. Remarkably, at the 2015 World Cup, the Ireland v UAE game rated in the top 15 of the 49 matches on TV and digital metrics, while many Associate v Full Member games outrated some of those between Test nations. Anderson calls the tournament a "watershed".

"We had four countries that performed really strongly and really captured everyone's imagination. From that moment, in fans and the broader media, it's unlocked the latent desire for there to be more countries in world cricket that people want to watch and talk about."

2020 vision: Woolmer conceived of a future where Associates would play Test cricket long before anyone else in the cricket world even thought they were fit to receive ODI status

2020 vision: Woolmer conceived of a future where Associates would play Test cricket long before anyone else in the cricket world even thought they were fit to receive ODI status © Getty Images

Yet, while once the ICC was accused of greed and of ruining the World Cup by including the Associates, now it is castigated for greed in deciding to contract the World Cup to ten teams. "Bob would have been very upset. It undermines everything he stood for," says Mani. Tennant believes that Woolmer "would have been horrified at the lack of vision and shortsightedness".

The tragedy is that Woolmer was not around to see the progress that has been made. "He laid the groundwork for everything that followed," says Eade. "He'd absolutely love the Afghanistan story."

And the Intercontinental Cup has gone from being merely a first-class competition for Associates to a pathway to Test cricket. Should Afghanistan and Ireland indeed gain Test status in 2019, it will represent the culmination of the journey that Woolmer began over that dinner in Port Elizabeth in 2003.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts