Case of Cricket Coach's Death Rivets His South African Fans

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 31, 2007

JOHANNESBURG -- The strange and terrible death of Robert Woolmer has all the elements of a gripping murder mystery -- exotic locale, tantalizing clues and shady characters lurking at the edges of a genteel but wildly lucrative sport.

Yet what has riveted South Africans is not just the drama but fond memories of the victim.

Woolmer, 58, was a legendary coach revered here for leading South African cricket out of the painful period of apartheid-era isolation. His strangulation in a Jamaican hotel room on March 18, the morning after the Pakistani team he coached suffered one of the most humiliating upsets in the history of international cricket, provoked a mixture of grief and amazement that a genial modernizer of the game could die in circumstances so primitive and evil.

"To be murdered under these circumstances is just unimaginable," said Timothy D. Noakes, a professor of sports science at the University of Cape Town and a close friend of Woolmer's. "This is the greatest crisis ever to hit world cricket."

Speculation in South Africa, and in much of the cricketing world, has focused on the powerful role of gambling in the sport and, perhaps, in Woolmer's death.

Woolmer, who resigned from coaching South Africa's national team in 1999, was two years into a turbulent run in charge of the national team of Pakistan, where the sport is followed so avidly that fans often harass losing players on their return from international competitions, or burn them in effigy.

Betting on Pakistan's games is widespread, sports experts said, and rumors have long trailed the team that its players indulge in match-fixing to earn extra cash. The opportunities to do so are nearly limitless: Bettors can wager not just on a game's outcome but also on minor elements, such as whether a player steps over a line when he bowls to a particular batter -- a minor infraction analogous to a foot fault in tennis.

Retired South African cricket player Clive Rice, a longtime friend of Woolmer's, offered a theory that Woolmer probably accused some of Pakistan's players of being involved with gambling after the team's World Cup loss to Ireland, a minor force in international cricket. Word of Woolmer's suspicions must have gotten back to the bookies, Rice said.

"Before it could get out, the bookmakers went and sorted him out," he speculated from Rustenburg, South Africa, where he was traveling.

Rice offered no evidence for his suspicions, but police in Jamaica have questioned Pakistani team members and taken DNA samples from them, according to news reports. There have been unconfirmed reports of a fight on the team bus after the match and that a bookmaker visited Woolmer in the hours before his death.

Police have been studying video footage from the 12th floor of the Pegasus Hotel in Kingston, where Woolmer was staying, to see who might have visited him during his final hours. There was no sign of forced entry to his room, police have said.

This is not the first time that Woolmer's name has been linked to scandal. The captain of his South African national team, Hansie Cronje, confessed to match-fixing in 2000. Woolmer, who was coach during some of the incidents, was not implicated, but Rice said the experience would have made it easier for him to spot the tricks of a player attempting to rig a match.

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