Even before the murder of the Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer, cricket was never quite the innocent pastoral idyll, the “genteel sport”, which in the words of one wire service reporting the crime, “breaks for tea and makes baseball seem fast-paced”.
Cricket’s earliest 18th-century days were attended by violence and betting. Players were hurt in brawls and bookmakers openly conducted their business at London’s Lord’s Ground, the epicentre of the game.
There has been sufficient violence at five-day Test matches alone for one of the game’s finest writers, the Australian Ray Robinson, to have written a book called The Wildest Tests. In one Test series, between Australia and England in 1932-33, Australian anger at the tactics of England’s quick bowlers was so great that it nearly created a diplomatic breach between the two nations.
Woolmer is not the first Test cricketer to have been murdered. The former West Indian captain Jeff Stollmeyer was shot by intruders at his home in Trinidad in 1989. Australian batsman David Hookes died in a brawl outside a Melbourne bar where, as coach of the Victoria state team, he had been celebrating a victory, three years ago.
There have been suggestions that two South African players from the era when Woolmer was national coach, the pace bowler Tertius Bosch and discredited former captain Hansie Cronje, were also murdered.
One Test cricketer, the fast bowler Leslie Hylton, was executed for the murder of his wife in Jamaica in 1955. Warrington Phillips, who played in the West Indies inter-island competition for Leeward Islands, is currently awaiting trial for the murder of his wife in Anguilla.
It has even been suggested that Jack the Ripper was a cricketer, a barrister named Montague Druitt who played for the Blackheath club in London—although there are countersuggestions that he has an alibi for at least one of the killings, his participation in a match.
None of these deaths, though, had any real direct connection to the game. Domestic violence, robberies and pub brawls are everyday unpleasantnesses—it just happens that there were cricketers involved. The only possible exception is Cronje, and there the suggestion that he was murdered plays to a desperate South African desire to see him as a martyr rather than a crook. He died after receiving a lifetime ban for match-fixing.
Woolmer’s death comes closer to home. There seems no sign of a robbery gone wrong, as his belongings were undisturbed. Deputy police commissioner Mark Shields has suggested that Woolmer knew his killer or killers, giving a strong likelihood that it was somebody involved in some way with cricket.
One possibility is that there is a connection to cricket’s betting scandals. Woolmer has coached South Africa and Pakistan, the countries most afflicted. There has, though, never been the slightest suggestion of involvement on his part and the co-authors of his two forthcoming books on the subject say there is nothing new about the match-fixing scandals that brought down Cronje, his close collaborator in five years coaching South Africa, or anything of this kind inPakistan.
Whether a bent bookie who felt threatened by something he thought Woolmer might know would believe those denials, is another matter. The other possibility is that of an angry fan or gambler taking revenge for the defeat by Ireland and early elimination.
There remains a third possibility, the ghastliest of the lot, that the killer was somebody involved in some way with the tournament.
Whatever transpires, a game that always had a dark side has just got that much darker. (International Herald Tribune)