Elusive strangler

Print edition : April 20, 2007

Bob Woolmer leaves the team hotel in Port-of-Spain on March 7 after a fire was reported there. On March 18 he was found lying on the floor of the bathroom attached to his hotel room in Kingston, Jamaica, and declared dead in hospital.-JEWEL SAMAD/AFP

The Jamaican police investigation into Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer's death will have to go the full length to give finality to all the speculation.

AS each day passes the mystery behind Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer's death deepens. There are so many theories floating round that confusion abounds, and the quality of the Jamaican police investigation itself is being severely questioned. Information that a few officers from Scotland Yard are likely to be requisitioned to help in the matter reinforces the misgiving that the police on the island are not exactly equipped to deal with the complicated case in hand.

There is a new speculation by the minute. The latest joke - a cruel one - attributed to the Pakistan team is that they believe it was just a natural death, and that the Jamaican police, yielding to undue pressure on them to produce something, came out with the murder story. Can there be anything harsher than this on the bereaved family? This bizarre stand of the Pakistanis - so many days after the police asserted that this was a cold-blooded murder - shocks us beyond words.

Only a few days earlier we were told that the Jamaican police were working on a telephone call claiming that Woolmer was poisoned. The anonymous caller, who was described as having an Asian accent, mentioned `aconite' as the substance that was employed. (Aconite is a deadly poison derived from a herb of the buttercup family. It was used once upon a time in small doses to relieve pain in the nerves or muscles. According to one report, it is still used as one of the ingredients in some Chinese medicines in combination with other herbs that were capable of neutralising aconite's toxic effect.)

It is further said that Woolmer was strangled after he drank some liquid containing the poison and lost control over himself. Those who advance this story say that Woolmer, being a huge man, would not have otherwise submitted meekly to an aggressor. The Jamaican police do not want to dismiss this as a red herring intended to divert their energies.

This development shifts the focus to the much-awaited findings of the toxicologist. Some observers do not discount the need for a second autopsy either. Fortunately, the police have stuck to the stand that this was murder and not suicide. But we do not know when they will shift. If they do so, their credibility will receive a further beating. The pathologist in charge of this case is an Indian, Seshaiah, to boot. Some Pakistanis are not wholly happy with this coincidence. On the whole, a field day for rumour-mongers.

This brings us to the basic question, once homicide is established: Who had high stakes in getting rid of Woolmer? `Match-fixing' is a refrain heard frequently in this context. The innuendo is that this is a case of eliminating "a man who knew too much". And this is mentioned against the background of Pakistan's defeat in the World Cup at the hands ofunfancied Ireland.

There is enough evidence that the coach was visibly upset over his wards' performance. Had he not been, it would have been unnatural. Did he suspect that the outcome of the match was influenced by non-cricketing factors? Or, did he stumble on information that was damaging to some people connected with Pakistan's cricket administration? The gravest of all the surmises is that he paid the penalty for his expressed determination to expose, through his unfinished book, the dramatis personae in a betting syndicate.

When the episode draws to its denouement it is possible that all these guesses will prove preposterous. But nothing should deter us from indulging in this exercise of speculation inasmuch as the Jamaican police have been near comical in their responses. Extremely derisive is their stand that they were not under any diplomatic pressure when they allowed the entire Pakistani team to leave the Caribbean even while the case was being investigated. (It is as bad as saying that the police in India are clinically free from political interference.)

If ultimately it is proved that anyone in the team was guilty of some role or the other, and he has to be indicted in court, the chances of getting that person extradited from Pakistan are as bright as India's chances of getting Ottavio Quattrocchi back to the country.

Even as I write comes the news that at least three umpires in the elite panel of the International Cricket Council (ICC) are being investigated for suspected match-fixing activities. They are said to have offshore bank accounts and a member of the ICC's Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) is said to be following the trail.

Obviously, this is an inspired leak by persons close to the ICC. I have no reason to disbelieve the basic truth in the allegation that umpires are also involved in the shady business that international cricket has become. In an ambience that reeks of vice, how can one small group of people be expected to be immune to attempts to grease their palms.

Does the present situation not demand an ACU in India under the aegis of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)? I know I am going to be booed for this outrageous suggestion. I am not for a moment saying there is dirt here to be removed. A professional and closely overseen (mind you, not `controlled') ACU will be a deterrent to the kind of misconduct that is now being talked about in the game.

I am sure an experienced administrator like Sharad Pawar, the present BCCI President, will not dodge this issue that is looming large and threatening to rob the game totally of the small measure of credibility it enjoys.

While we anxiously await the findings of the Jamaican investigation, what do we in India do to protect our cricketers and officials, especially when they are on tour abroad? There is now a reasonable system of security for the players, thanks to the 2000 scandal. This was intended more to prevent their establishing contacts, deliberately or unwittingly, with the underworld, which makes mind-boggling money organising the betting industry.

Woolmer's murder has highlighted the importance of strengthening arrangements at hotels where our players, coach and the manager stay. Heavy restrictions will curtail socialising - especially of the Andrew Flintoff variety - and this is likely to annoy the protectees and could tell on their performance on the field. But this is a small price to pay for ensuring the safety of a set of precious national icons.

The BCCI should have a corps of well-trained and well-paid securitymen who accompany them to Test/ODI (One-Day International) centres in India and also travel with them overseas. With our packed playing schedule, there is a case for a full-time staff. It looks as if there is no alternative to professionalising cricketer security. The players need it on and off the field. Security at their homes on a selective basis is not excessive, considering the passion we saw after our defeat against Bangladesh . The BCCI can well afford it. As long as big money plays a role in the game, we cannot relax our guard.

Whatever be the imponderables on the scene, the police investigation will have to go the full length to give finality to all the speculation. I appreciate the fact that all such enquiries with international dimensions are complicated. If, however, the ultimate conclusions drawn by the Jamaican police do not sound convincing to cricket lovers the world over, the future of the game itself will be in jeopardy. Mere money dictating results of the game is bad enough. But if players or officials in charge can themselves be neutralised with violence, decent human beings will distance themselves from the game.

There cannot be a greater tragedy to a sport conceived centuries ago as one for the gentleman. What would Neville Cardus have said of the recent events? I leave it to your imagination. I cannot, however, help recalling at least one of his more famous sayings that is appropriate to the recent turn of events:

The game itself is a capricious blend of elements, static and dynamic, sensational and somnolent. You can never take your eyes from a cricket match for fear of missing a crisis.

Let us also not take our eyes off, but wait for the days when cricket will be restored to its past glory of being a gentleman's game.

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