England's lost leader? Prodigal son Bob Woolmer considers his future
Bob Woolmer lost out to Duncan Fletcher seven years ago, and with his Pakistan side subjecting the Ashes holders to a severe examination of their credentials Angus Fraser asks if his vast experience will ever be brought to the aid of his own country
Saturday 22 July 2006
The first thing that strikes you about Bob Woolmer, the former England cricketer and current Pakistan coach, is his enthusiasm for the game. Within minutes of sitting down with him in the players' dining room at the County Ground, Northampton, he is talking passionately about any aspect of the game you wish to discuss. At times he goes off at a tangent, yet he is fascinating to listen to.
Woolmer is probably the best coach England have never had. Under his guidance both South Africa and Pakistan have become the second-best Test side in the world, and during his two spells with Warwickshire the county won five trophies and were widely considered the team to beat.
"Getting to number one has been a bit iffy," said Woolmer of his Test experience, with a frustrated edge to his voice, even though I intended a compliment when I brought the point up. Pakistan are currently rated as the second-best Test side in the world, but their inability to oust Australia obviously irks him.
"Without wishing to make excuses I think that the Australian system is the best," he said. "I don't just mean in the way their domestic cricket is organised - it is the way in which they play their cricket. It is the type of people they are. They are just passionate about being better than anybody else.
"I don't think it is like that in other countries. In South Africa it is a case of not quite wanting to get there because they are not entirely sure whether they should be. Pakistan want to be the best but at the moment they don't have the structure to get them there. At Warwickshire I had a group of people who wanted to get to the top but once they thought they were there they, amazingly, let it go. And that might be the English way. People don't seem to be able to handle success.
"With the current England team there may have been a feeling from within that they had reached their goal when they won the Ashes and now they could walk back down the mountain again, rather than saying, 'let's stay here and build on what we have.' Very few teams manage to keep things going. Manchester United have done it, as have the Australian cricket team.
"These teams have a great platform. They are not constantly chopping and changing and they show continuity. Credit must be given to Duncan Fletcher [the England coach] for trying to keep the team solid. He has been hampered by injury, as we are all are, but he is trying to show continuity."
There have been two occasions when Woolmer could have become England coach. In 1994, after Warwickshire won three of the four domestic competitions, he was ready to test himself on the international stage. But Keith Fletcher was ensconced with England and Woolmer went to South Africa.
At the conclusion of the 1999 World Cup, Woolmer finished in the Republic. England were in a trough. They had failed to qualify for the second round of the World Cup and, following a home series defeat to New Zealand, were ranked as the worst Test side in the world. At the end of that summer Woolmer was interviewed about becoming England's coach but he claims to have turned the job down. Duncan Fletcher was appointed and the rest, as they say, is history.
Apprehensively, I ask the 58-year-old whether he is disappointed not to have coached England, the country he played 19 Tests and six one-dayers for between 1972 and 1981. After a long delay, Woolmer says: "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't.
"It would be interesting to coach England but I don't know whether I will have the physical ability to do it. If I was to do it I would have to sit down and look at English cricket and say where would I take it. There were times when I was better suited to do it, but I wonder what effect it would have on the current players, who have worked so long with Duncan Fletcher, if someone from outside came in and said, 'we are now going to do it this way.'"
Woolmer's love for the game came from his father, Clarence, who captained India's United Provinces in the 1948-49 Ranji Trophy. It was the only first-class game of cricket he played and it could hardly be described as a success. The United Provinces - Uttar Pradesh - lost to Maharashtra - Bombay - by an innings and 174 runs and Woolmer Snr scored 15 and one.
Clarence's feelings for the game were shown when Bob, who was born in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, arrived at the family home. Once there, his father placed a bat and ball in his cot and said he hoped they would play a major part in his life.
In 1984, after 17 seasons playing with Kent, Woolmer emigrated to South Africa, where he began to take his coaching seriously. I asked how he has maintained his enthusiasm for the game after almost 40 years as a player and a coach.
"I don't know. There are times when I feel that I have had enough but they don't last for long," he says. "I suppose in my own way I was frustrated as a cricketer. In my career I had two difficult decisions to make [over World Series Cricket in 1977 - Woolmer signed on - and a rebel tour of South Africa in 1981-82, which he joined] and they had an impact on my cricket. I thought that through coaching I could make up for this.
"I started taking my coaching courses at Lilleshall when I was 18 in 1966 and did my first work as a coach during the winter of 1968. In those days county cricketers did not earn enough during the summer to survive for 12 months, so I had to go out and find another job.
"But I think coaching was forced upon me really. I did not have anything else to do at the time. Working as a sales clerk during the winter months wasn't going to get me too far. And, after a couple of winters playing and coaching in South Africa, I realised that I was getting better as a player and coach far quicker than I would had I not been doing it. During this period I became good enough to play for England.
"As well as coaching I was also teaching at a school and this helped a lot. It taught me how to get things across. I had to teach lower two Geography and how Viking ships used to sail. These experiences helped me and taught me how to get a message across to a cricket player. Instead of being autocratic, like a lot of coaches are, I grew into the fact that I had teach people in different ways. I suppose I went through the university of coaching life."
The desire to improve and a naturally inquisitive mind led Woolmer to read countless books on cricket, but one in particular had a strong influence on him. "I read a book called Cricket on the Green by R S Young, and it made a huge impression on me.
"In the book, at the back, are 10 or 15 wonderful pages by C B Fry. I read the pages out of interest and I was struck by the way Fry was putting the game across. It was different to any other coaching advice I had read and it made total sense. He was talking about batsmen directing the ball using their bottom hand rather than their top hand, which was frowned upon by many people, and it got me thinking that there is far more to this than meets the eye.
"Trevor Bailey did an excellent coaching book too. There were pictures of him in the different stages of playing shots, and there was a brilliant section on captaincy and field placings. I read Bailey's book when I was a kid and then came back to it when I was older and studied it closely. And on the back of this I then started looking into other sports like hockey and studying how they did things.
"I read countless other books and they were sending out a different message to that I was taught when I was young. I was coached not to do this and not to do that whereas these books were telling me to try this and try that. I also began to wonder why the likes of Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd and Gordon Greenidge were so much better than me. I was keen, I practised hard but I wasn't as good as they were and I felt a lot of it boiled down to the information I had been given at the start of my career. I had been coached according to the MCC coaching manual and these guys hadn't.
"I used to listen a lot to the senior players. I'd travel to games with Colin Cowdrey and he would overtake cars in his Jag, zipping in and out, as though he was taking a quick single.
"A lot of the cricketers I work with in the Pakistan side did not have a lot of coaching when they were young and, because of this, I have learnt that coaching cricket is not an exact science. Any book that says you must do this or that if you wish to succeed is not totally correct. There may be a holy grail to batting, bowling and fielding but it does not apply to everyone.
"Each person has their own way of getting to the top. I was never going to bat like Brian Luckhurst and you" - thanks Bob - "were never going to bowl like Dennis Lillee. So for someone to tell you to play like them is wrong. As a coach you give them some ideas that might suit their type of play. Coaches touch people, they give them little snippets of information that they hold on to in their mind. They can't always remember where it came from but it stays there.
"Everyone nowadays talks about technique. But what is technique? There are fundamentals that you have to obey but there are so many different ways of batting or bowling. John Snow [the former England fast bowler] would insist that you had to get your right hip back and bring it through to bowl away swing but Malcolm Marshall never did that and he swung it away."
Finally, I ask how far Woolmer thinks the current Pakistan side can go. "Working with Pakistan has been a wonderful experience," he says. "With them I am learning something new every day. I am currently writing a book on coaching. It has taken six years and, mainly through my work with this side, I have re-written the batting chapter four times.
"I think they can win the World Cup. I really believe that if we can get everyone fit and firing we will be a hugely difficult side to beat. We have the firepower to bowl sides out, we have the accuracy to limit run-scoring in the middle of the innings and we have several very talented batsmen.
"To win the World Cup you have at have a team that can take Australia on and beat them at their own game. We have that side."
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