From sage, to crackpot: An Englishman abroad
Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach, is hoping to combine the latest technology with old-fashioned virtues and surprise England
Thursday 10 November 2005
Woolmer returned to these shores to coach Warwickshire when he finished with South Africa, before accepting an offer to perform the same role with Pakistan in July 2004. Turning Pakistan's highly talented yet undisciplined cricketers into a consistent and competitive team was no easier than Fletcher's task when he took charge of England, but, over the next four weeks, the 57-year-old hopes to humble Michael Vaughan's vibrant side.
"Coaching in Pakistan has been a wonderful learning curve for me," Woolmer said enthusiastically earlier this week. "I have been involved in first-class cricket for more than 37 years and after that period of time you tend to think that you know most things. But working here has opened my eyes completely on how you work, deal and communicate with people.
"Obviously there is a language barrier, but you have to find ways of getting round it. Ramadan has been an interesting experience because we have been preparing to play England yet everyone has been fasting. We have had to cut down the intensity levels and it was interesting to see what happened. Everyone has practised but we have had to do it either early in the morning or late in the afternoon just before they go for iftar [the meal that is taken immediately after sunset]. Some have had to break their fast, like the bowlers, because it has been hot and they have been bowling long spells. But you have to adjust to the people you are working with, you can't just impose your way on other people.
"But the most exciting thing is that cricket is still the same game and you come back to the fact that the basics remain the same whether you are coaching Pakistan, England or South Africa. It is how you transmit those basics to the players that makes the difference."
Overseas coaches receive a mixed response from those who follow the national side. There are still people who resent the fact that Fletcher, a Zimbabwean, is the England cricket coach and we all know what an ever growing number of football fans think about Sven Goran Eriksson.
But there are also advantages in employing an overseas coach, as India found out when they appointed John Wright, a New Zealander. Wright, like Woolmer, entered a very political set-up without any baggage and was allowed simply to coach. He could not be accused of favouritism and he did not have to justify his decisions.
Yet this has not discouraged Woolmer from attempting to modify Pakistan's cricket. His ideas range from sage to crackpot. He was the first to use computer programmes to monitor player performances, a system that is used by every country now. But his attempts to have a two-way radio link with the captain in the middle brought ridicule from opponents and an instant ban from the ICC.
His coaching philosophy encompasses the six S's - speed, skill, strength, stamina, suppleness and spirit - but he is aware that he has to use them in a way which allows them to fit into the culture of Pakistan. That Woolmer has an affinity with the region will have helped him in his work. He was born in India and spent part of his childhood in Karachi, and it is this link that probably lured him away from his sun lounger in Cape Town.
"One of the biggest problems I have had since I started 18 months ago was sifting out the cricketers I felt could go on and play Test cricket," he said. "We have so many talented cricketers who probably could play at that level, but you don't know whether they can make that step, make the mental and technical adjustments until you actually play them.
"I could probably name 36 to 45 cricketers who could possibly play at the highest level because they show so such talent on the field. The major problem is their levels of fitness, strength, stamina as well as their nutritional needs. We are gradually putting a support system in place but it is not there yet. If we can get this support system up and running and get our youth cricketers into it Pakistan can be a huge force in world cricket."
Nobody would doubt that. Indeed, you only have to look at the kids playing cricket with a tape ball - a tennis ball wrapped in electrical tape so that it moves quicker - and a battered old cricket bat on dusty pieces of wasteland by the side of a busy road to see the talent. Woolmer admits that it would be impossible to establish a county style set-up here but, as in England, they are attempting to get schools to play a bigger role in the development of young cricketers.
But it is the slightly older and the very old heads that Woolmer is currently trying to transform into world-beaters. "I'd like to think we are making progress," he says. "We get on very well. The team is much closer together and they have a very good work ethic. The players have been wonderful. They have all worked terrifically hard. There are certain players in the side who are 180 per cent fitter than a year ago.
"I have an extremely good relationship with Inzamam-ul-Haq and this is vital because a coach is only as good as his captain. To me, the captain has to run the show completely, so without his support you are rudderless. You can't go on the field and hold their hands, so you need a good strong captain to run the ship.
"It is my job to allow Inzamam to concentrate on the cricket, and to motivate and discipline the players on the field. I do this by providing the right environment for him and the rest of the team to play cricket. That is what coaches are for and what takes place on the field reflects what you do in your preparation."
Central contracts, and the control they gave Fletcher over the players, are seen as one of the main reasons for England's rise to the top. Woolmer hopes that they will produce similar results here. "In terms of its simplicity the central contract system we have is probably the most revolutionary in world cricket," he said. "Inzamam devised it and your payment depends on how much international cricket you have played. Grade A is when you have played 80 to 90-plus Test matches and the levels of pay go down below that. The players get a point for each day of Test cricket they have played and a point for every one-day game.
"It was a very clever idea by Inzamam because it took away the performance-related way in which other teams pay their players. This has prevented there from being any quibbling between players and the board over whether they should be on an A or a B grade contract. The figures are down there in front of them."
Inzamam, by chance, happens to be at the top of the food chain but few would deny the fact that he is Pakistan's most influential cricketer. "Inzy" averaged 61 against England here five years ago and he will be the wicket they will be most keen to take.
"We certainly have the players to trouble England," said Woolmer when asked about the forthcoming series. "There is a lot of talent in Pakistan and if they can play to their potential and focus on what they are doing then, yes, we can give any side a run for their money.
"England's bowlers have made a huge difference, as have Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick who have done really well with the bat. But these are the key areas in Test cricket. If you get a good start you can build a good platform and score 500. This then allows your bowlers to bowl and you can put pressure on the opposition. The goal is for you to do this and stop the opposition doing it.
"We have the players who can do that. Inzamam-ul-Haq, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf are top players. I have watched many great players and I have watched these three in the nets and they are just as good as any I have seen.
"In some ways they are better. You just have to watch them manipulate spin and the way they hit over the top. From a coaching perspective it is fascinating to see the way they play the ball and one of the great privileges is to be able to see the differences. Unpredictability is the essence of Asian cricket. It is my job to make sure that unpredictability is not getting shot out for 79."
England will be hoping he fails miserably on more than one occasion.
Woolmer's World: Life and times
Name Robert Andrew Woolmer
Born 14 May 1948, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India
Major teams as a player England, Kent (in action below), Natal (SA), W Province (SA)
Batting Right-hand bat
Bowling Right-arm medium
Test career batting ('75-'81) Matches 19; Inn 34; Runs 1,059; HS 149; Average 33.09;
Hundreds 3; Fifties 2
Test career bowling
Balls 546; Runs 299; Wickets 4;
Best figures 1 for 8; Ave 74.75
Test debut v Australia (Lord's, 31 July 1975)
Wisden cricketer of the year in 1976
Notable achievements as a coach
Coached South Africa 1994-1999, an era during which they were second only toAustralia in both forms of the game.
Became coach of Pakistan in 2004 and has committed himself until the 2007 World Cup
Finest moment on the field
In his second Test, Woolmer made a courageous 149 against the bowling of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson to save England from defeat after they were made to follow on against Australia at the Oval in 1975
Life after playing
Woolmer pioneered the use of computer technology in cricket. His coaching techniques rely heavily on analysing data on players' batting and bowling techniques
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