Woolmer tries to unlock Pakistan's treasure chest

Team of sumptuous talent now have an expert mind. Stephen Brenkley speaks to a passion player
Click to follow
The Independent Online

At least Bob Woolmer knew what he was getting into. The passion for cricket on the Indian subcontinent, which will be seen in all its considerable glory in Birmingham today, was imbued in him from the cradle.

At least Bob Woolmer knew what he was getting into. The passion for cricket on the Indian subcontinent, which will be seen in all its considerable glory in Birmingham today, was imbued in him from the cradle.

He was born in India, he first played cricket in the streets of Calcutta, he went on trips with his dad to Pakistan, he watched Hanif Mohammad making his epic 499 in Karachi.

Becoming coach of Pakistan has brought Woolmer's life full circle. Today is the biggest match of his tenure so far, effectively a quarter-final against India in the Champions Trophy, the mini-World Cup. Edgbaston will be full, support evenly split between the teams. Tickets were sold out within hours of going on sale months ago.

"Every match between Pakistan and India is a big match and a huge occasion," he said. "I've only been with the team for three months and there have already been two. No matter where it is you can't help but know what it means back home." So far, his record is played two, won two. In the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka, Pakistan won by 59 runs, in the Videocon Cup in Holland, Pakistan won by 66 runs. But it is not that small run which makes him so remarkably insouciant about today's fixture. It is because Pakistan are a work in progress.

"Of course this match is important, and so is this tournament, and we can win it because this side have remarkable talent. But there is still so much that can be done with them, so many areas that I hope we can improve. This is not going to happen overnight. A coach has to work with a new team for months and years before he can have an effect and his ideas on small things are put into operation."

Woolmer has now coached two different national sides. He was successful when he was in charge of South Africa and gained a reputation as much for his willingness to embrace new concepts as for his judgement of the game. Some of his thinking is so far from left field (he wanted players to wear earpieces on the field so coaches could dispense advice ball by ball) that it became modish to disparage his methods.

But Woolmer is a diligent student of the game and its techniques. He does not tinker for the sake of it, he allows natural talent to flourish and, pertinently, he has the ability to gain the trust of top players. Allan Donald, for instance, the best fast bowler to come out of South Africa, swore by Woolmer's advice.

"There are so many good players in Pakistan, the difficult thing will be to know who to pick. We were at a training camp before the Asia Cup and there were perhaps 25 bowlers, all quick, all aged between 19 and 25, all of them worth a second and third look. You really could almost give an opportunity to all of them."

Woolmer's enthusiasm, as can be seen by that comment, can run away with him, but he is clearly overawed by the wealth of riches potentially at his disposal. Given them, he might yet become the first national coach properly to guard against burn-out by using a rotational system, especially for fast bowlers. It will have to wait, however. "First, I want to get some continuity in this side. It could be said that Pakistan have had a rotation system in the past because we keep dropping people and bringing others in. The way to get a consistently winning side is by being consistent with your selection, and that is the primary task for me."

He is working closely with the team's manager, Haroon Rashid, whom he first got to know during World Series Cricket in the late Seventies. But he is also much taken with the captaincy of Inzamam-ul-Haq. Woolmer refuses to set goals, but he would not have returned from his less strenuous job as the ICC's developing nations' coach had he not had it in mind to make Pakistan the best side in the world. He would like time to do the job.

Today, he would like to win the toss, and while he would not confirm it directly, he knows from his days as coach at Warwickshire how significant it will be to call right at Edgbaston. But it will be part of his job to prepare his players for losing the toss and batting first. "That's when you have to be mentally strong. You can't have the attitude that losing the toss means losing the match."

He has a mantra. "Yesterday's history, tomorrow's a mystery, today's a gift, make the most of it." If Pakistan make the most of it today, they will beat a stuttering India.