Bob Woolmer was born in the cricket mad country of India, and sadly died coaching the cricket mad country of Pakistan. He loved the game, and seemed born to be part of the world scene. Cricket is richer for his immense contribution over the past four decades, and much poorer for his untimely departure.
Robert Andrew Woolmer was born in Kanpur on the 14th of May, 1948. His father, a more than useful right-handed batsman and spinner, was clearly obsessed with the game, as he placed a cricket bat and ball into the corner of Bob’s cot while he was still an infant. His father was an insurance agent on a temporary assignment to India, and the family returned back to their native England when Bob was seven. Bob then went to school at Yardley Court Preparatory School in Tonbridge. Yardley Court was an independent school for children up to the age of 13, founded in 1898 with a strong academic and sporting history. This school was a good match for the young Bob, as he received excellent coaching support from the staff. Over the six years of his stay, Bob developed into a solid all-rounder.
Bob moved to the Skinners’ School at Tunbridge Wells for his high school years. Skinners’ was very similar to Yardley Court, as it was an independent school with a strong sporting ethos that originated in 1887. Interestingly, the family choose the Skinners’ School on the basis of its hockey program, as Bob was showing considerable talent in this sport as well. Bob played hockey in the winter months, and cricket in summer. At the age of 14, Bob commenced his senior cricket career by debuting in club cricket in Tonbridge. He was selected in the Kent Colts side, as a opening bowler and middle order batsman.
On leaving school in 1967, Bob obtained a sales position with the company ICI, and used his annual leave when selected to debut for the Kent Second XI. He performed well enough for the XI that Kent invited him to join the staff, and Bob became a professional cricketer in 1968 at the age of 20. He made his first class debut for Kent against Essex at Maidstone. While he had been selected as an all-rounder, Bob himself felt he was a far better batsman than bowler. He underlined this viewpoint by scoring an unbeaten 50 in his first innings.
Over the next two seasons Bob became a regular member of the Kent First XI. He was not performing as well as he would have liked, however, his all-round skills meant that he was an integral member of the Kent limited overs side. In fact, his bowling was probably more impressive at this stage of his career, and was the leading wicket-taker for Kent in one day competitions. It wasn’t just in limited overs games that his bowling came to the fore, as he took 7 for 47 against Sussex in the County Championship bowling predominantly medium paced inswingers. Kent won the County Championship in 1970, and in celebration, Bob was formerly presented with his county cap by Kent stalwart Colin Cowdrey in the final game of the season. Bob’s relationship with Cowdrey was an interesting one, and he undoubtedly leant a great deal from the great batsman.
In an interesting sign of things to come, Bob followed the lead of other county cricketers by wintering in South Africa. He played and coached in Johannesburg, and enjoyed the experience immensely. Bob said that his time in South Africa was of great benefit to his overall game, and he developed an outswinger to counterbalance his natural inswing. He also worked on his batting, which was taking longer to reach the standard he would have desired. Bob’s form for Kent in 1971 and 1972 were solid, without being outstanding, but he was starting to be noticed by the English selectors. He did make his debut for England in a one-day international, however, this selection was largely on the base of his bowling performances. Bob still considered himself a batsman who bowled, and he was finding it increasingly frustrating that he wasn’t putting the runs on the board he would have wishes.
In the early to mid 1970s, Bob was mentioned in dispatches for winter touring parties to India, Pakistan and the West Indies, but he did not do enough to actually gain a position. He continued going to South Africa instead, and worked with legends of the game such as Barry Richards in Natal. Richards was obviously a good influence on Bob, and his batting started to really come into its own. Bob also met his wife Gill in Durban. He returned to Kent for the 1974 season and batted at no. 5 for the first class summer. Bob returned their faith by scoring three first class centuries, but he also bowled well to take 56 wickets.
In 1975, Bob performed even better, scoring over 1,000 runs for the first time, and, more importantly, made his Test debut for England. The Australian team of Ian Chappell were the visiting team that year, and Bob scored an invaluable 71 not out for Kent in their surprise victory over the tourists. This performance saw him selected for the MCC to play Australia, and Bob had a match to remember. He had a fine double of 56 and 85 with the bat, but he also took his first ever hat-trick. Mike Denness, who doubled as the Kent and England captain, was also in the MCC side, and he had the pleasure of telling Bob that he had been picked in the squad for the First Test.
Bob was not picked in the final XI for the First Test, but he did come in for the Second Test at Lords, after England lost the first game. Bob made a useful double of 31 and 33, and also bowled reasonably well. Interestingly, this was not considered enough to keep his place, and Bob was dropped for the Third Test. The English selectors changed their mind again, and returned him to the side for the final test at The Oval. Following a first innings failure with only 5, Bob was under significant pressure in his second innings. He responded magnificently, scoring a very valuable, if somewhat painstaking, 149 from 385 balls. Bob batted for over eight hours, an innings that set a record for the slowest hundred that an Englishman had ever scored against Australia. There was no winter tour for England in 1975/76, and Bob went back to South Africa again. He scored two successive test centuries in the 1977 Ashes, however, this entire series was played under the cloud of Kerry Packer’s cricket revolution
Bob’s decision to join Kerry Packer’s World Services Cricket in 1977 basically finished his test career. He did play again for England after the two parties reached a peace accord, however, like many other batsmen of the era, Bob’s batting appeared permanently affected by the non-stop barrage of fast bowling in Packer cricket. Bob played his last Test at Lord's in 1981, and seeing the writing on the wall, joined the rebel South Africa tour in 1981-2. Bob had a reasonable, but not outstanding international career. He played 19 Tests and six ODIs for England, with three test centuries and an average of just 33.09. His bowling became less effective as his batting improved, but he did gain a reputation as a fine close-in fielder. His three centuries against Australia prior to World Series Cricket remained a highlight, and it is intriguing to consider how his career would have unfolded if he had not signed a Packer contract.
Bob retired from cricket at the age of 36, and with his family formally emigrated to South Africa in 1984. Bob taking up a teaching and coaching role within the Western Province. He kept his links to county cricket, and he started to make a serious reputation as an innovative coach. Warwickshire was the county where he started to become recognised as one of the world’s best coaches. . He was Warwickshire’s director of coaching and achieved a fantastic run of success between 1991 and 1994, with Warwickshire being the dominant force in county cricket. Bob’s success with Warwickshire culminated in their 1994 season, when they won three of the four available trophies.
This success led to international opportunities, and his adopted home of South Africa appointed him as coach in 1994. It was in inspired choice for a team just returned in the international scene, as Bob had both personal test experience to count on, but he also had extensive knowledge of South Africa’s particular circumstances. Bob was seen as one of the first coaches to use of video analysis and computers as a formal coaching aid. He and Hansie Cronje oversaw a very successful period for South Africa, with a 73% win ratio in one day internationals. His contract with South Africa ended after the 1999 World Cup debacle. Bob had always wished to coach England, however, the English position was offered to Duncan Fletcher.
Bob was hired to coach Pakistan in 2004. This position is undoubtedly one of the most difficult in world cricket, however, Bob appeared to be doing a reasonable job in tough circumstances. Bob oversaw Pakistan cricket at a time many infamous incidents occurred. The ball tampering affair in England in 2006 was followed by a physical disagreement with fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar. There were rumblings of discontent within the team, and the relationship between Bob and captain Inzamam appeared to have cooled. The disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign was undoubtedly a highly stressful situation, and this may have been a major factor in his very unfortunate and untimely passing.
Bob was to give up the coaching position with Pakistan after the 2007 World Cup, as he had indicated he had enough of the role. Bob had indicated his desire to one day coach his beloved English team, but sadly this will never be. Bob may not have been a great test match player, however, he was certainly a pioneer and great coach. But more to his credit, everyone had an involvement with him commented on his nature. A true gentleman liked by all - a fitting epitaph for a fine man. Vale Bob Woolmer, you will be missed, but not forgotten.