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March 22, 2020

The man who saw tomorrow — IV

Sports

March 22, 2020

It was over a dinner during that 2003 World Cup that Woolmer established the most important part of his legacy. After Namibia had threatened to upset England in Port Eliza­beth, he and Eade set out to answer a simple qu­e­stion: how could the Associates become better?

“The interesting question that I remember asking Bob is, ‘Do you think you can become a really great one-day player without ever having played four-day cricket?’ He was quite strong in thinking that you couldn’t. He thought four-day cricket was where you would learn a lot of the whole craft, both mentally and technically, that would allow you then to be a great one-day player.”

Out of this belief was born the ICC Intercontinental Cup, the first-class competition for Associate nations. Launched in 2004, it was designed primarily to improve Associates in one-day cricket, yet Woolmer’s vision went further. “Bob was convinced that some of the Associates had the potential to take on the Full Member in ODIs and eventually in Test matches,” says Ehsan Mani, president of the ICC from 2003 to 2006.

Woolmer outlined his vision in interviews during and after the 2003 World Cup. “I don’t think we have scratched the surface, in terms of what we can achieve,” he declared. He envisaged the Intercontinental Cup functioning as the second division of Test cricket, and advocated two leagues of eight teams, with promotion and relegation. His ambition extended to the teams who didn’t qualify for the 2003 World Cup. “He told us we (Scotland) could play Tests one day,” Tennant recalls.

Underpinning everything Woolmer did was the belief that cricket need not arbitrarily limit itself to a select coterie of nations, but that the game could expand, just as football had done several decades earlier — no African nation won a match in the football World Cup before 1978, and only one Asian country did before 1994. Woolmer “certainly did not accept the status quo”, says Malcolm Gray, ICC president from 2000 to 2003, who credits him with raising not only Associates’ performances but also their profile and importance within the ICC. Woolmer championed two changes that were introduced after he left the job: expanding ODI status to 16 nations, and increasing the size of the 2007 World Cup to 16 teams. The role of High Performance Manager was not merely a stopgap in between Woolmer’s other jobs. Immediately after the 2003 World Cup, he turned down the job of Sri Lanka coachto remain in his ICC role, signing a new two-year contract. It was also a reflection of how impressed the ICC was with his work. “Bob developed plans for each of the countries and identified countries that had potential to challenge Full Members,” Mani remembers.

Woolmer had even spoken about remaining in his post longer than 2005, but then a vacancy as Pakistan coach opened up. The opportunity was too alluring. “Despite his high ideals, he yearned to be back at the highest level and working with the best players who had the talent to implement his thinking on the biggest stage,” says his friend Burns. In 2004 the ICC reluctantly gave Woolmer exemption to leave before the end of his contract.

Yet Woolmer remained a friend of Associate cricket. While it became fashionable to denounce the presence of 16 teams in the 2007 World Cup — the editor’s notes in Wisden 2006 warned it was “wrecking the game” — in an interview to the Scotsman, Woolmer pronounced himself “all for the expansion of the game worldwide”. In that World Cup, Pakistan, coached by Woolmer, met Ireland, one of the teams he had nurtured. “Ireland are probably the best of the Associates,” Woolmer said in a television chat on the morning of the game. “The ICC wants an Associate nation to cause an upset. I just hope it’s not us.”

When Ireland toppled Pakistan the irony was unmistakeable. In the agonising moments after defeat, Woolmer sought out Niall O’Brien, who had made a magnificent 72. “He just said, ‘Really well played — that was a special innings,’” O’Brien recalls. “I was touched by that in such a tough moment for him.” Even in defeat, Woolmer reaffirmed his commitment to growing the sport. “I’m fully in favour of 16 teams. Playing against such teams can be a banana skin, and you saw that today, with Bangladesh beating India as well. I think you can say that March 17, 2007 will be a historic day for cricket.”

To be continued