Monday, October 10, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Bob Woolmer, by Hendo

Test Match Sofa's Nigel Henderson (aka Hendo) takes a look back at one of cricket's tragedies in our next part of our continuing series My Favourite Cricketer.

I’m not in the habit of looking into other men’s eyes, but his really were exquisite. The cyan blue of a Caribbean sea, intense and deep, like two gorgeous lagoons. The perfect eyes to watch the ball right onto the bat and then dispatch it with the minimum of effort all the way along the ground to the extra cover boundary or coax it away, languidly, square of midwicket, always with immaculate balance.

That evening in 1975 when he stepped out the back of the Pavilion entrance on to the Oval forecourt after his magnificent match-saving 149 against Australia, was as close physically as I ever got to Bob Woolmer – the 12-year-old me was at the back of a six-deep crowd surging forward for autographs that police tried to part to allow him through to his sponsored car – but I wasn’t desperate for his signature. I just wanted to see him at short range and the fact that I did, and momentarily stared into those liquid eyes, must have left its mark for me to remember it more than 36 years after the event.

What I needed confirmed by looking into his eyes was not just his ability as a batsman but a sign of his kindliness – why it was important to me that my sporting heroes were also decent human beings perplexes me probably just as much as it does you; I don’t need that now – and that brief moment was enough to convince me. (I was glad to see, more than three decades later, that in the outpouring of grief after his tragic death in Jamaica, his basic decency was something that those who played with and against him and reported on his deeds were united in communicating).
I can’t remember when I first saw Robert Woolmer play, but it was natural that I should warm to him because, although brought up only a few Tube stops from the Oval, Kent were my side then. Call it glory-hunting, jumping on the bandwagon or whatever, that successful team of the early 70s was just a treat to watch. There were the stars for sure – Asif Iqbal, a demon between the wickets, as nippy and as lithe as James Taylor is today, Alan Knott, quite simply the world’s best wicketkeeper batsman of many an era whatever Rodney Marsh might have to say about that, Bernard Julien, the left-arm quick with a dashing approach to batting in the lower order, and Deadly Derek (need I say more) – but even the journeymen of the team stood out: David Nicholls, the roly-poly left-hand opener, Norman Graham, the gangling giant of an opening bowler and defintive No 11, and the genial all-rounder John Shepherd, probably the blackest man I had ever seen.

And among them, boyish, without a trace of arrogance and seemingly at ease in his own skin, Bob Woolmer, a sprightly medium pace bowler first and foremost but who showed enough promise with the bat to score an unbeaten fifty at No 7 on his county debut in 1968.

And it was his batting to which I was most attracted and for which I remember him most. I had to rake back through the cricketing archives to discover when he really made the leap from lower-middle order to the top of it, but it seems he was being auditioned for the move as early as the start of the 1971 season, when he batted at No 3 in the champion county’s traditional opening fixture against the MCC at Lord’s. Natal must have seen something in that classic technique that I grew to love, giving him the chance to bat at four or five in the Currie Cup during the winter of 1973-74 and the following summer Kent followed suit. When he finally made the England side, in 1975, it was on the back of two fine batting performances for Kent and the MCC against the touring Australians (a hat-trick in the second of those matches couldn’t have harmed his chances, either).

Opening for England eventually came by default, a year later. He had been used sporadically in that position in the summer by Kent and when that season’s international series against the West Indies had repelled the claims of Barry Wood, John Edrich, Brian Close and Mike Brearley, the selectors remembered his defiance from the Oval a year earlier, and asked him to step into the breach alongside David Steele.

How to describe his approach? He wasn’t spectacular and he wasn’t merely solid. This was an era long before the bludgeoner with a 3lb bat. He was a touch player, who stroked the ball even when it was propelled at him in violent fashion, and I so loved his style that I for several years was addicted to the Gray-Nicholls willow that he used.

And he was calm. My other abiding memory is from 1977’s Benson and Hedges Cup final against Gloucestershire. Wickets were falling all around him as Mike Proctor – inspired by his fans’ chants of “Kill, kill, kill” as he ran up – and Brian Brain ripped away the supporting cast of Clinton, Rowe, Asif and Ealham. But he pushed on until, on 64, he chipped a ball effortlessly off his legs and Julian Shackleton, at deep square leg right in front of me in the Grandstand, hardly had to move to take the catch.

I was bemused. He had timed the shot so well, and with such little apparent effort, I reasoned that he could, if he’d wanted, given it just the touch more leverage it required to send it spiralling over Shackleton’s head. Flawed genius, then? It was certainly the most graceful shot I had seen that had brought a wicket.

That season was probably his most successful in Test cricket; he hit 79, 120 and 137 in consecutive innings against Australia, but then he was lured away by Kerry Packer. How did I feel about that? Disappointed? Betrayed? Both probably. It felt like a talent not completely fulfilled.

When he returned to play for England at the beginning of the 1980s, he wasn’t the same, and there was a sense of disappointment again when he lined up for the South Africa rebel tour.

But I forgave him, never fell out of love with Woolmer, nor his eyes. I was delighted when he became such a successful coach – it felt as if that unfulfilled playing talent was finding another appropriate outlet. And a man was getting his due.

The day he died is etched unpleasantly on my brain: I was at my terminal on The Times sports desk, when news came through on Sky Sports that he had been taken to hospital unconscious. I was sickening for pneumonia myself, so that may add to the toxicity of my memory, but something told me he was not going to get better. Within half an hour, it seemed, the announcement that he had not made it came through. The sadness went deep to my stomach. He was only 57; what else might he have achieved. Those gorgeous blue eyes had looked out upon a cricket field for the last time.

Hendo's written these highly-recommended works.  Take a look,they're awesome reads.

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