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Slaying of coach rivets the cricket world

After Pakistan's World Cup upset, potential suspects are numerous.

March 25, 2007|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

KINGSTON, JAMAICA — More than a billion fans around the world are rooting for their favorite teams during cricket's World Cup series, but one question unites them.

Who killed Bob Woolmer?

The naked body of Robert Andrew Woolmer, the coach of Pakistan's national team and one of the sport's most famous figures, was found a week ago in a blood-splattered room at the ritzy Jamaica Pegasus Hotel here. Just the day before, his team had been eliminated from the seven-week tournament by upstart Ireland.

Police say he was strangled, probably by someone he knew and possibly by more than one person. Those with a motive for killing the former player include angry fans, losing bettors and members of his team, who have submitted fingerprints and DNA samples.

None so far have been named as suspects, but authorities called in the Pakistan team captain, Inzamam ul-Haq, and assistant coach Mushtaq Ahmed for a second round of questioning as the team prepared to fly home Saturday.

Woolmer, 58, had returned to his room about 7:30 p.m. on St. Patrick's Day, just hours after his team's stunning loss to Ireland. The team's second defeat eliminated Pakistan, a favorite in the tournament, and angered fans. The upset paid 10 to 1.

Woolmer ordered room service and sent two e-mails, including one to his wife, Gill, about midnight, police said.

The next morning, a maid tried to open the door to Woolmer's bathroom and found it blocked by his body. He was pronounced dead shortly after noon at a hospital. His body will remain in Jamaica until the completion of toxicological tests, authorities said.

Whoever killed Woolmer probably was invited into his room, police say. The hotel has a key-card system for rooms and elevators, and Woolmer's upper-floor room showed no signs of forced entry. Hotel security tapes are being reviewed, and police have interviewed employees and guests who were in adjacent rooms.

"It is imperative that we keep an open mind, but I have to say at this stage it looks as if it may be somebody somehow linked to him," Mark Shields, Jamaica's deputy police commissioner and former Scotland Yard investigator, told BBC Radio. "Clearly, he let somebody into his hotel room, and it may be he knew who that person was."

Woolmer had planned to retire, said Nasim Ashraf, chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. Ashraf said he'd received this e-mail from Woolmer the day he died: "I would like to announce my retirement after the World Cup to live the rest of my life in Cape Town," in South Africa.

The killing has cast a shadow over what was planned as a showcase for the nine Caribbean nations hosting the quadrennial World Cup for the first time. Millions of dollars were invested in sprucing up stadiums and bringing the teams of 16 nations.

"What everybody envisioned was a beautiful event that showed off the Caribbean and its people, to show another side of our talents here," said Lee Martell, an engineer who has attended every game played so far by the West Indies team. "The killing was not cricket, as they say."

The game is similar to baseball, with the equivalent of pitchers, batters and fielders. Its rules, customs and strategies, however, remain a mystery to most U.S. sports fans despite its popularity in former British colonies around the world.

"Our fans are not like angry soccer fans," Martell said. "You go to cricket matches to debate and analyze the play. It's a thoughtful game. That's why this is such a shock."

Allegations of match fixing and drug use have marred the sport in recent years. Thrown matches are difficult to detect, even by the most ardent students of the sport. A representative of the anti-corruption unit of the International Cricket Council will review videotapes of Pakistan's losses for signs of cheating, Shields said.

"One of the lines of inquiry is match fixing, and it's best to leave it to the experts," he said. "I love cricket, but I'm no expert. I've asked them, 'Please let me know what you find.' "

Fans regarded the slain man as a straight arrow, an Englishman born in India who grew up in the sport and brought modern coaching techniques to cricket. Last fall he ordered random drug testing for his team, which detected traces of illegal steroids in two of his top players.

Woolmer emerged unscathed from a match-fixing scandal in the late 1990s, while he was coach of South Africa's cricket team. One of his players, team captain Hansie Cronje, was banned from the sport and later died in a plane crash.

The corrupting influence of big-money gambling has set off international speculation about the motive for the slaying.

Woolmer had written a draft of a book that a former player said would expose match fixing. But his widow denied that the draft contained any such revelations, according to a statement released from the family's home in Cape Town.

In Pakistan, news of Woolmer's death made front-page headlines, despite a political crisis that has threatened President Pervez Musharraf's grip on power.

"Was it the bookies? We don't know," said Haider Ali, a shop assistant in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and a fan of Woolmer. "Billions they spend on one match. So maybe it had something to do with them."

Cricket is perhaps the legacy of British rule on the Indian subcontinent that has been embraced with the most passion. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh account for hundreds of millions of fans.

Emotions run high over the outcome of matches. After India lost its match against Bangladesh a week ago, outraged fans attacked the site of a home being built by one of its players.

In 2004, when nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan began peace talks, resumption of cricket competition was a highlight of their detente.

sam.enriquez@latimes.com

Times staff writer Henry Chu in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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