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Jamaica slaying casts pall on gentleman's sport

March 26, 2007|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

KINGSTON, JAMAICA — Like many of his generation, Ruddy Williams grew up playing cricket on makeshift fields in the nearby countryside, where boys fashioned bats out of coconut branches and made balls from rocks wrapped in rubber bands.

On Sunday he was in the kitchen of the Melbourne Cricket Club, making sure the two teams playing here got plates of rice and curried chicken during the lunch interval. And he was trying to steer conversation away from death and back to the sport known as a gentleman's game.

The investigation of last week's slaying of Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer, found dead in a Jamaica hotel a day after his team suffered an upset that eliminated it from the World Cup, was the talk of the club's bar, Zookie's Lounge.

Officially, Williams is manager of the Melbourne Cricket Club. But by reputation, he is a spiritual compass for cricket. At 66, he's considered an expert on the physical and spiritual aspects of Jamaican cricket.

"Cricket is about talent and character," Williams said. "You look at a man playing cricket and you can assess his heart."

Players, mostly in their early 20s, arrived early for a breakfast of dumplings and bananas before the 10:30 a.m. game. A portable stereo played rap and reggae as they warmed up for the practice match against the team from St. Thomas' parish.

"I saw a couple of the World Cup games," said O'Neil Wright, 30, captain of the St. Thomas team. "But this whole thing with the killing was a shock."

Woolmer's death March 18, which investigators have said was caused by strangulation, touched millions around the world who are following the World Cup, the first to be held in the Caribbean. West Indies, a collection of players from several English-speaking Caribbean islands, have advanced to the second round. A member of the Melbourne Club is among them. The World Cup games are being held on different islands and the next match in Jamaica is a semifinal on April 24.

"What's important about the World Cup to us is that West Indies plays as a regional force that brings us together as Caribbean people," said Jeffrey Mordecai, 52, a vice president of the club. "We're a force in the world's third largest sporting event behind the Olympics and the soccer World Cup."

He expressed sympathy over Woolmer's slaying, as well as a fear here of how it would be seen by the rest of the world.

International speculation over Woolmer's slaying centers on the possibility that he might have discovered evidence of match-fixing or other gambling-related improprieties. Why would anyone kill such a respected and well-known figure, unless there was big money at stake, the thinking goes.

Mordecai said gambling influences had not been a problem in Jamaica because the island's leagues were far from the attention of the sport's big bettors on the Indian subcontinent. Experts of the International Cricket Council, the sport's governing body, are assisting police by reviewing tapes of Pakistan's games, including its defeat by Ireland on March 17.

"It's difficult, if not impossible, to spot cheating that way," Mordecai said. "All of the revelations of match-fixing have been ex post facto, from confessions."

Out on the field, the St. Thomas team was batting and circled by Melbourne fielders for the first innings, which stretched nearly three hours. About two dozen fans ambled in, watching from seats in the patio and the bar.

In the kitchen, Williams, once the club's captain, talked about the sport that gave him his lens on life: Behavior on the field and a person's character are linked.

"You need to be honest with your team and your opponents," said Williams, who named three sons after famous Pakistani players. "These are qualities of cricket, and I've seen employers come look at the conduct of players before they decide to hire them."

Among its lessons, he added: "Cricket taught me to lose. Of course, I want to win during a game. But when there are 30 teams playing, only one will be the champion. I learned how to console myself. That it's not a big thing. Try better next time."

It was a view apparently shared by Woolmer, who told reporters after his team's upset loss to Ireland, "It's only a game."

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