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A traumatic event

Coach's slaying overshadows cricket World Cup as standouts fall

March 30, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON — Going into it, this year's cricket World Cup seemed a frolicsome stint in which the uninitiated might learn to decipher such Sanskrit as, "Tanmay Mishra was bowled by Paul Collingwood for a duck."

Instead, it's arguably the most traumatized global sporting event since the 1972 Munich Olympics.

With 30 of its 47 days still left, it already had its heart and guts removed.

The heart went when the World Cup became the site of a slaying of a famous, esteemed participant, Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer.

More trivially, the guts went with the shocking ouster of Pakistan and India, the titans that lead the cricket world in the category of most eyeballs for watching matches on TV.

Eight of 16 qualifying teams play on, but the ninth cricket World Cup already has held its maybe-we-should-cancel-this moment, vaguely similar to Munich deliberations of September 1972.

Some sane minds already advocated stopping, as with Munich after Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli Olympians. Other sane minds disagreed, as when International Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage said in Munich, "The Games must go on."

On TV news here in a cricket country, you can see a list of the Super Eight remaining teams, but you also can see a diagram of the 12th floor of the Jamaica Pegasus hotel in Kingston, where housekeepers found Woolmer dead in the late morning of March 18 in Room 374. In a newspaper, you can learn which players also had rooms on the 12th floor, and that it was the third slaying in that hotel in the last year.

Studying the World Cup at its outset, even a neophyte could surmise that in seven Caribbean nations plus the oft-overlooked South American country of Guyana, there would be a group stage with 16 teams, then the "Super Eight" stage, then semifinals (April 24-25) and a final (April 28).

Instead, the stages have been these: First, Pakistan floundered, its lavishly compensated professionals losing even to Ireland's semi-professional part-timers.

Then, outrage in Pakistan.

Then, Woolmer's death at 58 of an apparent heart attack, spawning conspiracy theories and attempted debunking of conspiracy theories.

Then, the news conference four days later, when police ruled Woolmer's death a killing by strangulation. With that came a second wave of theories and guesses and worries about whether Woolmer planned to expose match-fixing, plus explanations of cricket's vast array of wagering options and vast betting volume in the Asian subcontinent. Greg Chappell, the coach of departed India, said he feared for his safety.

Then, just in case anyone still has the stomach, here's the remaining Super Eight: Australia, South Africa, England, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Ireland. Eventual champion: almost surely Australia. Star of the Super Eight thus far: Sri Lanka's Lasith Malanga with his magnificently crazy hair, after his four wickets in four balls (which apparently is really good) in a narrow loss to South Africa.

The octet lacks Pakistan, with its 165 million citizens, and India, with its 1.1 billion citizens and burgeoning economic influence.

The failures of these teams meant there would be no India vs. Pakistan. It would have been one of the most anticipated of all matches, and it gutted the would-be boon from Indian tourists, deflated enormous ad campaigns, shredded TV ratings in India and emboldened Internet artists to send around renditions of Pakistani stars in less remunerated jobs -- fish sellers, chapati bakers, truck drivers.

At the Karachi airport in Pakistan, the Associated Press reported, peeved hecklers berated arriving players with such barbs as, "Shame," "Go to hell," and "Sell lentils!" One fan loudly recommended to a feckless cricketer that he ride around the city on a donkey.

In India, the Indo-Asian News Service reported, fans got haircuts so as to cease mimicking star Mahendra Singh Dhoni. "It is now a disgrace to sport his style," one said. A Times of India story belittled the nation's response as "the national equivalent of an unfortunate tantrum: an irrational, destructive rage at the denial of instant gratification."

Oddly, the first World Cup in one of cricket's natural homes, the Caribbean, began with such hope. Two nights before playing Canada, England's cricketers had a rowdy night out in St. Lucia. They drank like ... many young English people. They flirted with women. They kissed each other.

The vice captain, Andrew Flintoff, soon commandeered a pedal boat at some wee hour like 3 or 4. Ultimately, he capsized. Security guards helped him to shore. He lost his vice captaincy. He got suspended for the Canada match. England drubbed Canada anyway.

And somehow, his home country, even with its penchant for imbibing, worked up a good vitriol at Flintoff -- from the commentariat, anyway. It was quite the spectacle.

It seems long ago.

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