Selected for The Best American Sports Writing 2008
KINGSTON, Jamaica — The body is gone, long since removed, stuffed into a black zip-up bag, chilled to 40 degrees. Lifeless and embalmed.
Yet still the detective is taking pictures.
Actually, he's not taking pictures. He's telling another guy to take pictures, which makes sense, since the other guy is holding a big black camera and the detective is holding a small black notebook. The detective wears dark pants, a dark tie and a white, short-sleeve button-down; he sports a close-cropped, drill sergeant haircut and a tattoo on his right forearm. He says he's from Scotland Yard. Won't say anything else. He studies the room like a cheat sheet, gives orders with an authoritative English accent — the unmistakable voice of a long-abandoned empire — making quick, fastidious notes in his ledger. Shoot over here. Stand under the CCTV cameras. Get this angle. Hovering nearby are five other men, watching intently, all wearing tucked-in short-sleeved shirts of their own. I assume they're detectives as well; pistol handles peek out from their waistbands, little periscopes of deadly intent, and as far as I know, the hotel isn't hosting a handgun convention.
While all of this is going on — the pointing and bulb-flashing and stone-faced milling about — I'm taking pictures of the detectives, trying to act inconspicuous, pretending I'm genuinely interested in the cricket paraphernalia dotting the room, the bronze statue of West Indies legend George Headley and the oil painting of a demonic-looking Sri Lanka bowler and the multicolored national flags of former British colonies hanging from the ceiling like superhero capes on a laundry line. Only I think the detectives see through me because they keep moving out of my digital camera's frame, subtly but unmistakably, and I realize I would make a lousy CIA agent and an even worse paparazzo.
Nobody else in the lobby pays us much mind.
Nobody else pays much mind because the whole irredeemably postmodern scene — a guy taking pictures of a guy taking pictures — isn't unusual. Not anymore. Not here at the Jamaica Pegasus in downtown Kingston, not after everything that has happened, not with the sports talk radio hosts broadcasting live from the plush brown leather love seats and the tabloid reporters bivouacked around the poolside bar and the three uniformed police officers guarding the elevator exit on the 12th floor, where they're up and out of their borrowed ballroom chairs before the polished metal doors even finish sliding open, ready and eager to detain you for questioning, even though you're just looking for the gym. No. The capacity for shock has long since left the building.
These are the facts: On March 18, Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer, a genial Englishman, was found unconscious, likely already dead, in this very hotel, behind the cream-colored door of Room 374. A chambermaid discovered his naked body, slumped on the bathroom floor, between the toilet and the tub, blood and vomit spattered against the white tile walls. Hands and feet turned blue. Woolmer, 58, was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead of undetermined causes; four days later, police changed the cause of death to asphyxia as a result of manual strangulation. Murder. Murder in the Pegasus, where the cops held a news conference, and another half-dozen after that, transforming this otherwise sleepy, marble-tiled waiting area into the epicenter of an international newsquake, concentric rings of breathless rumor and half-substantiated speculation, all radiating out from the biggest and most awful story to hit international cricket since … well, ever.
And yes, just to be clear: We're talking about cricket.
Cricket, the sport of afternoon tea and sliced cucumbers and pristine white outfits. And now, a bona fide murder mystery, where investigators have no named suspects, no clear motive and no certain cause of death. A murder mystery in which all of the above has created a factual and narrative vacuum, filled by a raft of increasingly crazy yet strangely plausible theories, spouted and dismissed and exhumed by fans and reporters and local taxi drivers alike, a deranged yet irresistible game of Clue. A crazy fan in the bathroom with a towel. The Indian mafia with exotic poison. Pakistani Intelligence in league with al-Qaida, financed by Chinese offshore accounts.
Who killed Bob Woolmer? Such is the macabre riddle hanging over the Cricket World Cup, a 16-nation tournament taking place throughout the Caribbean that concludes Saturday with the final in Barbados. How does a cricket coach end up dead in the first place? Such was the question consuming me. After all, I wouldn't be surprised by a boxer dying of a massive brain hemorrhage, or a football player breaking his neck in a violent tackle, or Stephen Jackson getting shot at a strip club. But death by cricket? This was new, and terrible, and potentially very scary, because if cricket isn't safe, what is?
Cricket, spiritual cousin to lawn bowling. Gentility with bats. An unhurried sporting pursuit in which the escapist pleasure lasts not 90 minutes or two halves or four quarters, but for days and days of blissful remove called a Test match, which really seems to be a test of one's socio-economic ability to take an extended intercontinental vacation. Cricket, that enduring Victorian hand-me-down, resolutely fair and mannered, of which noted cricket author and West Indian nationalist/Marxist historian C.L.R. James once wrote, "The British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena, you left behind you the sordid compromises of everyday existence."
Cricket. A harmless country game. Only here is Woolmer's body, stashed in the basement of a Kingston funeral home for weeks, awaiting repatriation to his wife and two sons in South Africa — a process delayed by both a postponed coroner's inquest and one of the largest and most complex investigations in the history of Jamaican law enforcement, an investigation waiting on the results of toxicology tests that have yet to be completed. According to Jamaican authorities, Woolmer may finally head home by the end of the week.
But the mystery surrounding him isn't going anywhere.
And though four Scotland Yard detectives and an Interpol pathologist and the Pakistani detective who headed up the Daniel Pearl case are now on hand to jump-start a whodunit unfolding at the rate of a melting glacier, only one thing seems clear: If Woolmer had been something other than a cricket coach — worked as a BASE jumper, perhaps — he probably would still be breathing.
How could this be? I wanted to know. I needed to know. I had made an entire career out of following games, the better to avoid real life; now, real life was intruding in the most horrific way possible, the most unexpected way possible, in the form of very real, sordid death. One that compelled me to catch a flight to Antigua, and then Jamaica, in order to poke my nose into a strange and unfamiliar world.
A world — and a sport — that can kill.
They don't call them 'fanatics' for nothing
A deranged fan. A deranged fan did it. Distraught, inconsolable, enraged that Pakistan has just crashed out of the tournament by losing to Ireland — the international cricket equivalent, I'm told, of the Seattle Seahawks falling to a slightly above-average high school football team — and in the mood for vengeance.
It wouldn't be hard. Just go to the Pegasus. Wait for the team bus to return from nearby Sabina Park Stadium, where the Irish fans are probably still making merry at the party stand, dancing and grinning and getting sloshed — it is St. Patrick's Day, after all — and where a Pakistan side ranked No. 4 in the world has just laid an egg the size of Humpty Dumpty, losing to an Irish side largely composed of part-time players. Let the dazed Pakistani pros and their deflated coach slouch into the lobby, mingle with fans and officials, soak themselves in a warm bath of commiserative nods and get-'em-next-times. Be still. Watch. See Woolmer head upstairs, early, around 7:30, leaving behind the self-described worst day of his coaching career, apparently making good on a postgame news conference promise to sleep on his future as Pakistan's skipper.
Now stop. Wait. Bide your time. Let it get late, quiet, calm. Slip into the elevator, hit the plastic button for the 12th floor. Walk down the hall. Knock on Woolmer's door. Show him a jersey, a hat, a program. Ask for an autograph.
Grab his throat.
So goes one of the murder scenarios, one I initially dismissed as preposterous, in a bad Wesley Snipes/Robert De Niro flick sort of way. But then … well, then I start reading the papers.
Dateline, India: Following a loss to Sri Lanka, a cricket fan in Bilihar dies of a heart attack.
Dateline, Pakistan: A senior politician calls for the national cricket program to undergo "major surgery." Sans anesthetic.
Dateline, India: A loss to Bangladesh prompts a 17-year-old fan in the Samastipur district to die of shock, while irate fans attack the home of star Mahendra Dhoni.
Suddenly, the Cameron Crazies seem like dilettantes. Surfing the Web, I come across the story of Mahadeb Swarnakar, 28, a cricket fan from Shaktinagar, a village 60 kilometers north of Calcutta. Swarnakar wanted to watch the India-Sri Lanki match on a neighbor's color television; his wife wanted him to watch at home, on a black-and-white set. They fought. He hanged himself.
His wife tried to do the same, only the rope broke.
Here's the truly batty part: Nobody I meet finds any of the above disturbing. Or even particularly noteworthy. They don't even find it ironic, never mind that the official World Cup theme song is titled "The Game of Love and Unity." Woolmer's murder? Horrible, terrible, yes yes. A very great tragedy, of course. Absolutely not cricket. But the obsessive passion that may have led to his murder? Cricket all the way.
In my hotel's lobby bar, I share a drink with Ashish Panjabi and Deveinder Singh, a pair of middle-aged cricket fans, mild-mannered as can be. Until we talk World Cup. Panjabi gives me an earful — about spoiled, uninspired players, money-grubbing corporate sponsors, cynicism and corruption. He's simultaneously salient and unhinged; he ought to be drowning out the Sri Lankan equivalent of Woody Paige on a Southeast Asian version of "Around the Horn." The whole time, he's only drinking water, not buzzed in the slightest.
Singh sits and smiles, nodding intently. I ask Panjabi a simple question: Why would anyone hang themselves over cricket?
"Cricket is a religion," he says. "You're born and bred into it. For your whole life."
I can't relate. Not in the slightest. I mean, sure, I love college basketball as much as anyone, and probably detest Duke more than most. Yet even in my pettiest, most spiteful moments — read: any time one of those annoying armed-for-life AmEx ads comes on — I've never wanted to literally whack Coach K, leaving him vomit-drenched and blue on a bathroom floor.
On the other hand, Woolmer's still dead, and a fan might be to blame. So I go to a game.
New Zealand versus Bangladesh. Second round. The gleaming new Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua, halfway between the airport and the capital city of St. John's, beneath a hazy, sun-splashed sky, buffeted by a steady tropical breeze. Twenty minutes from anywhere, just like every place else on the island.
Women on the grass in tank tops. Shirtless men in slathered-on sunscreen. Concession stands selling vodka and champagne. The smell of coconut oil. I see Aussies in Milwaukee Bucks caps — a nod to Andrew Bogut, I suppose — and West Indies kids dressed like extras in a rap video. On the north stand concourse, the tournament mascot — some sort of neon-orange ferret — poses with fans for pictures.
I turn my attention to the field, the better to see what I've been missing. Answer: not much. Cricket is languid. Much like baseball, but on Quaaludes. Everything takes an eternity, especially the at-bats, which play out like Paul O'Neill working the count in hell's softball league. I fixate on a New Zealand fielder, a guy named Bond. Black shirt, black pants, black hat, black wraparound shades. He's dressed to fight high-tech vampires. Standing in the equivalent of deep left field, he's basically removed from the action; during the 20 minutes I watch him, not a single ball comes his way.
Still, he fidgets. Swings his arms. Claps his hands. Crouches on every bowled ball, staring intently at the batter, alert as a fire alarm. Ready to move. And here, I realize, is the sport in a nutshell: a game of perpetual focus, not wham-bam fireworks, a game akin to a candle in an empty wine bottle, perfectly attuned to slow-burn obsession.
Thwack! Swinging from a one-legged crouch, a Bangladeshi batsman uppercuts a six, the equivalent of a home run. The ball arcs over the left-field fence, a crazy quilt of sponsor signs, landing in the party stand area, near the in-stadium swimming pool. The crowd erupts — only not for Bangladesh.
Turns out the place is full of India fans from Dubai, England and New Jersey, great big groups of partisans, clad in the national team's distinctive baby blue jerseys. They all bought tickets months ago, assuming India would reach the tournament's second round; when the squad bombed out — a failure as stunning as Pakistan's — they decided to come anyway, in part because the $100 game tickets are nonrefundable, in part because, well, they're still playing cricket, and cricket is a hell of a drug.
It's also a national identity. Under British rule, cricket was the one arena where the subjugated natives could be equal — even ass-kickingly superior — to their imperial overlords; throughout the West Indies, the sport helped inspire national independence movements.
Today, cricket remains intensely political. When India and Pakistan meet, the games recall Clausewitz's definition of politics: war by other means. In both nations, government officials manage the national team: In India the dropping of the last national team captain was debated in Parliament; in Pakistan, the entire cricket apparatus serves at the pleasure of chief patron President Pervez Musharraf. (Not surprisingly, fans hate this. Imagine Nancy Pelosi sticking Jason Kapono on the USA Basketball roster, to curry votes with UCLA alumni.) A few years ago in England, conservative pol Norman Tebit famously suggested Asian immigrants be subjected to a loyalty "cricket test" — as in, do they root for England and if it not, give 'em the boot.
The game of love and unity, indeed.
Later that evening, I catch an Irish newscast. The subject is Woolmer. The footage is old, recorded just hours after Pakistan's loss sent pubs across the planet into delirium. Only I don't see any joy. I see the good people of Pakistan, born and bred into cricket, take to the streets, burning effigies — a practice usually reserved for the Great Yankee Satan himself, George W. Bush — screaming and chanting, Woolmer murdabad! Woolmer murdabad!
Death to Bob Woolmer.
A long history of corruption — and worse
A match fixer. A match fixer did it. A bookie from Dubai. A gangster from Karachi. Somebody somewhere who lost a bundle. Somebody somewhere with even more to lose. Emerging from a safe house, armed with ever-shifting cell phone numbers, materializing from the shadows of the vast subcontinental sports gambling syndicates like a crocodile from a muddy swamp. Reptilian. Single-minded. Because Woolmer, see, he must have known. Known about the payoffs, the pregame calls to the players, the subtle little fixes that no one ever sees, the suspicious movements in the Mumbai betting markets a month before the Ireland-Pakistan game. The endemic corruption that has long bedeviled the sport. Must have known too much, must have been ready to talk, perhaps in one of his forthcoming books, perhaps with a quiet, behind-the-scenes phone call. And even if he didn't know, he could've known, and if you step back and do the math, the mere possibility is more than enough.
Enough for Woolmer to be silenced.
Silenced like Hanif "Cadbury" Kodvavi, once Pakistan's top bookie, linked to disgraced cricket star Salim Malik, found dead in Johannesburg in 1999, reportedly shot 67 times — and, for good measure, hacked into pieces. Or silenced like former South African captain Hansie Cronje, cricket's fallen angel, the God-fearing, born-again Christian who took money from bookmakers, confessed to a judge, earned a lifetime ban, triggered an ocean-spanning slew of scandals and investigations and died in a mysterious 2002 plane crash.
Cronje, who once played for Woolmer.
Again, it wouldn't be hard. Sip some tea at the Pegasus cafe, right next to the hotel lobby. Nibble on a croissant. Let Woolmer head upstairs, order room service, a last meal of lasagna. Let him open his laptop, e-mail his wife, Gill, around 3 a.m., vent his depression and disbelief at the Ireland loss. Let him send a second message to Pakistani cricket board chairman Nasim Ashraf, announcing his immediate resignation as coach, his intention to return home to Cape Town, where he plans to open a cricket academy.
Make your move. Room 374. Tap the door. Talk your way inside. Grab a towel. Wrap it around Woolmer's throat.
Make sure he never speaks again.
In the shaded yellow seats of Viv Richards Stadium's north stand, K. Phillip Kutty, a friendly Indian man with soft, rounded features, asks me what I know about Woolmer's murder.
I give him an honest answer: not bloody much.
"The people behind it, it's the mafia," he says, eyebrows lowering like a garage door. "It's 100 percent a pre-planned murder. Any other excuse for it is bulls—-. It's the mafia, the millions in money pouring in."
Kutty turns his head, points over his right shoulder. A pudgy man in a tan T-shirt and a gray baseball cap, part of Kutty's group, sits one row back and four seats down. He's wearing headphones, which appear to be plugged into some sort of PDA. He watches the game intently, making careful notes on a flip pad.
"That guy," Kutty says, "he's betting in England right now."
Three things to know about cricket gambling: first, it's huge. Dubai bookmakers took in a reported $25 million on a World Cup match between India and Sri Lanka, and some experts estimate that as much as $1 billion can be bet globally on a single game. Second, much, if not most, of that wagering is illegal, because India and Pakistan forbid gambling for religious and moral reasons. So organized crime controls all the action, sometimes violently so. Third, cricket punters (the English term for bettors) can wager on just about anything: the winning team, run totals, starting lineups, even if the first ball bowled will be wide. Would you put money on Steve Nash's first assist coming on a two-handed chest pass? No? Then don't even think about betting on cricket.
All of this makes the sport pathologically vulnerable to fixing. Getting most of the players on a team to throw a game, a la the Black Sox, is hard; getting a single player to bowl one ball wide or pass inside lineup information is fairly trivial. Between 1999 and 2001, cricket was rocked by a series of fixing scandals. By the time the International Cricket Council's newly formed anticorruption unit released a comprehensive report at the end of 2001 — a 77-page document containing allegations of kidnapping, murder and fixing dating back to the 1970s — Pakistan had banned Malik for life, India had done the same to former team captain Mohammad Azharuddin and fellow star Ajay Sharma, Cronje had given South Africa a black eye, and Australian stars Shane Warne and Mark Waugh were found to have accepted money from an Indian bookie in exchange for inside information during a 1994 tour of Sri Lanka.
In 2003, former London police commissioner Paul Condon — author of the ICC report and the first head of the anti-corruption unit — declared cricket to be virtually free of match fixing. Shortly thereafter, Kenyan captain Maurice Odumbe was suspended five years for taking money from Indian bookie Jagdish Sodha, a man previously accused of trying to bribe English players to underperform.
Unsurprisingly, Condon's most recent speech on the topic struck a different chord. Speaking in the British House of Lords just weeks before Woolmer's death, Condon warned against endemic fixing and corruption, links to the mafia and terrorism, then dubbed the problem a "spreading cancer."
Had the cancer metastasized? James Fitzgerald, an ICC spokesman and former Irish cricket journalist, agreed to speak on the condition we not discuss the Woolmer investigation. Fitzgerald was surprisingly candid, in a way that only someone who won't discuss specifics can be. The vast sums bet on cricket? Potentially problematic, no question. But also a sign of the sport's relative health. "It indicates interest," he said. "It indicates that a large percentage of people have faith in cricket."
Fitzgerald has a point: There's a lot of fiscal faith in cricket these days, and not just on the part of punters. Thanks to a fortuitous confluence of fan passion, television and the booming economies of Southeast Asia, cricket is enjoying a financial Big Bang. To wit: Sky Sports and ESPN recently partnered to pay a reported $1.1 billion for ICC broadcast rights for the next eight years, and an ICC that reportedly had a $150,000 deficit in 1992 is expected to earn a $239 million profit on the current World Cup.
The sport's nouveau riche reality is visible on the sponsor signs ringing the Viv Richards Stadium outfield: Visa, LG, Johnnie Walker. It's evident at the ticket and concession stands, where a shaded seat goes for $100 and a bottle of Gatorade costs $8. It even pops up along the narrow, winding island road that leads from downtown St. John's to the stadium, where Pepsi billboards proclaiming We Love West Indies Cricket — only featuring India star Sachin Tendulkar — share space with handmade signs promoting a local "Gals Garn Wild" show taking place right … after … the game!
Maybe this is the way of modern sports: Stoke fan passion and disposable income like particles in a nuclear reactor, generating a chain reaction of light, heat and revenue. All the while, hope the whole thing doesn't go Three Mile Island.
Andrew Miller, who writes for the Web site Cricinfo, tells me about Cronje, and how Woolmer — then South Africa's coach — defended his captain to the last. Even though Cronje planned his fixes in the team dressing room, right in front of the teenage attendants, and later said it was all so easy it bored him.
"We all have a gut feeling fixing goes on," Miller says. "Trying to stamp it out is like trying to stamp out breathing. Think about it: you're only a sportsman for 10 years. You come from a poor country, a poor family, from a place not rooted in the traditions of cricket. I can almost understand."
Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq and assistant coach Mushtaq Ahmed were both fined as a result of the same match-fixing investigation that brought down Malik. West Indies star Marlon Samuels was allowed to play in the World Cup despite links to an Indian bookmaker. Woolmer's friends and family insist that he knew nothing, that his forthcoming books — one a coaching manual, the other autobiographical — contain no bombshells. Could he really have been naive? About Cronje and all the rest? Miller fidgets in his seat.
"Not to speak ill of the dead — I knew Bob and he was a very nice man — but he must have known more," he says. "At least more than he let on."
A very trusting man
Unless he didn't. Unless his love of cricket left him blind to the sport's larger sins. True story: When the English national team toured Pakistan in 2005, Woolmer noticed that a player he once coached in English domestic cricket, Ian Bell, had a small flaw in his batting grip. Bell wasn't expected to play against Woolmer's Pakistan squad, so the coach told his former pupil about the problem.
Injuries subsequently forced Bell into the English lineup. He finished as the team's leading scorer.
"That's the kind of man Bob was," says Vic Marks, a former English national team player and a cricket writer with the British newspaper the Observer. "A very trusting man. In South Africa, he was in the same locker room as Cronje, and he was as stunned by everything as everyone else. That leads you to think there was a naivety there. Otherwise, you start to get conspiratorial."
Marks played against Woolmer in English cricket; as a journalist, he came to know the man behind the competitor. During Pakistan's tour of England last summer, he met Woolmer in Canterbury for a short chat, that mushroomed into a 2-hour discussion of cricket and life.
"He was so good at the intimate details of the game," Marks says. "Maybe he didn't always see the bigger picture."
Born in India to English parents — his father put a bat and ball in his crib — Woolmer learned the game playing for Kent, in a rhododendron-strewn setting Marks likens to the Garden of Eden. Woolmer's mentor was Colin Cowdrey, a former ICC president and England captain, widely considered one of the game's great sportsmen. By 1976, Woolmer had established himself as a talented, well-liked, almost archetypal English player, a Cricketer of the Year and leading candidate for a future national team captaincy.
That never happened. In 1977, Woolmer became the youngest of six English players to join World Series Cricket, a rival to traditional international Test matches, sponsored by an Australian tycoon during a fight over television rights. The seeming cash grab — very not cricket — made Woolmer a near-pariah. He further sullied his professional reputation four years later, playing in a controversial apartheid-era tour of South Africa, which was under sanctions. Woolmer insisted before an English cricket board that he was doing it to promote interracial harmony. He never played for England again. In 1984, he retired from the sport with a back injury, then immigrated to South Africa to coach high schoolers in Cape Town's poor, black townships.
Woolmer returned to England three years later, coaching at Kent and then at Warwickshire, where he pioneered the use of a seldom-used reverse sweep shot that has since become a cricket staple. Subsequently appointed coach of the South African national team, Woolmer introduced laptop computers and detailed statistical analysis to the sport — think "Moneyball" — and during the 1999 World Cup outfitted Cronje with a radio earpiece, a practice that has since been banned.
Woolmer was successful in both places — South Africa fell just short of the '99 World Cup final — but also presided over controversy: Rumors of widespread recreational drug use dogged the Warwickshire locker room, and the Cronje affair was a huge blow to international cricket. His tenure in Pakistan, where he lived alone in a small Lahore apartment, was marked by more of the same: Woolmer pushed the nation's cricket board to begin drug-testing, a move that resulted in two of his best bowlers being banned for steroid use; over Woolmer's objection, the team refused to take the field after being accused of ball-tampering during a game against England last year, earning an unprecedented international forfeit (Pakistan was later cleared of the charge); unconfirmed reports suggest Woolmer had a hard time relating to a religious faction within the squad, led by Inzamam, that practiced a conservative form of Islam.
A trusting man. With a talent for pissing people off.
"To take on Pakistan is a real challenge as a coach," Marks says. "You have lots of talent, but it is all enmeshed in politics. And on a personal level, it was a huge sacrifice. But again, Bob showed his unconventional streak."
Marks can't shake the feeling that Woolmer's death is somehow entwined with the sport he loved, a sport gone quietly mad, in which one of Woolmer's favorite phrases on the golf course — the ball's in the lake; nobody died — no longer applies.
"It's such a horrid thing," Marks says with a sigh. "And to seem that it happened as the result of cricket, as opposed to a personal issue — that's remarkably alarming, isn't it? It causes you to question your own game. It's not so daft to say that if Pakistan had beaten Ireland, he would still be alive."
Not so daft. I write this down.
No possibilities ruled out
There's another possibility: Woolmer wasn't murdered. His death was simply a tragic accident. Police say his body showed no obvious outward signs of violence, no telltale red bruises on his neck. His room showed "very little" of the same. No signs of forced entry. His passport and credit cards were found in a drawer. The laptop he forlornly packed into a bag at the end of the Ireland game wasn't taken. Pakistani player Danish Kaneria was staying in an adjacent room. West Indies captain Brian Lara was sleeping across the hall. Both men say they heard nothing — no shouting, no screaming, no wheezing.
Not a sound.
Woolmer suffered from Type 2 diabetes, was under tremendous stress. Unconfirmed reports claim that he had been drinking cotch, that an empty bottle was found in his room. Perhaps he had a seizure, a blackout, lost his footing, fell into the sink or bathtub and fatally injured his neck. Perhaps Woolmer perished after the chambermaid discovered him, when his body was moved and a house doctor and nurse attempted to resuscitate him, when at least six Pakistani players reportedly entered his room, all before he was placed in a diplomatic car and taken to the hospital where doctors pronounced him dead. Perhaps the autopsy, initially inconclusive, was botched. Garfield Blake, president of the Jamaican Association of Clinical Pathologists, says that to go from inconclusive to strangulation is odd, that the two diagnoses are "poles apart."
Or maybe this is all foolish tail-chasing. Maybe Woolmer really was murdered, only he wasn't just strangled. Maybe he was poisoned first. That's the rumor the day before I arrive in Kingston, with a British tabloid claiming police received an anonymous phone tip that Woolmer was murdered with aconite, a nasty little substance that causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of power in the limbs, a slow shutdown of one's internal organs and, finally, death by asphyxiation. Investigators refuse specific comment. But they acknowledge that they've received information about possible poisons.
"I'm sure they have," a British reporter says, voice dripping with sarcastic contempt. "And the call probably came from the reporter who wrote the story."
In two weeks, British papers will report that Woolmer was possibly murdered with snake venom, and that police have identified an unnamed suspect from hotel camera security footage. The cops neither confirm nor deny both stories. But for now, there's only one way to clear everything up: Talk to Deputy Commissioner Mark Shields, the 48-year-old former Scotland Yard cop heading up the investigation. Only Shields isn't talking. Not anymore. Turns out I'm late to the party. One week earlier, before I arrived, Shields gave news briefings in the Pegasus lobby, formal and informal, sometimes more than once a day. He confirmed that Woolmer's body showed no visible signs of life when it was found. That the lack of marks on his neck was "not unusual," given the "circumstances surrounding" Woolmer's death. (Prompting speculation that Woolmer was strangled with towels, which reportedly were found near his body). Shields said that while police believe Woolmer may have known his killer — he was found naked, after all — no motives or scenarios have been ruled out entirely, not even a random stranger coming in off the street to kill Woolmer on a homicidal whim.
Shields also confirmed that police are digitizing and analyzing almost a day's worth of hotel security camera footage, that detectives had looked to question three Pakistani fans linked to the team — two from the United States — in order to clear them from the investigation, that statements, fingerprints and DNA samples were taken from every member of the Pakistani squad, that three members of the team had been questioned a second time before being allowed to leave Jamaica, and that two Pakistani diplomats from Washington, D.C., had been given a tour of the crime scene.
And now? Not a word. Shields' lips are sealed. He's ticked off at the media, and with good reason: While I was in Antigua, the Sunday Mail ran a piece dubbing Shields a "sexy man in a sexy job" and detailing his rather active social life, which apparently includes a 24-year-old fashion designer girlfriend and invitations to all the best cocktail parties. The evening after Woolmer died, the story said, Shields was spotted at a soccer match. In a follow-up report, the paper claimed that Shields planned to take an Easter vacation to London to visit his two sons, a trip Shields subsequently canceled.
"He wasn't too happy with that," says another English reporter.
The assembled English press isn't too happy with the Mail, either: The paper urinated in the pool for everyone else. Is Shields, tall and handsome, less a dogged Jim Rockford than a male Charlie's Angel? I can't say; I never managed to contact him. But I do find it slightly disconcerting that he has a Yahoo! e-mail address on his business card. And I'm told the locals have a nickname for him: Disco Cop.
My first morning in Kingston, I eat breakfast with a local reporter. He describes the political pressure on the Woolmer investigation as intense, almost disruptive: Governments around the Caribbean have largely staked their continuing viability on a successful World Cup; cost overruns, unexpectedly low turnout and Woolmer's death have given opposition parties plenty of campaign ammunition. And locals hate nothing more than "murder in paradise" stories.
Then there's the media mini-invasion, Omaha Beach with expense reports, by turns irritating and comical. One British paper sent four different writers — four! — all looking to scoop their rivals. And, of course, each other.
"Watching them try to avoid each other all week was ridiculous," the reporter says between gulps of fruit juice. "They can't get scoops because there's nothing to scoop. So they've all been here with nothing to do. It's like going to church and not putting money in the tin for these guys."
Chuckling, he asks whether I've seen today's edition of The Sun, probably the most shameless Fleet Street tab. I shake my head.
"They've got pictures of Woolmer's room."
We're sitting next to a window in the Kingston Hilton, just down the street from the Pegasus. Through the glass, you can see the building's 12th floor; I wonder aloud whether a photographer rappelled down the side. The reporter laughs, but I later discover I'm half-correct: The Sun photogs rented a room a few floors above Woolmer's, then used a rope to lower a camera rigged with a 10-second timer.
"It's terrible, isn't it?" marvels Barry Wigmore, a Florida-based reporter with the Daily Mail. "But in a way, you have to admire them."
Barry is right: It is terrible, and you do have to admire them. Because here, writ small, is the full and total awfulness of human ingenuity, the same twisted imaginative power that allows disco cops to solve murders from the scantiest of clues while letting the rest of us play along in the media and at home, one "CSI"-shaming theory at a time. I think back to an Indian cricket fan I met in Antigua, a doctor who once lived in Colorado.
"It's the JonBenet Ramsey case of the Caribbean," he told me. "A lot of finger pointing. But you'll never know."
Which, in turn, means one thing: somebody somewhere is already writing a book about this. And probably shopping the TV movie rights.
He lived — and died — for cricket
They hold a memorial service. Actually, they hold two memorial services. Neither one with Woolmer's body.
The first takes place in a Pakistani cathedral, led by an archbishop, two weeks after Woolmer's death. Players and cricket officials fill the pews. I watch the footage on BBC News: a framed picture of the former coach, smiling, clad in a white team polo shirt, flanked by burning candles. Tears. A moment of silence. The laying of wreaths, one on behalf of President Musharraf. Everything solemn and dignified. Heartfelt. Nothing like a few days earlier, when Pakistani players returning from Jamaica are greeted at Karachi airport by jeering fans, some screaming, "Go to hell!"
A second service. This time in South Africa, attended by Woolmer's friends and family, teary-eyed and still in shock. But also proud. They remember a generous man, a gentle soul, a hero who helped the national team emerge from the shame and poison of apartheid, from two decades of international sanctions, who coached mixed-race boys' teams before almost anyone else would. A man who shook hands with the Queen of England but also worked with children in Cape Town's most downtrodden townships. Allan Donald, a former South Africa player and close friend, reads a statement on behalf of Woolmer's widow Gill and sons Dale and Russell, thanking an entire world of well-wishers for their condolences. Another friend wonders if cricket has now lost its moral compass. Nasim Ashraf, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, announces that an indoor cricket center in Lahore will be named after the coach.
Woolmer, he says, lived cricket. Loved cricket. Died for cricket.
I write this down, too.
A mind-numbing conspiracy theory
Who killed Bob Woolmer? Here's the only conclusion I can draw with any degree of certainty: Hang around cricket long enough — like, say, a week — and you'll end up through the looking glass. Way through the looking glass. Oliver Stone-on-the-Kennedy-assassination territory.
I talk to a Guy. A Guy who knows stuff. A Guy in the information acquisition business. I can't tell you more. Sorry. We meet in the lobby of the Pegasus, at night. I suggest we get a drink. He walks me past the hotel gym, past the poolside bar, past the chatty barkeeps and the tabloid writers downing Red Stripes. We sit at the far end of the pool, on white plastic chairs, in near darkness.
This is what he tells me:
He says Jamaica's ruling political party is gunning for an unprecedented fifth consecutive term, that the current prime minister is widely liked but considered a bit dumb, the current government is counting on the World Cup to help it win the upcoming elections, a sound strategy in a sports-mad nation where high school track meets are shown on prime-time television.
He says Woolmer's murder has shot this all to hell, though, and that the failure to catch his killer, or killers, has added to a growing, widespread discontent with the tournament and the people in charge.
He says Woolmer was definitely murdered. Of this, he has no doubt.
He says he saw a picture of Woolmer's body, there was a mark on Woolmer's neck, on the right side, just below the jaw line, that suggests physical trauma.
He says he's spoken to someone in international intelligence, someone well-placed, and that ever since the United States cut off much of al-Qaida's funding after the Sept. 11 attacks, the terrorist group has used illegal sports gambling in India and Pakistan as a major source of revenue.
He says al-Qaida has ties to Dawood Ibrahim, the Al Capone of India, a man accused of masterminding a 1993 bombing that killed 257 people in Mumbai, a man with ties to the bookmaker allegedly linked to Samuels, a man rumored to have lost millions on the Ireland-Pakistan match.
He says al-Qaida also has ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the former — and some say current — patron of Afghanistan's Taliban.
He says the ISI is intertwined in both the Pakistani government and Pakistani cricket, and that one of the members of the Pakistani cricket team's traveling party is actually an ISI operative.
He says that al-Qaida may have put a lot of money on the Pakistani team, and may have been disappointed in its poor performance. Murderously so.
He says that Woolmer may have found himself between a rock and a hard place, because despite what his friends and family have said, the coach knew about larger-scale corruption and was going to blow the whistle.
He says Woolmer found out that three international umpires were being paid off, and that the ISI had set up offshore banking accounts for them.
He says the bank accounts were financed with Chinese money. I ask why. He doesn't elaborate.
He says he believes the ISI is involved in Woolmer's murder. He says someone in the Pakistan team party knows what happened, and during Pakistan's final World Cup game — against Zimbabwe, after Woolmer's death — a member of the team party was spotted with his feet up, drinking champagne, and the champagne-sipper in question is probably ISI. He says all of the above is why Pakistan dispatched two diplomats to Jamaica.
While mouthing the word "diplomats," he makes air quotes with his hands.
He says the Jamaican police have no suspects and no motive, and yet a coroner's inquest has been scheduled. He says this is a way to drag things out.
He says he does not believe the Jamaican police will solve the case.
He says after Woolmer, the real victim in the case is Jamaica, because this is the World Cup, not a shooting in downtown Kingston, and that the country led newscasts around the planet for two days.
He says the best thing for Jamaicans is for Woolmer's body to leave the country.
He says all this, a jigsaw puzzle without a box, and then he says he has to leave. I close my notebook. My fingers hurt. We shake hands. He heads inside. I turn around, take a last look at the pool, the bar, the half-empty bottles of beer. I want to ask him whether any of this head-spinning madness can possibly be true, whether he grasps the implications of everything said and unsaid, the bigger picture beyond the boundaries of this strange and unfamiliar sport: Cricket is daft because the world is daft, and the truly daft thing about it is that it takes a dead man to notice.
But he's already gone.
Who killed Bob Woolmer?
The detective is gone. The lobby is quiet. No police, no photographers. A few people are watching an England-Sri Lanka game, shown on four televisions scattered around the room. The Brits are totally out of it. I'm sitting on a plush, cream-colored recliner, typing notes into my laptop; across from me sits a man with tree-trunk forearms, arms crossed, facing a television, snoring lightly.
I put on some headphones, zone out. When I open my eyes, I notice that the room is filling up. A group of young Jamaican guys — none older than 25, tops — plops down on the couch next to me. They're watching the game. So are two British writers, who have moved closer to the big-screen TV at the center of the lobby.
England, it seems, is making a comeback.
I don't completely understand how cricket works. Doesn't matter. I take off my headphones. England needs 12 runs to win. They have six balls left. The game is being played in Antigua. On the television screen, I see British fans jumping up and down in the stadium pool; in the stands, Sri Lankan fans are leaning forward in their seats, chins on palms, wide-eyed and nervous. An England batter strokes a hit. The Jamaican guys are clapping, whooping it up. Big shot! Big shot! Perversely enough, they're rooting for Sri Lanka. The British journalists are clapping, too.
Thwack! The run chase is on. Seven runs needed from four balls. Thwack! Five from three. Four from two. One of the British writers stands up, places his hands atop his head. It's too much to bear. Mr. Tree-trunk Forearms is wide awake, sitting up straight as a flagpole. The lobby is full.
Last ball. This is it. The Sri Lankan bowler races toward the wicket, lets the ball go. One hop. The batter swings and misses completely, the ball shattering the little white thingamjig resting atop the three wooden stumps behind him. It's the equivalent of a strikeout. Game over. The Jamaican guys erupt in cheers. The British journalists look heartsick. On the screen, one of the party pool kids buries his face in his hands, sobbing. A beautiful young Sri Lankan girl shakes her hips, dancing around her seat, waving a national flag like a shipwrecked sailor swinging an orange-smoke rescue flare.
Who killed Bob Woolmer? The truth is that no one really knows, and maybe no one will ever know, and the only people who might know aren't saying. Yet take a picture: Right here, right now, none of that matters. For a moment, what matters is the moment, the joy in the lobby and despair in the stadium pool, the fleeting sense of complete and total remove — from toxicology reports and match fixing, coroner's inquests and potentially deadly towels, from the sins of cricket and life itself, the horror of Room 374 and the dark secrets lurking within. All of it a waking nightmare, half-forgotten but lingering, a crime scene photograph stuffed into the junk drawer of our collective dread, yellowing and sinister. The blood and the vomit. The last, silent gasps of a man left to die on the altar of a country game. The sordid compromises of everyday existence we call sport.
Read the original article at ESPN.com