The truth, as any follower of the game will tell you, is that cricket is neither gentle nor even that noble these days. Over the past decade international cricket has been shaken by a series of scandals match fixing, doping, illegal bowling actions (a cricket ball must be delivered with a straight arm; a bent elbow as in baseball's pitching action is impermissible) that have sandpapered away much of the honor and decency that the game once embodied.
Unsurprisingly, money has played a big part in the change. The game is now worth billions of dollars in advertising and television rights, especially in South Asia where cricket stars have become spokesmen for everything from sports shoes to banks. Money in sport isn't a bad thing; the more serious damage has been done by the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on illegal betting on cricket matches. Ahead of Friday's game between India and Sri Lanka, for instance, one Indian newspaper reports that bookmakers in Dubai alone have taken in some $23 million. All that money creates a compelling incentive for match-fixing.
And the suspicion of match-fixing fuels some of the speculation surrounding Woolmer's murder: that the former England player was killed to prevent him blowing the lid on the game's continuing cancer. Pakistan has certainly been linked to match-fixing scandals in the past. Outspoken Pakistani batsman Qasim Omar has long maintained that he was bribed to deliberately get himself out during the 1983-84 Pakistan-Australia series. A decade later, three Australian players publicly alleged that Salim Malik of Pakistan had offered them money to lose a match. Malik denied the allegation. Then, in 2000, police in the Indian capital New Delhi intercepted a telephone conversation between an illegal bookmaker and South African captain Hansie Cronje in which the two discussed how much Cronje would make if he threw a match. Cronje subsequently admitted a long series of transgressions and fingered Indian players Mohamed Azharuddin and Ajay Sharma, as well as Pakistan's Malik. Following a wider investigation, all four were banned for life.
Despite claims by the International Cricket Council that it has eradicated match-fixing, suspicions persist that the practice continues. After Cronje died in a small plane crash in South Africa in 2002, some people saw the hand of South Asian organized crime at work. Former Pakistan fast bowler Sarfraz Nawaz alleged to reporters earlier this week that one of South Asia's bookmaking mafia rings is probably behind Woolmer's murder. Sarfraz claims bookies were manipulating results, and that five members of the Pakistani squad were involved. The team's spokesman, Pervez Mir, angrily dismissed Sarfraz's allegations, telling a Pakistani paper, "There is no match-fixing going on within this team, there is no indication of that at all."
Woolmer, who died only hours after his team lost to rank outsiders Ireland in a match that effectively eliminated Pakistan from the competition, had been working on a book that some Pakistani and Indian commentators have speculated would expose match-fixing within the team a notion that Woolmer's co-author says is nonsense.
It's quite possible that Woolmer's death, caused according to the pathologist "due to asphyxia as a result of manual strangulation," is completely unrelated to cricket. Jamaica has one of the highest rates of murder in the world. But the hotel the team was staying in was well protected, and Jamaican police say there was no sign of forced entry. They have fingerprinted and questioned Pakistan's players and support staff, as well as hotel staff, and are studying videotapes from the hotel's security cameras. The tragedy of this incredible tale is not only that Woolmer is dead, but that his murderer or murderers may be people he would have felt comfortable admitting to his room.