Cricket Murder Reveals Game's Ills

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Asim Tanveer / Reuters

Pakistani students light candles to pay tribute to Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer in Multan, Pakistan, March 20, 2007.

Like a classic whodunit, the case of Pakistan's murdered cricket coach Bob Woolmer remains unsolved, the tension slowly building as police methodically investigate the crime. But at the same time, like the best novels in the murder-mystery genre, the Woolmer case is less compelling for the banal details of the evil act than for what it reveals about the cricket playing world.

Plainly, there is something rotten in the state of a game once deemed so noble that it supposedly embodied the great civilizational virtues by which Britain claimed the right to rule over others.

The known facts of the case are relatively simple: Woolmer was found naked and dead in his hotel room in Jamaica, and the cause of his death turned out to be strangulation — although police are investigating whether he may have been poisoned, as well. The murder occurred during a high-profile event in which the victim was in the international spotlight, and it followed hours after a humiliating defeat for his team. The fact that police believe he would have known his killers (because there was no sign of forced entry or robbery) has narrowed the range of suspects and motives. The fact that police have security camera tapes of people who used the elevator to get on and off Woolmer's hotel room floor on the night of his murder may further narrow the pool of suspects. Still, says Jamaica's Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Shields, a former Scotland Yard detective leading the investigation, no prime suspect has yet to be identified.

Even before police announced that Woolmer's death had been the result of foul play, former Pakistan bowler Sarfraz Nawaz publicly proclaimed not only that Woolmer had been murdered, but also charged that he had been killed in order to protect the ongoing scourge of match-fixing. Sarfraz accused a number of Pakistan players of being involved in betting, and suggested that the team's lackluster performances against the West Indies and Ireland had been more sinister than simply a failure of technique on match day. Pakistani cricket officials angrily rejected such allegations.

Once the cause of death was confirmed, allegations of match-fixing filled the media of much of the cricket world as a number of insiders — former players and coaches — added their voices to suggestions that Woolmer's death was a symptom of corruption at the heart of the game. To be sure, hundreds of millions of dollars are reportedly wagered on cricket matches in South Asia, creating a huge incentive for gambling syndicates to find ways of manipulating outcomes. Although Pakistan's team spokesman Pervez Mir denounced the match-fixing allegations as a distraction from the murder investigation, it's a line of inquiry the Jamaican police are certainly taking seriously, as demonstrated by the fact that the murder investigation is working with the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit of the International Cricket Council.

A major international match-fixing scandal exposed in 2000 had lifted the lid on the seamy underside of a game on which betting syndicates linked to organized crime in South Asia made millions of dollars. And in the wake of Woolmer's death, a number of former players alleged that the 2000 inquiry had merely scratched the surface, and left the game still in the clutches of the betting mafias. Former South Africa captain and Woolmer associate Clive Rice said Woolmer had previously shared with him extensive information about players and officials involved in match-fixing. Rice had "absolutely no doubt" that the Pakistan coach was killed because he knew too much.

Speculation over match-fixing inevitably — if unjustifiably — placed the Pakistan team under a cloud of speculative suspicion, particularly after each member had been interviewed by detectives and had been asked to provide fingerprints and DNA samples. But Shields made clear the Pakistan squad, which left Jamaica last Saturday, are not regarded as suspects in the case. "All of them are witnesses," says Shields. "The reason why it took so much time is that we had to obtain statements from all of them. They were all with Bob in one form or another during the afternoon of the match, and indeed on the way back on the bus, and then of course at the hotel... So, we questioned all of those players and anybody else that was in contact with Bob on Saturday evening to Sunday morning."

The murder investigation is proceeding methodically, and Shields is confident that it will sooner or later discover the guilty party. But whatever the identity and motive of the killer or killers, the Woolmer murder-mystery will leave in its wake an overriding fear that the great game of cricket is being strangled by forces not visible on the pitch.

With reporting by Siobhan Morrissey/Kingston