The ‘murder’ of a cricket coach that never was
THE truly bizarre nature of cricket's great "murder mystery'' was summed up by the fact that the player who first solved the riddle was nicknamed Whispering Death.
Michael Holding, the great West Indian fast bowler, saw the probable truth before most, certainly the people in charge of investigating the murder that never was.
No event has ever rocked a cricket World Cup like the death of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel on March 17, 2007, just hours after his Pakistan side were bundled out of the tournament due to a sensational loss to Ireland.
Eventually it was reasoned by police on the advice of three independent pathologists that Woolmer, a former English batsman, had died of natural causes.
But a 26-day inquiry later handed down an inconclusive, "open'' verdict that ruled nothing in or out, meaning it could not categorically dismiss an early suggestion by police that Woolmer had been strangled.
Woolmer's body was found in the small bathroom of room 374, lying naked with his legs apart and small cuts in his nose and blood in his mouth.
Suicide? A heart attack? Strangled, poisoned or both?
All of these options were floated in the days after Woolmer was found and the entire cricket world gasped in horror when Jamaica's deputy police commissioner, Mark Shields, a debonair former Scotland Yard detective who looked as if he been plucked from the set of Law and Order, declared with "100 per cent certainty'' the cause of Woolmer's death was "manual strangulation'', an explanation that has remained unchanged on Woolmer's death certificate.
From the time of that earth-quaking statement, it was seven weeks before a medical team flown in from overseas deemed Woolmer died of a probable heart attack.
During that time it was as if Jamaica became the set of an Agatha Christie stage play.
The rumour mill spun out of control during that chaotic 42-day period when every wacky theory won a prize because nothing could be ruled out.
Suggestions included that Woolmer had argued with his players on the bus after the loss (correct), that members of an Asian betting syndicate had been filmed by CCTV footage on Woolmer's floor (false), that Woolmer had been in declining health and receiving treatment for diabetes (true), that Woolmer was writing a biography that would expose Pakistani match fixing (unconfirmed) and that four Pakistan officials went missing immediately after Woolmer's death (false).
Amid the rumours there were categorical conclusions made on the basis of wafer-thin evidence by the likes BBC's highly respected Panorama Program, which told its viewing audience of several million that Woolmer was "poisoned before being strangled".
Talk about covering your bases.
In trying to cover all options they appeared to have made two air swings but no accusation seemed beyond bizarre at the time.
Things got so intense and confused that Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq and team manager Talat Ali were called off a plane leaving the island's Montego Bay because of alleged abnormalities in their statements to police.
Reporters at the airport shouted "did you kill Woolmer?'' as they walked, stone-faced yet clearly agitated, across the tarmac.
But it appears they did not kill Woolmer. And nor did anyone else.
West Indies former fast bowler Holding, a Jamaican local who knew staff at the Pegasus Hotel, was doing his own little investigation and came to the simplest theory, which ultimately proved the truth.
Holding was told by staff that when they opened the door of the bathroom Woolmer's body was resting against it.
So if the body was against the door how did the murderer get out without opening the door and the body being pushed away?
A simple question with a simple answer: the murderer did not get out because it appears there was no murderer there in the first place.
Because the CCTV footage of the hotel floor corridor was so poor it had to be flown to London for an upgrade in quality and it was weeks before it was revealed Woolmer was the only person who entered his room that night.
The pressurised investigation became haphazard and members of the victorious Irish cricket team were incredulous at even being called in for questioning.
When asked in suspicious tones by detectives "where were you on the night Woolmer died?", one replied "on the other side of island getting shit-faced".
And he was too. As was the entire team because their famous win coincided with St Patrick's Day, so after winning the match they headed off to a distant bar to celebrate until the wee hours.
In the years after Woolmer's death the 12th floor room in which he died became a macabre tourist attraction, with Pegagus Hotel staff telling News Corp that some people wanted to stay in the room or on the floor and others deliberately avoided it.
South African journalist Neil Manthorp, a close friend of fellow Cape Town resident Woolmer, recalls the incident with great sadness.
"The whole investigation was embarrassing,'' Manthorp said.
"I still feel for his wife Gill because that was going to be the end of the road for him as a coach. Gill had been a cricket widow for decades and they had a safari booked at a game reserve after the end of the World Cup.
"It was going to be the start of a new life for both of them. Then suddenly he was gone."