18th March 2007, 9 AM, Kingston, Jamaica
I am watching the practice session of the West Indian team, especially Brian Lara, who is obliging some local fans who are only too keen to throw balls at him. Lara is hitting all those looseners with his trademark booming drives... I am waiting for the practice session to finish as quickly as possible since West Indian media Manager Imran Khan has promised me two interviews. Ramnaresh Sarwan and Dwayne Bravo’s interviews will lessen some pressure on me as these will be exclusive (as TV reporters are fond of calling all interviews!) and will reassure the office about my efficiency in covering the World Cup.
Since the first day of my arrival in Trinidad and Tobago, I have been following the Pakistani team and little has happened from a news or a cricket point of view. I have received calls from people in India wondering whether I am actually covering World Cup matches since I am conspicuous by my absence while my colleague is following the Indian team and naturally grabbing all the TV limelight.
Desperation is writ large on my face as I wait for Sarwan and Bravo. At 9.30 I get a call from a TV reporter who also happens to be my friend. “Do you know what has happened to Bob Woolmer?” he asks in an urgent tone. I can barely answer as I get another call on my other mobile (I was carrying 3 mobiles simultaneously on the trip) from Pakistani media manager Pervez Mir. “Vimal tu kahan hai? Bhag ke university hospital West Indies pahunch.” (Where are you Vimal? Rush to the University Hospital West Indies).
A close friend of mine from a Sports Channel, had briefed Mir about me and he had been very friendly and kind to me from the beginning of the tour as I was the lone TV journalist from India. Since my network has a tie-up with CNN, it was bound to impress Mir, as he himself heads ARY Digital’s UK and USA operations. In the first week of the World Cup, Mir was very keen for positive publicity for his team and he was doing his best. Like all the Pakistanis, he was supremely hospitable.
However, when I get the call from Mir I have little idea of what is happening. I call back Mir asking for the confirmation. He shouts furiously. “Yaar tum TV walon ki problem hi yahi hai ki sawal bahut karte ho.” (That’s the problem with you TV guys. You ask too many unnecessary questions.) “When I am saying its something serious, you should blindly trust me.” I think, God, let’s run. I apologize to Imran saying that I won’t be able to do the proposed interviews as I have to rush off for some big news. Imran is kind and understands the enormity of the news and assures me that we can do those interviews some time later whenever I am unoccupied.
Sandeep Dwiwedi, a print journalist from a rival publication, is also on his way to the ground to watch the practice session of West Indian team. I call him on my way to the main gate of the ground and ask him,“Sandy bhai, where are you? Let’s go to the University Hospital of West Indies. Just heard that Woolmer is serious.” Dwiwedi is just five minutes away from the ground and as soon as he reaches the venue we leave for the hospital. On our way, we are wondering how big this news turn out to be. Anyway, when we arrive at the hospital, we see couple of local TV channels waiting outside. 'Woolmer is dead', whispers one local reporter to us. What! We can hardly take him seriously. However, Dwivedi says, “Let’s find out. It could be true.” As a journalist you should never rule out any possibility. I spoke to sources in the hospital authorities there and some of my sources in the Pakistani camp. They confirm the worst news.
Dwiwedi, playing the role of an elder brother and a seasoned pro, advises me not to jump to any conclusion until any kind of official confirmation is there. Rarely have I had occasion to call to the news directors to share information before going on air or conveying this to the Assignment Desk (all the TV reporters are supposed to pass their information first there). "Sir, this is a big breaking news. The first and genuine one in my 6 years of professional life. It seems Woolmer has died because of a heart attack after the devastating loss of Pakistan at the hands of the Irish. It was too much to swallow. But, please don’t run this story until I get an official confirmation.” OK, the editor assures me. However, he asks me to confirm it quickly and run it before anyone else runs it. I am totally clueless and emotionally in a fragile state. As a sports journalist, I have never witnessed this kind of news although I had done reporting during a bomb blast in Colombo in September 2006.
All my mobiles are ringing simultaneously and relentlessly as every one wants a phone-in (when a TV reporter delivers news over the telephone) from CNN-IBN to IBN-7 to even CNBC! Around 10 am, I am confident of my sources and go on air saying that the World Cup has lost its charm as cricket has lost one of it's greatest ambassadors and best-loved sons. While I am delivering the phone-in I am very emotional and almost on the verge of crying. How can he die, I ask myself? I spoke to him just a day ago where he couldn't even describe the loss against Ireland. I was very keen to do a story on the unexpected win of Ireland and just asked Woolmer before he was leaving for the Pegasus Hotel, “Bob, what about your future?” He looks at me slightly aghast and a touch dejected. He puts his hands back on his shoulders and requests, “For God’s sake, leave me alone for today. I will sleep first and then will talk to you tomorrow”. They say tomorrow never comes. I learnt this in a cruel way.
How could he have died? I had interviewed him just before the Ireland-Pakistan game. That was perhaps his last TV interview. It’s difficult to keep emotions in check even though Woolmer was hardly attached to me. I’m wrong. He was. When the news broke, all the meetings, chats and interviews with him started to remind me that I had actually lost someone who was close to me. I didn’t realize it when Woolmer was alive. Perhaps, death has an unusual way of reminding us of what is important and what is worthy and also to make one realize that humanity is still a stronger bond.
Later, Mir comes out with a press release stating the coach of the Pakistani team is officially pronounced dead. Woolmer, a Briton by parentage, was born in Kanpur, India, played Test cricket for England, settled in South Africa, currently lived in Pakistan because of his assignment, and died in Kingston. What a journey. Pity that none of his close friends or relatives were there in his last moments. Even more the pity that none of the Pakistani players, who had been like family to him for the last couple of years, were at the hospital.
I had to file my story later in the day. It was the most poignant moment of my professional career. I sign off for my TV station saying, “Wins and defeats became irrelevant today as one of the greatest cricket coaches of all time has passed away. Woolmer always insisted that timing has a great role to play in cricket, but the entire cricket fraternity felt that his departure was untimely.”