March 26, 2007
Murder at the World Cup
March madness in the cricket-loving world is the World Cup currently being played in the West Indies. But the big story has not been the game itself but the murder of the coach of the Pakistan national team who was found dead in his hotel room the day after the shocking elimination of his team, which failed to qualify for the second round of the tournament.
Initial reports said that 58-year old Bob Woolmer, a diabetic who had once played for England, had died from a heart attack. But authorities started backing way from this and rumors began to swirl of suspicious circumstances, first of suicide, before the authorities said that he had been strangled. There was no sign of forcible entry into his room and nothing was stolen.
This news has stunned everyone and cast a serious pall over the event with some calling for the canceling of the tournament altogether. The authorities have decreed that it will continue but there is no doubt that this terrible event has destroyed the exuberant atmosphere that characterizes these quadrennial events.
The charge of murder naturally raises the question of the identity of the culprit. There are several motives possible. One is that Woolmer was killed by an enraged and disappointed fan of the Pakistani team. Another is that he was killed by angry gamblers who had lost a lot of money because of Pakistan's surprising early elimination from the tournament. And now there are allegations that he was killed because he was about to level serious charges of match fixing, where individual players are bribed to deliberately throw a game in order to benefit gambling interests.
In recent years five players (three from Pakistan, one from India, and one from South Africa) have received lifetime bans for throwing matches at the behest of gamblers, while other players have received lesser punishments for other infractions. Suspicions of players putting in sub-par performances in return for bribes are so pervasive that almost any string of surprisingly poor performances, or a poor performance in a crucial game, has come under suspicion.
To understand these charges, one has to realize that like most major sports competitions, international cricket now is a big business with lots of sponsorship money involved and players (at least from the major teams) earning huge amounts. Gone are the days when even international cricket was either a part-time or at most a seasonal occupation for players. Now they play year around all over the world and huge amounts of money are bet on the games. The games also arouse tremendous passions among the fans, sometimes leading to riots when home teams do badly. The South Asian subcontinent countries of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are particularly prone to having such over-enthusiastic fans, with people even committing suicide because of disappointment over their team's loss.
In the current tournament, 16 teams are taking part. They are split into four groups of four each in which each team plays every other team in their group with only the top two teams going to the second round. Of the 16 teams, only eight (England, West Indies, Australia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and South Africa) are considered serious contenders for winning the championship. These eight teams were split equally into the four groups and thus were expected to be the teams to advance to the second round while the other eight (Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ireland, Scotland, Bermuda, Netherlands, and Canada) were expected to head for the exits.
But Pakistan, a perennial powerhouse in international cricket (winning the World Cup in 1992) and one of the favorites to win the tournament, suffered an unbelievably shocking defeat to Ireland in their group, which was key to them failing to qualify for the second round. It was on the day following their elimination that their coach Woolmer was killed.
This loss is not the only surprise in the tournament. India, another cricket powerhouse and 1983 winner, suffered a surprising defeat to Bangladesh in their group match and now will also not make it to the second round either. But Bangladesh is the best team of the eight lower-ranked teams and so while this was a major upset, the result was not as sensational as the loss by Pakistan to the complete outsiders Ireland.
Sri Lanka (who won in 1996) has put in strong showings in its group matches, winning all of them, thus advancing to the second round of eight teams. Starting on March 27, these eight teams play six games each, after which the top four advance to the next round beginning April 24, which has a sudden-death format. The championship game is on April 28.
But hanging over the whole tournament will be the question: Why was Bob Woolmer killed and by whom?
POST SCRIPT: Physics demonstrations
No, not the kind a physics teacher does in class. These demonstrations are by students in Nepal who chanted "We want physics!" and clashed with riot police because they want to be allowed to enroll in physics classes, which is apparently severely restricted.
The thought that there are students in the world willing to go to the mat for the chance to study physics has to warm the heart of any physics teacher.