A short history of cricketing murders
The violent death of Bob Woolmer is a savage reminder of the sport’s dark side, says Leo McKinstry. This is not the first time cricket and killing have been embroiled ‘Basically, I lost a tennis match. I didn’t lose a war. No one died,’ said German tennis star Boris Becker after a tournament exit in 1987, trying to put his defeat into its proper context. But it is impossible to apply such a sense of balance to the present cricket World Cup in the Caribbean, which will be forever tarnished by the savage murder of Bob Woolmer, the former England cricketer and coach of Pakistan. Someone has died, and in the most barbarous manner, by poisoning and strangulation. His killing is all the more shocking precisely because it seems to have occurred as a direct result of his involvement in cricket, which is supposed to be a sport based on chivalry and fair play.
With fevered speculation about Far Eastern betting syndicates, match-fixing and professional hitmen, the saga of Woolmer’s death reads like a lurid work of fiction, though it is not unprecedented for fraud in sport to end up in murder. In 1994, the South African football administrator Rama Reddy was found strangled in his car, after refusing to sign the financial accounts of his regional association because he suspected they were full of irregularities. The crime was never resolved. Nor would it be unique for bitterness at a sporting result to spill over into butchery, as some fear may have happened with Woolmer’s case, given that Pakistani supporters were enraged by their country’s humiliating defeat by Ireland. Also in 1994, the Colombian defender Andres Escobar was killed after scoring an own goal in a crucial World Cup match. Here again, as with the Woolmer tragedy, there was talk of betting syndicates and bribery.
Cricket is meant to be different. According to its moral champions, it should be a civilising influence, not a catalyst for malevolent passions or raw greed. But throughout the sport’s history this ideal has never been attained. As in most other human endeavours, cruelty, violence and bloodshed have played their part in the lives of cricketers. Though Bob Woolmer may be the first figure in the game whose death was probably caused as a direct result of cricket, acts of viciousness are certainly not unique. Hostility between cricketers has been known to slide into violence. The great Gloucestershire spin bowler of the 1920s, Charlie Parker, once threatened to assault the chairman of the England selectors, Pelham Warner, in a hotel in Bristol because of his continued exclusion from the Test side. Ian Botham openly admits that when he was young he had a reputation for ‘thinking with my fists’. On one occasion in 1977 he threw a punch at the former Australian captain Ian Chappell, sending him flying across a bar. He then tried to carry on the fight outside, chasing Chappell down the street and even hurdling the bonnet of a car in an attempt to catch him. Botham only gave up when he saw a police car appearing on the scene and decided it was time to make ‘a tactical withdrawal’.
Lethal bloodshed among players has usually come in the form of suicide. Notoriously, cricketers have a rate of suicide that is twice the national average, and the grim catalogue of self-induced deaths includes leading performers like the Ashes-winning captain of 1894–95 Andrew Stoddart and the Yorkshire and England wicket-keeper David Bairstow. One of the most gruesome such deaths was that of the Surrey batsman, Percy Hardy, who was found in a lavatory at King’s Cross in March 1916 with a slit throat and a bloodstained knife by his side. He was reported to be suffering from a mental breakdown as a result of his experiences on the Western Front.
But Woolmer is certainly not the first top cricketer to have been murdered. The last 20 years have witnessed the deaths of Jeff Stollmeyer, the former, much revered West Indies captain who was killed in 1989 when intruders broke into his Florida home, and David Hookes, the television commentator and combative Australian batsman of the 1970s who was killed in a chaotic brawl outside a Melbourne nightclub in January 2004. The man charged with Hookes’s murder, bouncer Zdravko Micevic, was acquitted by the jury after a controversial trial which revealed details of Hookes’s tangled private life. And in 1997, the former Derbyshire batsman Ashley Harvey-Walker was shot dead in a bar in Johannesburg. An unknown gunman walked into the bar, shouted his name and opened fire when he responded. It was never established whether his killing was connected to a dispute over the running of his inner-city bar.
One of the most poignant cricketing murders was that of the promising Australian player Claude Tozer, who was talked of as a possible international player at the start of the 1920–21 season after a brilliant run of form. Based in Sydney, he combined his cricket with a medical career, and it was his work as a doctor that was to lead to his death. At Christmas 1920, he visited one of his patients, the all-too-appropriately named Dorothy Mort, a young mother who was suffering from depression. During their consultation, Mrs Mort pulled a gun and shot Tozer three times, in his chest, temple and the back of his head. In the run-up to her trial, it was widely rumoured that they had been romantically involved, but in fact it turned out Mrs Mort had probably killed Tozer because he had rejected her sexual advances. ‘If I cannot have him, then no other woman shall,’ she told the police soon after her arrest. Mrs Mort was found not guilty on grounds of insanity. She spent the next 20 years in a lunatic asylum, where she died.
But cricketers have been the perpetrators as well as the victims of serious physical violence. In May 1955, the West Indian player Leslie Hylton was hanged in Jamaica for the murder of his wife, who was pumped with seven bullets after she had confessed to adultery. To this day he remains the only Test cricketer to have been executed. But there have been others who have been convicted criminals. Roy Gilchrist, the West Indian fast bowler of the 1960s, notorious for his brutally intimidatory bowling, was sentenced to three months’ probation at a Manchester court in 1967 for branding his wife’s face with a hot iron. After pronouncing the sentence, the judge said, ‘I hate to think that English sport has sunk so far that brutes will be tolerated because they are good at the game.’ Before the war, the England Test cricketer Vallence Jupp was sentenced to nine months in prison for manslaughter after he killed a motorcyclist through dangerous driving. And two senior cricketers are currently awaiting trial on serious charges. One, the Zimbabwean batsman Mark Vermeulen, is facing two counts of arson after allegedly burning down a pavilion, while Warrington Phillips, the Leeward Islands player, has been accused of murdering his wife.
Some believe that cricket may have an even greater source of shame. According to many Jack the Ripper experts, the most likely suspect for the Whitechapel murders was a south London barrister and cricketer, Montague Druitt, a star of the Blackheath and Morden clubs. It sounds as absurd as any other theory, but then, after the Bob Woolmer tragedy, almost anything could be possible. Cricket is not the game we thought it was.
Geoff Boycott: A Cricketing Hero by Leo McKinstry is available from HarperCollinsWillow.