Bob Willis: The early years at Surrey - Kia Oval Skip to main content

When Bob Willis died last year, aged 70, the world of cricket mourned. Now a new book pays tribute to the great Surrey. Warwickshire and England fast bowler. Richard Spiller talked to one of his early colleagues.

The screams grew ever more insistent.

“I’m having a Julius! I’m having a Julius!” shrieked a young Bob Willis, confined to the back of a cramped car on a long journey, before it finally halted and he was helped out.

Surrey team-mate Pat Pocock still chuckles as he tells the story.

“Bob had cramp and he called it a ‘Julius Seizure,” says Pocock.

“We were coming back from a Glamorgan game and he had to fit in the back of my Renault 10, with plenty of kit as well.

“So we stopped the car and found a way to get him out and stop him screaming. There were just miles and miles of legs, which needed straightening up and stretching.”

There have been thousands of warm and happy memories of Bob Willis since he died last November, aged 70, after a dogged battle against prostate cancer. The fast bowler took 325 Test wickets for England – then a record – in his 90 Tests between 1971 and 1984, captaining his country for two years, and then went on to become a hard-hitting commentator for BBC and Sky Sports

Now a book celebrating his life – Bob Willis: A Cricketer and a Gentleman – has been published, with the aim of raising money for Prostate Cancer Research.

Appropriately it was launched at the Kia Oval while Surrey and Middlesex contested the first round of the Bob Willis Trophy earlier this month, attended by some of the former colleagues and friends who have contributed tales.

There was a certain justice in the launch coming at The Oval, where Willis spent his early professional days, making his first-class debut in 1969, having spent most of his early life in Surrey and attended Royal Grammar School in Guildford.

“It was obvious from an early stage that Bob was a pretty off-the-wall character,” recalls Pocock.

“It didn’t come across in public, as a player or commentator for the most part, but he was zany.”

Willis’s time at Surrey, before he moved to Warwickshire in 1972, was shortened by two factors, according to Pocock.

“The pitches at The Oval back then were like bowling on birdseed. We measured it out. The keeper was only standing 12 yards back one day and then the next, when we were up at Trent Bridge, he was double that. It wasn’t much encouragement to a young quick bowler.”

Despite that, Willis’s 40 first-class wickets at 28 in 1970 were enough to be noticed when it mattered. The following winter Ray Illingworth’s England side were bidding to win back the Ashes for the first time since 1958-59 but lost fast bowler Alan Ward to injury early on.

Willis always felt the recommendation of county colleague John Edrich, a stalwart of Illingworth’s side, was key to getting the call and in three Tests he provided invaluable support to spearhead John Snow as the series was won 2-0.

When he returned to England, it was no surprise that an improvement in terms was an early aim, as Pocock relates: “Bob, understandably, wanted to be earning the same sort of money as everyone else in the England side but at that stage the only way you could get a rise was to get your county cap.

“He went to see Stuart Surridge, the chairman of cricket, but he didn’t think Bob had done enough to get his cap. Surrey have always had a tradition of making players work hard for their cap, and still do, even though salaries are worked out differently now.

“Stuart was a determined character and he felt Bob hadn’t done enough, so Bob decided to leave.”

Before he did so, Willis helped Surrey win the County Championship in 1971, selected by skipper Micky Stewart ahead of seamer Robin Jackman for the crucial final match against Hampshire at Southampton, when bonus points were needed to secure top spot.

“Micky reckoned that Bob’s wicket-taking potential might just make the difference, which was unlucky for Jackers.”

Then Willis departed for Warwickshire and – having been unable to play the first half of the season, such were the esoteric registration rules for players moving counties – ensured Edgbaston was the next destination of the Championship.

It was England who benefited most though, those 325 wickets among the 899 he took in first-class cricket: “Bob wasn’t built in the classical mould of quicks and wasn’t made for bowling all day. He had to work tremendously hard to build up his stamina and become a fine Test bowler,” says Pocock about his old friend and team-mate.

Bob Willis: A Cricketer & A Gentleman is edited by Bob’s brother David, combines a new biography, written by Daily Mail sportswriter Mike Dickson, with a celebration of a truly legendary man.

Proceeds from all book sales will raise funds to go towards better diagnostic tools for Prostate Cancer UK. You can donate directly to Prostate Cancer UK here.