Published: 4th December, 2019
The world of cricket is mourning Bob Willis, who has died aged 70. He began his illustrious career at Surrey and went on to captain England before becoming one of the key pundits on Sky Sports’ cricket coverage. Richard Spiller looks back at his life and career.
No one who witnessed Bob Willis – whether at the ground or on television – storming through the Australians to set alight the Ashes of 1981 will forget it. The unruly mob of hair, staring eyes, arms and legs pumping him down the Headingley hill and his 8-43 taking advantage of Ian Botham’s equally astonishing 149 not out to conjure victory from nowhere when all seemed lost.
A day earlier his international career had looked almost over at the age of 32, having gone wicketless in the first innings and forced to labour up the hill in the second – he was especially prone to bowling no balls at that stage of his career – until given a final blast down the slope by Mike Brearley.
Willis rarely conformed to the norms though.
While he was growing up in the 1960s, his family having moved from the north to Stoke d’Abernon, fast bowlers were meant to be built like Fred Trueman and possess classical side-on actions. When a coach tried to force him to change, the ball kept ending up in the side of the net. Young Bob might have been chest on but it worked for him and his 6ft 6in meant he could make the ball rise sharply off a length.
Already acknowledged as a handful at Royal Grammar School in Guildford, he rose through the Surrey Young Amateurs and second team, making his first-class debut in 1969. It was still as a relatively unknown cricketer, though, that Willis was suddenly called up by England during the 1970-71 Ashes tour after Alan Ward broke down, skipper Ray Illingworth relying on the judgement of Surrey colleague John Edrich after just 20 first-class games.
Willis’s 12 wickets in four Tests proved handy support to spearhead John Snow as England triumphed 2-0, his close catching ability also standing out.
The following summer he helped Surrey land the County Championship but left the following winter, frustrated by not being an automatic choice and the soporific pitches of the time at The Oval, moving to Warwickshire – where he gained another Championship medal 12 months later – and going on eventually to be captain. In truth, ECB central contracts would have been ideal, rather than the toll of almost daily cricket.
That Willis did not become the unquestioned leader of England’s attack until the 1976-77 tour of India was down to his fragile knees, both requiring surgery and forcing him onto the sidelines more often than not. It took immense will and patience to finally become the cutting edge paceman heading the attack for which England had craved so long, building up stamina with a daily five-mile run while using relaxation tapes and techniques learned from an Australian doctor to ease anxiety so that he could sleep properly.
Alongside Botham and the likes of Chris Old, Mike Hendrick and Graham Dilley, he ensured England had a powerful seam attack in the late 1970s, winning two successive Ashes series, but his international career floundered once he passed 30 and looked in danger of tailing off.
Yet that afternoon at Headingley revived him and in less than a year Willis was England captain. Although deputy on four previous tours, he had not expected to be elevated and was given charge of a side denuded of several leading players by the first of the England rebel tours to South Africa. Peter May, the new chairman of the selectors appointed him in 1982 and the task was made all the tougher by the gradual decline of Botham’s bowling.
His knees now forcing him to graze in the outfield, Willis could still summon the steep bounce of old for another two years and led England to home wins over India, Pakistan and New Zealand but was unable to prevent Australia regaining the Ashes down under in 1982-83.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment of his career was missing the World Cup final in 1979 through injury. In charge four years later, he led England into the semi-final, where they lost to eventual winners India.
Willis became only the second Englishman to reach 300 wickets – back at Headingley in 1983 – but after 90 Tests, taking him to 325 victims, and having been succeeded by David Gower for the 1984 series against West Indies, his batteries finally ran flat.
Much missed by spectators was his idiosyncratic batting at the bottom of the order, whether spooning a ball over cover which was meant to travel through midwicket or even – as at Edgbaston in 1982 – forgetting to take his bat out to the wicket after tea.
In retirement, he teamed up with his brother David to transform the National Sporting Club into a busy events company, returning to Surrey in the early 1990s to join the executive board and representing the club at TCCB (now ECB) meetings. He was also able to indulge his passions for Wagner and Bob Dylan to the full.
Willis became well – perhaps even better – known to a new generation of cricket lovers for his unsparing opinions on Sky Sports Cricket, at his best when England had suffered another calamity and he could go off his long run again after being teed up by his good friend and colleague Charles Colvile.
There was no question, though, that he was desperate for his country to succeed and English cricket has lost one of its great warriors with his passing.
Richard Thompson, Chairman of Surrey CCC, said: “Bob was one of the great England cricketers of recent times and was always a good friend of the Club.
“Having grown up in Surrey and won the Championship with us in 1971, he always had a huge number of friends at The Oval and we’re devastated to hear of his passing.
“Bob was a big part of the cricketing family. His impact as a player and in the media has made his contribution to the game long lasting and so valued. He will be missed by so many having been taken too soon.”