Bob Willis rarely bowled without pain after undergoing surgery on both knees in 1975. In his own words, the operations were akin to a 50,000-mile service. And yet, for nine years after that, he ran in for England, bounding to the crease off his famously long run. Few, perhaps, have represented this nation with such courage.
When he eventually quit the sport – immediately after defeat against West Indies at Leeds in 1984, he did so having taken 325 Test wickets. There was a poetic irony to the final throes of a distinguished international career coming at the location of his finest hour.
At the time of his retirement, only Dennis Lillee had claimed more Test scalps. More than three decades on, just three Englishmen have surpassed his feat: Ian Botham, James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
A captain of the national team on 46 occasions across two formats, a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1978, half of one of English sport’s most remarkable victories. Latterly, an accomplished broadcaster, forthright in his viewpoints but respected by those who mattered most.
Robert George Dylan Willis, he had added the third of his forenames after falling for the music of Bob Dylan. He was awarded an MBE for his services to the game and forever remained a man admired by those around him. He resisted the temptations of Kerry Packer’s World Series – for which he was lauded by Wisden – and he was never anything other than deeply patriotic from the moment he was handed a surprise Test debut in 1971.
Not a master tactician as skipper in the manner of Mike Brearley, he still possessed an ability to motivate those around him. In 18 Tests in charge, he oversaw seven wins, five draws and six losses.
Bob Willis has died at the age of 70
“The only world-class fast bowler in my time as an England player,” Botham once said of his long-time international teammate and Sky Sports colleague.
Willis, in some ways, was an unlikely fast bowler; beyond an enormous 6ft 6in frame, he was not necessarily a typical athlete. But his long gallop to the crease, combined with his steepling height and aggression, created a proposition who would be feared all over the world.
Australia’s Kim Hughes fell victim to Willis on 11 separate occasions in their Ashes battles, while he took the wickets of Rod Marsh and Greg Chappell nine times each. Sunil Gavaskar was dismissed by the former Surrey and Warwickshire bowler in five innings; so too were Ian Chappell, Gordon Greenidge and Ravi Shastri.
An untouchable operator, he dismissed the very best. It was, perhaps, on the tour of India in 1976/77 that he asserted himself among the very top band. Across the entire trip, he took 32 wickets at 15.09, moving past 400 in first-class cricket in the process.
In the pantheon of England’s great seamers, Willis stands out on his own in many respects. When Wisden paid tribute to the Sunderland-born fast bowler as he slipped into retirement, it noted a longevity that, given his various ailments, represented an astounding return.
On “those tortured, pumping knees” – as Wisden described them at the end of his playing career, he delivered 17,357 balls in Test cricket, 47,990 across all first-class cricket. A victory for mind over matter, for staunch determination and, as his career wore on, for his use of hypnotherapy.
Wisden also highlighted his status as something of a lone wolf. Where Harold Larwood had Bill Voce and Fred Trueman came paired with Brian Statham, Willis did not always have a natural complementary partner. Broad and Anderson, of course, have since forged a fine duo of their own as well.
When Willis did have Botham, however, they wreaked havoc. Their double-act shared 476 Test wickets in just 105 innings, coming to a head on the English game’s greatest day.
Enthusiastic hyperbole is among the characteristics of modern society, and the remarkable cricketing summer of 2019 provided more than its fair share of special moments. There exists a tendency to favour the recent past and cast aside times gone by. Yet, there are few who witnessed the miracle of Headingley in 1981 who would willingly hand over the crown of the national side’s most extraordinary afternoon. Not even to Ben Stokes. For, at the same ground, Willis had pulled off a heist similar in its absurdity.
Willis was a fearsome seam bowler and accomplished broadcaster
And yet, Willis was not even the man of the match; that was reserved for Botham, whose unbeaten 149 had dragged England back into an Ashes contest that had appeared well beyond the hosts. Australia were 56 for 1, chasing a target of just 130. Cue mayhem. What followed was described by that year’s Wisden Almanack as “staggering”.
“Willis, having changed ends to bowl with the wind, dismissed Chappell with a rearing delivery and the staggering turnabout was under way,” it reported.
“Willis bowled as if inspired. It is not uncommon to see him perform for England as if his very life depended on it, but this was something unique. In all, he took eight wickets for 43, the best of his career, as Australia's last nine wickets tumbled for 55 runs despite a stand of 35 in four overs between Bright and Lillee.
“(Chris) Old bowled straight and aggressively and England rose to the need to produce an outstanding show in the field. Yet this was Willis's hour, watched or listened to by a vast invisible audience.”
There were numerous other individual triumphs: 7-78 against Australia at Lord’s, where he took 47 Test wickets at 18.76; 6-53 against India at Bengaluru; 5-27 against India at Kolkata; 5-32 against New Zealand at Wellington. And there were more like those.
It is true that he never bettered Headingley, though what could he plausibly have achieved to outdo it? A performance for the ages that, even 38 years on, remains etched in the minds of all those who love the nation’s summer game.
They were not even his best figures in first-class cricket; those came during his Warwickshire days, whom he had joined in search of the county cap that had proven elusive at Surrey. In 1977, he took 8-32 against Gloucestershire. Overall in first-class cricket, he ended one wicket short of the 900 mark, while his average sat at 24.99.
In his post-playing days, he became a staple in the punditry world. He was not always universally popular as he rekindled his partnership with Botham behind the microphone; his style did not suit everyone.
As the years went on, though, he found himself a role in a more analytical, summarising role. His dry wit became infamous and occasionally his sharp rants drifted towards being comedic. But his knowhow and knowledge of the game were never in doubt, and nor was his commitment to English cricket.
In 2015, he delivered a pep talk to Alastair Cook’s England side ahead of the Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, where Broad then took figures of 8-15. After giving his message, he took the squad’s bowlers out for dinner. “Lovely man, great company and good fun,” was Broad’s verdict on an evening in Willis’ company.
“Imran Khan was right when he said you can’t bowl fast every day of the week,” Willis once admitted. “I was certainly guilty of saving my best for England.”
He represented his country like few others. A hero of 90 Tests and 64 ODIs. Among the finest ever produced on these shores, was Robert George Dylan Willis.
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