LONDON, December 5
325 Test wickets from 90 Tests, a career as a broadcaster and a verified cult hero. If you are lucky, you get one of those. If you’re Bob Willis, you can achieve all three with great distinction, and without giving one solitary damn. After a short illness, one of the country’s finest fast bowlers and beloved pundits passed away yesterday.
His absence from Sky Sports’ review show, The Verdict, during the recent New Zealand tour hinted there was something wrong. Only yesterday morning did word start to spread of the unthinkable. His was a story of triumph over trials. Aged 26, he’d had operations in both knees which, at 6ft 6ins, should have meant the end. He battled on for nine more years, getting himself into the record books where he remains to this day as England’s fourth-highest wicket-taker in Tests.
For a generation, he was one of few hopes against Australia: a fast bowler of the sort of snarl they love over there, bounding in from an angled approach and following it up with a disdainful stare many more would become familiar with when he moved into television.
Summer of 81
In the stunning Headingley Test in Australia in 1981, Willis has a huge role. Sure, Ian Botham set them up, but it was Willis’ 8/43 that knocked Australia down. The bond between those two stars was strong and Botham maintains Willis was the only world-class bowler he shared the field with during his 16 years as an international.
Willis also had the honour of captaining his country in 16 Tests between 1982 and 1984, a period in which he says he marshalled “a moderate England side”. He oversaw seven wins in that time but maybe his best act of leadership came as vice-captain when he ordered Botham to run-out Geoffrey Boycott during a Test match in 1978 against New Zealand because the Yorkshireman was scoring too slowly.
The above alone is enough to warrant a glowing eulogy. But it was upon Willis’ move to TV that the cult of Bob came to be. From bowling fire to spitting it on a regular basis. He was never a cheerleader and, more importantly, never a gobshite. He was the type to tell you what he thought without boasting about how he was telling you what he thought.
“There are more happy hookers in this England line-up than there are at Soho,” he raged when Ishant Sharma bounced out half of the batting line-up at Lord’s in 2014. When it was put to him that David Warner was drinking Jagerbombs before taking a swing at Joe Root in Birmingham Walkabout, Willis cut to core of the issue. “I have never had a Jagerbomb,” he admitted, before questioning the choice of beverage. “Maybe Australian beer is even worse than it used to be.”
A number of current England players, upon meeting him at a dinner recently, left with a greater understanding of Willis and what made him tick, along with deep affection. He loved the game dearly, not just for what it gave to him as a career but what it meant to him in his formative years spent in the garden with his brother pretending to be Colin Cowdrey and Basil D’Oliveira. English cricket will end bidding farewell to a person who embodied the very best of its heart, wit and soul. — The Independent
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