Bob Willis was one of England’s greatest fast bowlers. His 325 wickets from 90 matches place him at number four in the list of all-time English wicket-takers in Test cricket. Yet you would never have guessed that if you looked across the dressing room at the exhausted figure in the string vest after a long day in the field.
Willis had no right to be such a successful pace bowler. He possessed sparrows’ legs and wonky knees, which were frequently visited by surgeons; he had a pigeon-chest that was inhabited by half a dozen measly hairs and he was seemingly devoid of any biceps. Not even Heath Robinson would have had the gall to design a fast-bowling machine like this. Yet Willis, with his mop of straggly hair, which was often his most convincing sign of hostility, adorned the England side for more than 13 years.
He was there as a gawky 21-year-old replacement, pitchforked into the Test team in Sydney under Ray Illingworth on the 1970-71 tour; under Tony Greig he broke Rick McCosker’s jaw in the Centenary Test of 1977; under Mike Brearley he famously delivered eight for 43 when rampaging down the slope at Headingley in 1981 and under David Gower he witnessed at first hand Gordon Greenidge making England’s declaration look rather silly at Lord’s in 1984. In between he led England in 18 Test matches as well as in the World Cup of 1983, the only specialist fast bowler ever to do so (we must regard Gubby Allen and Johnny Douglas as all-rounders and Alfred Shaw’s bowling could probably not be classified as “fast” when he was captain on the 1881-82 tour of Australia).
So how could such a flawed physical specimen achieve so much? Willis’s height – he was 6ft 6in tall, when this was an unusual phenomenon – was an advantage but it might have been his only obvious one. His action, which defied the traditional notion that cricket had to be a sideways game, did little to delight the purists – or Fred Trueman. Nor did his massive and sometimes meandering run-up to the crease, where on bad days he had a habit of overstepping.
However, Willis possessed many invisible virtues. He had a deep reservoir of willpower and he drove himself ferociously hard – running miles to improve his stamina in an age when this was not a conventional thing to do. He was also utterly single-minded, a characteristic which may have prompted him to give himself a third initial – D for Dylan, in homage to Bob – long before he had any captaincy designs and which also accounted for his vigorous disapproval of those who signed up for Kerry Packer in 1977.
For a while his colleague at Edgbaston, Dennis Amiss, a Packer signatory, was ostracised. Willis shunned not only Packer but also the first rebel tour of South Africa so that his England career was only ever interrupted by injury or loss of form – unlike many of his peers.
His most memorable performance was, of course, at Headingley in 1981. On that Test’s rest day he feared it would be his last since England were in a hopeless position and he had bowled so poorly. He once described himself as “a born pessimist” and this was a case in point. Perhaps those eight wickets did help to prolong his career by three years but remember he took 317 other Test wickets all around the globe. He could bowl fast and, as time passed, he could bowl accurately.
In that famous spell in Leeds he was in a trance, oblivious to the outside world, a state he often pursued with the ball in his hand. Brearley had told him to forget about the no-balls that had been plaguing him and to bowl fast. And so he did. He was still in another world after the game when he gave that unsmiling, monosyllabic interview to a startled Peter West, who never set out to antagonise anyone.
As a player – and especially as a captain – Willis often had a spiky relationship with the media. On his first tour as England captain he instructed his team not to waste any time communing with the press with such vigour that Graeme Fowler declined to say “good morning” to them in the hotel lift on the way to breakfast the following morning. Another meeting had to be held to ensure a semblance of civility between press and players.
When Willis was assistant manager to the England team in West Indies on the 1985-86 tour he was once asked by a BA steward if there was anything he wanted to be taken back to England. “Thirty-four journalists and two camera crews” was his response. While still captain he declared: “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I give up but I can tell you this: I’m not going to go on TV slagging off the players.” Which is what he did rather brilliantly on Sky TV’s The Verdict towards the end of a long broadcasting career.
As captain he had, with some reluctance, to desert the back of the bus, where he had been a lively, quick-witted presence on earlier tours. He was not a brilliant tactician. And it was hard to attend to the minutiae in the field when he was consumed by his own bowling while 40 yards from his nearest colleague at the end of his run-up. But the example he set on the field as he strained every creaking sinew could be inspirational. Moreover his record was not so bad, winning seven and losing five of his 18 Tests in charge. England’s 2-1 defeat on the 1982-83 tour to Australia would have been his greatest disappointment, being persuaded to bowl first in Adelaide on that tour his greatest regret.
Teammates are a reliable barometer and you would be hard-pressed to find any who do not speak well of Willis, citing not only his unrelenting passion for playing for England but also a piercing, dry sense of humour. Away from the cricket he smiled quite often and was the most entertaining of companions. Perhaps more telling are reports of a dinner that Willis had with England’s pace bowlers a couple of years ago. The youngsters arrived warily since this was the man who always seemed to be slagging them off on Sky; they left enlightened and entertained after the most congenial of evenings, recognising that Bob Willis was actually one of them.