Bob Willis was one of England's greatest ever, says Charles Colvile
Charles Colvile looks back on Bob Willis' life both on and off the cricket field
By Charles Colvile
Last Updated: 06/12/19 2:43pm
Bob Willis was quite simply one of England's greatest ever fast bowlers.
In a career that spanned 14 years at the highest level - from 1971 to 1984 - Willis played 90 Tests and 64 ODIs - taking 325 Test wickets.
He was genuinely quick and his performance in the Leeds Test of 1981, when he recorded his career-best figures of 8-43 to bowl Australia out and give England one of the most dramatic wins of all time, is still - and always will be - the stuff of legends.
Born in Sunderland, he grew up in Surrey and always said he became a fast bowler to get revenge on his schoolmates who made his life a misery when he was forced to play rugby in the winter.
Despite an action like no other - he was horrified when he first saw himself on TV - Bob was called up by England as a replacement on the 1970/71 Ashes.
He had only played 20 first-class games, but, with his shock of curly hair, Bob's raw pace was just what Ray Illingworth was looking for and he made his debut in Sydney in the New Year's Test of 1971. He picked up his first wicket in Australia's second innings as England won the game and eventually the Ashes.
Despite having a Test cap to his name, on his return home Willis found it difficult to command a regular place in the Surrey side that went on to win the Championship that year. He moved to Warwickshire and spent the rest of his playing days based in Birmingham.
It is hardly surprising, given the stresses and strains that his unique action put on his body, that in those early years, Bob suffered terribly from injury, with his knees, in particular, subject to numerous operations. He also found the long, lonely business of rehabilitation tough and would later admit to suffering from depression.
During the centenary Test of 1977, after a heart-to-heart with Tony Greig, Bob was introduced to an Australian hypnotherapist called Arthur Jackson who revolutionised his life.
Armed with hypnotherapy tapes that he would listen to as he fell asleep, Bob also became a passionate believer in slow distance running to build up his fitness and stamina and was often seen pounding out the laps of the Edgbaston outfield.
As it happened, 1977 was a key year in the Willis story. That summer saw the debut of a young, fast-bowling all-rounder by the name of Ian Botham, and over the next seven years they would play 60 Test matches together and take 476 Test wickets between them, proving to be one of English cricket's most lethal opening partnerships with the new ball.
Seventy-seven was also the summer of Kerry Packer but, despite being asked to join World Series Cricket, Bob insisted on staying loyal to England - later saying that it was the buzz of playing Test cricket for his country that motivated him to play the game. He would later also turn down the offer of a huge cheque to go on the first rebel tour to South Africa.
No look back on the career of Bob Willis would be complete without a mention of another aspect of his game - his batting. It was as idiosyncratic in its style as his bowling and when he forgot to take his bat out with him during a Test at Edgbaston, another aspect of the legend of Bob Willis was established.
It is, though, for his spell of 8-43 at Leeds on the afternoon July 21, 1981 that Bob will always be remembered.
Defending 129 thanks to Botham's extraordinary second-innings hundred, everything turned on Bob - who was being plagued by no-balls - persuading Mike Brearley to allow him to bowl down the hill from the Kirkstall Lane End.
Something suddenly clicked and in 15 overs and one ball he blew the Australians away for 111 to deliver English cricket one of its greatest victories.
With the rebel tour to South Africa the following year taking a dozen of England's top players out of international cricket, Bob, much to his surprise, found himself appointed as England captain. He didn't much enjoy the job, but England's three-run win in Melbourne in 1982 courtesy of Geoff Miller's rebound catch delivered another career highlight.
Illness eventually forced his retirement from cricket in 1984 but that was not the end of Bob and cricket.
He quickly developed a reputation as a no-nonsense commentator and pundit and his acerbic, withering assessments of England's all-too-often failures saw him achieve cult status among an army of fans who never actually saw him bowl.
But, while he was seen by some as being grumpy, miserable and hyper-critical, he was in fact never happier than when he had to eat his words and praise England to the rafters.
With his death, Bob Dylan has lost one of his most devoted fans, wine growers everywhere a serious connoisseur of their art and English cricket one of their greatest ever players.