With a distinct mop of brown curls and a lanky 6’6” frame, he pumped his first and ran towards the pavilion after shattering Ray Bright’s middle stump for his eighth wicket of Australia’s second innings in the third Ashes Test match of 1981 at Headingley. At the time, there was little doubt that Bob Willis had not only scripted a famous and dramatic English win — his role being no less than Ian Botham’s epic 149 with the bat — but had also sealed the most enduring memory of his playing days.
In a way, his fame for the Kirkstall Lane spell could easily make subsequent generations oblivious to his more significant achievement in the late Seventies and early Eighties. He held his own as a tearaway English pace presence among a dreaded battery of Carribbean and Australian greats.
More importantly, albeit understated, the imprint of Bob Willis was the point of departure he stood for when one talked about the longevity of pace bowlers in English Test cricket. Decades later, it may not be fully appreciated when one sees Andersons and Broads having long and prolific runs. But, for Willis’s time, playing 90 Tests for a haul of 325 Test wickets was a new benchmark in English cricket set by “Goose” — the nickname he was given for the distinct way in which he ran towards the bowling crease. In the process, Willis overcame two knee surgeries during his 14-year international cricket career, which ended in 1984, and 12-year county cricket stint with Warwickshire, and a shorter one with Surrey.
In retrospect, Willis’s unremarkable stint — what some call unimaginatively dour — as English skipper of early 18 Test matches and a few one-day matches (including the 1983 World Cup) has to be seen in the context of the team he was leading during a lean patch for English cricket. It was a time made worse by the absence of Graham Gooch and Geoff Boycott who had made commitments to play in the rebel series in South Africa.
During this lackluster phase for English cricket, Willis did steer the side with dignity and occasional sparks of victories, like the memorable 3-run win in the Melbourne Test in the lost Ashes series of 1982-83.
For followers of the sport, Willis had given no clues towards his post-retirement emergence as a commentator in cricket broadcast. After his heroic performance at Headingley in 1981, while talking to reporters, he took a potshot at the state of journalism in Britain.
Talking to a BBC correspondent, and with cheering crowds behind him, Willis said: “The standard of journalism in this country has come down completely. People (reporters) look for small-minded quotes from players under pressure for their stories. They used to write about cricket earlier, but now they don’t seem to be able to do so.”
So, long before you worried about sensationalism creeping into sports reporting, Willis had flagged it as an insidious concern.
In his own stint as a commentator for Sky Sports, Willis slowly developed himself into one of the more perceptive cricket pundits, though some found his tone a bit dour in sternness and even nasal. A lot of players — especially English players — found his unsparing critique a bit harsh. But they were quick to revise their opinion of him once they met him off-air. In a tribute to Willis in The Daily Mail, a former English skipper wrote that Willis understood well that being nice to players wasn’t part of his job as a very forthright commentator.
Years later, Sky Sports gave Willis a fresh assignment as a key panellist for post-match discussion shows like The Verdict and The Debate. Here, Willis’s humorous side won him many admirers, blended as it was with very astute cricketing observations. His hilarious take on the day’s cricket had quite a following in dressing rooms too, as was evident in English batsman Joe Root once mimicking him under Albert Einstein’s mask.
Indians may find it tempting to recall Willis in one of his weaker and straying moments when Sandeep Patil plundered him for six fours in an over in the Old Trafford Test of 1982. It would be tantamount to another blunder that Indians commit while reducing the legacy of the great Pakistani pace bowler Waqar Younis to being hit for 27 runs in an over by Ajay Jadeja in the World Cup quarter-final in 1996. The truth is, despite these occasional off-days, both Willis and Younis were world-class bowlers, something neither Patil nor Jadeja can claim as batsmen. Moreover, they forget Willis’s nine-wicket haul against India at Lord’s.
There is an inexplicable joy in seeing a hard-working fast bowler displaying his wares on a cricket field, more so if pitches aren’t as docile as they mostly are in the subcontinent. Willis belonged to that group of bowlers who knew how to bowl their hearts out, harnessing their limited supply of talent to bridge their way to greatness. In the process, they worked their way to be as prolific as their more naturally gifted contemporaries, if not matching them in flair. That’s why Ian Botham, one of Willis’s more famous contemporaries and a close friend, aptly remembered Wiilis as a “tremendous trier… and the only world class English bowler during my time as a player”.
A Bob Dylan fan, who changed his name to make Dylan a part of his name through a deed poll, and an erudite cricket voice laced with his own share of quirks and humour, Willis meant different things to different generations of admirers. What, however, still define his legacy in English cricket is what he did one fine afternoon in Headingley, Leeds, in 1981. As Andrew Miller, the UK editor of ESPN-Cricinfo, puts his place in England’s cricketing memory: “A bit like the relationship with one’s parents, or the pictures on the walls in your childhood home, some memories are set in stone before you’re even aware of who or what they represent.”