In his own assessment, Bob Willis was a “born pessimist”. Before every Test match, he would run his blue eyes over the newspapers, looking for pieces that criticised him. Two days before his greatest feat in Test cricket — an 8/43 demolition of Australiast — he devoured the criticism of his bowling. He had gone wicketless on a helpful surface and was reading stinging critiques the next day in the newspapers. “I thought this would be the last time I would play for England,” he later revealed.
If Botham emerged from the most miraculous Ashes triumphs as a new hero for England, Willis blended into the backdrop as he always had. He shied away from the limelight, rarely partied, barely hogged the headlines for feats beside his exploits with the ball, turned down lucrative offers to join the Kerry Packer series and a rebel tour to South Africa. Apart from the occasional bust-ups with reporters, he was a quiet man, hooked to Bob Dylan songs and poems when he was not playing. So obsessed was he with the American folk-rock artiste that he inserted a D into his surname and grew his hair long.
He didn’t have a repertoire of tricks, had what the great Freddie Trueman observed to be “an ugly action” akin to the flapping of a goose (hence the nickname Goose), a meandering run-up, a frail body, wonky ankles, and long limbs. But what he had was the natural pace and deep reservoirs of determination and unflappability, which forged a terrific if unsung career, as the haul of 325 wickets at an average of 25.20 in 90 Tests would testify. He could never purchase a 10-for, but several of his 16 five-fors have come in trying circumstances and unforgiving conditions. None was as memorable as his effort in Bangalore, when he ripped through a strong Indian middle-order and returned with 6/53.