Bob Willis is often hyphenated with the charismatic Ian Botham. But he plugged all alone for nearly six years, before Botham’s debut, and continued to shoulder the responsibilities after Botham’s steady descent from the intoxicating peak of the early 80s.
For much of his career — a period when England experimented with a variety of captains, under men as diverse as Ray Illingworth, Tony Greig, Mike Brearley, Geoff Boycott and David Gower — he was a one-man attack. The golden era of fast bowling was not so golden for England, but Willis shone, his mop of auburn curls and sparkling blue eyes endearing him to the masses and his blistering pace evoking fear in batsmen. He wasn’t someone who hit them like the contemporary Windies quicks — though he did broke Rick McCosker’s jaw – but hurried and harried him with bounce and pace.
While he couldn’t match Botham for sheer personality or brazen machismo, Willis was a redoubtable match-winner on his day — a pity and a recurring theme of his career that his peaks were often overshadowed by a miraculous Botham feat. But it’s worth retelling that if it was Botham who hatched the famous Headingley heist, it was Willis who turned the ruthless executioner, taking 8 for 43 in 15 overs of sustained hostility. He let it rip as per Brearley’s orders and ripped out the Aussies. And then he let it rip on the press, which had ridiculed him. A rare outburst, but reflective of his inward volatility.
Arguably the last great tearaway England produced — he didn’t slow down despite recurring ankle and knee injuries — he conserved his best for the Australians (128 wickets in 35 Tests). He wasn’t a fairweather bowler either — averaging 22.37 in India, 26.22 in Pakistan and 29 in Australia. It was broadcaster Christopher Martin Jenkins who best described him. “A deceptively awkward-looking young beanpole, mop-haired, silent and mean”.
Tall, lanky bowlers can be clumsy catchers. But Willis wasn’t. He often manned third slip, forming a safe house with Brearley at first slip and the enormous Greig at second. He barely flung or stretched but completed his catches so effortlessly that it seemed he had choreographed the sequence in his mind. It was his catching that first caught the attention of John Snow and Derek Underwood on Willis’s first tour to Australia.
His batting, though, evoked humour, though he averaged a handsome 11.70 (by 1970s standards) and held fort for 171 minutes (scoring 24 not out) against the rampaging West Indies quicks in an extraordinary last-wicket stand of 117 with Peter Willey. But he’s more bantered for walking into the middle in full guard but without a cricket bat.
His captaincy stint went awry — his side was weakened by defections as Graham Gooch, Boycott and Underwood were banned from international cricket for three years from 1982 for going on a rebel tour to South Africa – but he seldom mumbled or cribbed and played wholeheartedly under David Gower till his retirement.
He briefly took to coaching, but it ended disastrously as well. He found solace in the commentary box. Not one who was easily excited, often dour and sombre, Willis was matter-of-fact and concise, though hyper-critical. Then England in the 1990s beggared criticism for their consummate sloppiness. His commentary was quite like his bowling, unaesthetic and sharp, bereft of bling and brio. An antithesis of Botham.
Robert George Willis was his baptised name, But when he was 12, he inserted Dylan into his name, smitten of course by the American folk-rock singer. He brandished a guitar and grew hair and soon they started calling him “Bob”. It stuck on, like the moniker “Goose” because his action resembled the flapping of the bird.
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