Tributes have flooded social media following the news that legendary England cricketer Bob Willis has died.
Instant flashbacks to Headingley 1981 and all that for many of us. I always admired this man, moreso in later years, warming to him on The Debate on Sky Sports with him being so dismissive on those dismal England performances.
His love of Bob Dylan (I hadn’t been aware of this) inspired me to entitle this tribute “Hurricane” – perhaps succinct when we remember his bowling and that devastation of the Aussies in ’81. I’ll post the song here too, trusting that it may have been an R.G.D favourite.
Willis’s family announced the tragic news on Tuesday afternoon following a short illness, having passed away at the age of 70.
“We are heartbroken to lose our beloved Bob, who was an incredible husband, father, brother and grandfather,” his family said in a statement.
Bob Willis ended his career with 325 Test wickets, which puts him fourth on the all-time list for England behind James Anderson, Ian Botham and Stuart Broad. His standout display at Headingley in taking eight wickets for 43 runs immortalised his legacy as one of the iconic displays in the third Ashes Test, swinging the series in England favour in what became known as ‘Botham’s Ashes’.
Having enjoyed a stellar playing career, taking 325 Test wickets in 90 matches for England, Willis enjoyed an equally impressive second career as a broadcaster, providing insight, analysis and entertainment throughout over more than 25 years with Sky Sports.
“He was a brilliant pundit, acerbic wit and, then away from that, one of the funniest, warmest and most generous people you could ever meet. He’s been incredible as far as his encouragement of the younger guys, which includes me, and he’ll be hugely missed by everybody.
Bob Willis was born in Sunderland to Ted Willis and his wife, Anne (nee Huntington), who moved south to Surrey when Ted became a radio subeditor and then a news executive at the BBC. Bob went to the Royal grammar school, Guildford, which was then a state school, and grew up playing endless cricket in his garden and at the local recreation ground with his elder brother, David.
He also embraced the 1960s by growing his hair and adding Dylan as an extra middle name. The broadcaster Christopher Martin-Jenkins faced him briefly in club cricket: he called him “a deceptively awkward-looking young beanpole, mop-haired, silent and mean”
On the 1976-77 tour of India, then the last place on earth one would expect a fast bowler to flourish, it all came right. He straightened his run, tore India apart in two of the tests, and was proclaimed by Wisden as “a bowler of genuine pace and indisputable class”. The following summer, when England again took back the Ashes, Willis was even more dominant, with 27 wickets in five Tests.
There was still a certain fragility – of body, mind and technique. But Mike Brearley, who had now replaced Tony Greig as England captain, was a great admirer. “He was quick, awkward, liable to move the ball in with his natural inswing, and occasionally the ball would hold and go the other way off the seam,” he said.
Willis was constantly seeking to improve as well and saw a Sydney hypnotherapist who helped him work on his stamina by going on long runs. “I think this suited him by getting him in the zone,” said Brearley, who also noticed Willis emerge as a major influence when he was promoted to vice-captain in 1978. “He was a great team man, passionate, impatient of frivolity or looseness. If someone was not pulling their weight, he would insist, ‘They should be told’.”
His broadcasting style was lugubrious, and not to everyone’s taste. During a Test in Lahore he took an ill-advised walk round the boundary and was greeted by the Barmy Army of England fans with the chant: “Boring Bob, Boring Bob, Boring Bobby Willis!”
But he was forthright in comment and remained part of Sky’s main commentary team for nearly 20 years before retreating to the post-match analysis feature, The Debate, a format that suited him well: he could produce withering put-downs and umpteen plans to reform county cricket. Away from cricket, maturity took him towards opera and away from Bob Dylan.
He was always an interesting, wide-ranging, slightly melancholy character and even that Barmy Army chant was tinged with affection. Bob was a true son of the game and cricket will miss him.
“Bob was just a sweet, sweet guy. He was always kind and considerate, but tough as well. Tough as old boots.
“Yet beneath that quite stern exterior that he portrayed on Sky Sports, there was a heart of gold. He was a hugely kind and gentle individual.
“I also think it worth saying that it isn’t the only thing that he had. There was his love of Bob Dylan, which is very well documented – he could recite the lyrics to every song that Bob wrote and would do so at certain times of night if given the right encouragement! He was an interesting and interested man, he was always looking to learn new things or to be enthralled by new stuff.”
“It is difficult because we were the very best of friends and we were together at the end.
“I was there when Bob passed away, with Lauren, his wife, and Katie, his daughter, in Wimbledon this afternoon. It was a peaceful passing, but it was obviously a hugely emotional moment.
From Bob to Bob
Gower was in the England side, inspired by Willis and Ian Botham’s heroics, that famously fought back to beat the Australians against all odds in 1981.
“Headingley was a brilliant moment, the irony was they tried to drop him before that Test match, so that was him making a point and he was very good at doing that during his career,” Gower, 62, told BBC Radio 5 live.
“He has always been making points and he makes them very firmly. Anyone seeing that game would have seen a burning bright passion coming through the eyes.
“There is a huge contrast to Bob, a lot of people have seen him on programmes where his trenchant opinion is put across in great style. He was very forthright on players of the current generation, but behind it all is a very different character. He was multi-faceted.
“He was a huge Bob Dylan fan, in fact he changed his name to Robert George Dylan Willis by deed poll, which tells its own story, and he could tell you any Dylan lyric. He was a bright man, very good company and a wine connoisseur.
“He was very civilised and erudite, maybe too erudite for most, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was very eclectic in all sorts of things. He was passionate about cricket, and the way he talked about it too.”
Willis was a huge Bob Dylan fan – even changing his name by deed poll
Willis represented Surrey for the first two years of his professional career before spending 12 years at Warwickshire, finishing with 899 wickets from 308 first-class matches at an average of 24.99.
Despite needing surgery on both knees in 1975, he became one of the finest fast bowlers of his generation, playing another nine years and claiming his 325 Test wickets at an impressive average of 25.20.
Bob will be sadly missed not just by the cricket world but by all of those who knew him and whose lives he touched. I believe the world has lost a loving, generous and honourable man today.
May you rest in peace now.
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