Bob Willis

Today the cricket world celebrates the 40th anniversary of arguably the best ever spell by a fast bowler in the 4th innings of a test match. Late Bob Willis took spirit of resilience or combative spirit, to regions rarely traversed in sport. In the 4th test at Leeds versus Australia. Willis’s spell of 8-43 in the 2nd innings at Leeds in 1981 versus Australia ressurected England from the grave or depths of despair to reach the pinnacle of glory.  Sadly he left us in 2019 being a victim of prostate cancer.

No adjective in the English dictionary could do justice to the relentless spirit never- say –die attitude. Willis displayed that day, reminiscent of a great military commander in the 2nd world war. When charging in he was cocoon of concentration. His line and length was simply impeccable. With the surgical skill of an architect he extracted the uneven bounce on a wicket that was not ‘true’ for test cricket. I can’t visualise a pacemen doing more justice to the given conditions or performing a task with such clinical perfection. He simply banged the ball in the perfect place, doing exactly the job that the doctor ordered. Willis was simply cometh the hour cometh the man.

Willis steaming in from the top of his run was one of cricket’s most menacing sights to behold. In full steam with the new ball he was as fiery as anyone and the ultimate epitome of grit and aggression.He may not have looked pleasing to the eye like a shire horse, but in essence had the qualities of a beautiful thoroughbred. Few pacemen or arguably no post-1970’s Englishman was as lethal with the new ball. Bob was a master at extracting pace and bounce in any conditions. Willis lacked the variety of a classical fast bowler and did not possess a smooth bowling action. However he compensated for it by his fierce workmanlike approach. At his best he could be as intimidating as any pace bowler.

Twice in his career Wilis made A Muhammad Ali style comeback. The 1st was against West Indies at Trent Bridge in 1980 and the 2nd was at Headingley against Australia in 1981.

What was remarkable was his consistency even on dead pitches in India where he captured 20 wickets in 1976-77 and when he had 20 scalps at a most inexpensive average in Australia in 1978-79.In most of his series he rarely averaged more than 25-30 with the ball which is praiseworthy., be it in India, Pakistan, New Zealand, West Indies or Australia. It is also noteworthy that he had more top order batsmen scalps than most fast bowlers, overshadowing Ian Botham in this regard.

In 1981 on the 5th day at Leeds Australia were coasting home at 55-1 chasing a meagre  target of 130 before Willis caused the equivalent of one of the most sensational turn or twists in the climax of plot of a Hollywood movie. Skipper Mike Brearley made a masterly tactical move by changing Bob Willis to bowling from the Kirkstall lane end. In the last 2 overs before lunch he removed Trevor Chappell with an unplayable snorter which he fended of to be caught, had Kim Hughes caught in slip with a lifting delivery and Graham Yallop caught as Short leg fending of a rising delivery. These dismissals lit the first spark which turned into a prairie fire.

After lunch Willis carried on where he left further tightening the noose on the Australian batsmen who were now in a state of bewilderment. He dismissed John Dyson misjudging a hook, Rod March top edging a flier to Graham Dilley, Geoff Lawson nicking to the keeper and Lillee holding out to Gatting at mid on. Finally he bowled Ray Bright through the gate to create cricket’s most sensational victory or turnabout in the game’s history. Even in the minute of glory Willis did not display ecstasy but ran off the field bestowing the same agression or anger when playing, with the media who had literally written him off before the game. In my book this was the best ever spell ever by a bowler in a run chase when you assess the circumstances he lifted England out of adversity.

No adjective in the English dictionary could do justice to the relentless spirit or intensity Willis displayed that day reminiscent of a great military commander in the 2nd world war. When charging in he was cocoon of concentration. His line and length was simply impeccable. With the surgical skill of an architect he extracted the uneven bounce on a wicket that was not ‘true’ for test cricket. I can’t visualise a pacemen doing more justice to the given conditions or performing a task with such clinical perfection. He simply banged the ball in the perfect place, doing exactly the job that the doctor ordered. Willis was simply cometh the hour cometh the man.

Willis also went on a blitzkreig at Old Trafford in the 5th test of the same 1981 Ashes  in the 1st innings when the Aussies crashed for a mere 130 ,taking 4-63.He accounted foot the scalps of ,Graham Yallop ,Kim Hughes and John Dyson in a single spell. In the opening overs at Old Trafford he simply looked as though he cast a spell over the Australian batsmen, intimidating them psychologically. Capturing 29 scalps in that edition of the Ashes Willis had defined or turned the fate of a test series as few bowlers ever did.

My other best memories of Bob were against West Indies at Trent Bridge in 1980.against India at Lords in 1982 and against New Zealand at Leeds in 1983.

His spell s of 5-82 and 4-65 at Trent Bridge against the mighty West Indies, all but turned the tables at Trent Bridge with the Calypsos evading defeat by the skin of their teeth. A couple of dropped catches robbed England of untold glory in toppling arguably the best test team ever. The West Indian batsmen looked in agony tackling the disconcerting bounce and pace of Willis who looked as though the spirits posessed him. To me has to rank amongst the best spells ever bowled against the great West Indies team.

At Lords versus India he captured 6-103 in the 2nd innings in his debut test as captain, ripping through the heart of the powerful Indian batting line up. With surgical skill he exploited the ridge at Lords .At Leeds versus New Zealand he bowled one of cricket’s great spells in a losing cause when defending a total capturing 5-35., in the manner of a warhorse. Chasing a meagre 103 the Kiwis lost 5 wickets. Bob also bowled some very effective opening spells against a top class Pakistani batting line up in 1982 which played an important role in his team’s series win.

At times Bob Willis could also be determination personified with the bat. I also can’t forget his grit as a batsman when involved in a 219 run stand for the last wicket with Peter Willey, at the Oval against West Indies, in 1980.It rescued England from the jaws of almost certain defeat. In 1982 against Pakistan at Edgbaston, in 79 run partnership for the last wicket with Bob Taylor, he lifted England to rise from the depths of despair to pull of glorious victory.

Willis captured 325 wickets at an average of 25.20 in 90 tests. Statistically, he ranked amongst the all-time great fast bowlers. In terms of average he performed better than Ian Botham ,Kapil Dev Jeff Thomson or Jimmy Anderson .His strike rate was at 53.6 was around the same as greats like Imran Khan and Wasim Akram and better than those greats like Ian Botham,Andy Roberts or even Courtney Walsh. Arguably it is also because Willis did not carry as much workload with the ball as Botham or Walsh or even Kapil Dev.  His place amongst the great English fast bowlers is debatable but without doubt he was amongst the 6 most impact full English pace bowlers of all time. With a new ball perhaps only Trueman, Statham, Snow or Larwood were ahead.

As a skipper he had a successful record at home winning 3 successive series from 1982 to 1983 but abroad he had no success. Still he led England to a close series in Pakistan in 1983-84 and in New Zealand in 1984. Willis made a most notable debut in 1982 as a captain, winning successive series against India and Pakistan. He marshalled his resources with great flair, bringing the best out of all his players.  His leadership played a crucial factor in England staving off a challenge from a strong Pakistani team, with England facing precarious situations in junctures.

Bob was also a very fine commentator with very astute judgement of the game. He rated Viv Richards as the best batsmen he ever bowled to and in his all-ltime XI chose Imran Khan, Glen Mcgrath, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Herbert Sutcliffe .Inspite of being an Englishman he did not select Ian Botham in it. I can never forget the kind words he had for Sunil Gavaskar who he rated very highly and expressed that India deserved to win the 1979 test at the Oval. Nor can I forget his praise for India’s batsman and Kapil Dev at Lords in 1982.

Above all he was a very affable character with a great sense of humour who always s upheld the spirit of the game and did justice to cricket being a gentleman’s sport. The Cricket world will truly thus miss one of its best loved characters.

Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist.Toured India,particularly Punjab .Written on Mass movements ,,Massline,Maoism on blogs like Democracy and Class Struggle and frontierweekly .An avid cricket lover too who has posted writings on blogs like Pakpassion Indian Cricket Fans and Sulekha.com

Email-thakor.harsh5@gmail.com


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