Death is not going to be the end of Willis who inspired a generation of English fast bowlers
Bob Willis was an authority on Bob Dylan. He loved talking about Wilhelm Wagner, the great German composer. Little wonder then that he sometimes drew the ‘Blowin’ in the wind’ analogy after sending the stumps flying.
Willis bowled with searing pace, coming off an awkward 30-yard run-up. But somehow, at least from a distance, it never felt like he was trying to hit the batsmen—former Australia opener Rick McCosker might disagree. During the India versus West Indies Test at Madras in 1983—still part of Indian cricket folklore because Sunil Gavaskar made 236 not out to create a new world record, surpassing Don Bradman’s 29 Test hundreds—Michael Holding had bowled three consecutive beamers to Syed Kirmani partly because the West Indies fast bowler was said to be frustrated with umpiring and also that the Indian wicketkeeper was showing defiance, building a solid partnership with Gavaskar. The beamer barrage stopped only after the umpires intervened on Gavaskar’s insistence.
Compare this with Willis… During the Old Trafford Test in 1982, Sandeep Patil took the England fast bowler to the cleaners, hitting six fours in an over. “Not a single bad word was used by Willis. No swearing, no abuse, nothing. In fact, he congratulated me after I hit the fifth boundary, as it took me to my hundred. We became great friends off the field. He was a great person,” Patil told this correspondent.
Patil was quick to add that he was ‘terrified’ to face Willis. “He was very quick and he was a great bowler. A tally of 325 Test wickets those days was equivalent to 10,000 Test runs.”
During a conversation a couple of months ago, Pakistan legend Javed Miandad was giving a low-down on the degree of difficulty that cricketers of the 1970s and ‘80s faced. “Taking wickets was not easy those days, so was run-scoring. The quality of cricket was a notch better. Batsmen faced fearsome quicks without wearing helmets (and later just basic helmets following its introduction during Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket). Bowlers faced batsmen who had top-class technique.”
Miandad’s method of playing Willis was usually to go inside the line of the ball and tucking it to the on/leg side. Willis made the ball rear off a length for fun. Back-and-across had to be the trigger movement for the batsmen.
For the Indian fans of a certain age, one of the most abiding memories has to be Willis coming from near the sightscreen and bowling to Gavaskar. The late Rajan Bala, a noted cricket correspondent of the ‘70s and ‘80s, once recounted a sequence of play. Willis had made one fly off the good length. Gavaskar, on his toes and top hand very loose, offered a dead bat. The ball virtually rolled down the bat-face to the
Little Master’s feet. Willis, after completing his follow through, stood and clapped. Ian Botham, standing at second slip, also applauded Gavaskar’s mastery.‘The Miracle of Headingley’ in 1981 was Willis’s finest hour. His 8/43 on the heels of Botham’s 149 not out overturned the 500-1 odds, as England secured an improbable win over Australia. “Fast and straight” was captain Mike Brearley’s message to the fast bowler. Willis followed that to the hilt, making the Australian batsmen surrender to his hostility. It was hallelujah (of Dylan vintage).
“People said I was in another world. In a cocoon of concentration; the modern cliché would be ‘in the zone’. I didn’t want to be distracted by having to set the field or by celebrating wickets; I just wanted to get back to my mark as fast as I could,” Willis had said about his Headingley sorcery.
Earlier this year, Ben Stokes served up ‘The Miracle of Headingley, Part 2’ in another Ashes Test. Willis, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer three years ago, wasn’t in the commentary box to savour the victory. His health deteriorated in the last few months.
In 90 Tests, Willis took 325 wickets at an average 25.20. In 308 first-class games, he accounted for 899 scalps at 24.99. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he never pulled out of tours to the subcontinent citing flat pitches, Delhi belly and cockroaches. In 10 Tests in India, Willis took 32 wickets at 22.37, while in four Tests in Pakistan he had a tally of nine wickets at 26.22. “Great bowlers are not fair-weather bowlers, and Willis was a great bowler,” Miandad said.
After his retirement in 1984, Willis became an acerbic TV pundit, probably a prosaic version of Dylan’s Protest songs. Death is not going to be the end of this cricketing colossus who inspired a generation of English fast bowlers.
“Oh, the tree of life is growing , where the spirit never dies, and the bright light of salvation shines, in dark and empty skies” — Bob Dylan.