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Epitome of determination in sport, one of England’s fastest bowlers of all time

By Harsh Thakor* 

On May 30th the cricket world celebrated the 75th birth anniversary of arguably England’s fastest post-war pace bowler, Bob Willis. Sadly he left for his heavenly abode On December 4th, 2019, at the age of 70, after suffering from prostate cancer, for a prolonged period of 3 years. 
His full chested action and ultra long run up was not approved by the purists, but was nevertheless effective. Few fast bowlers had a more accurate off stump line. Willis could extract bounce, on the most docile surfaces, which amazed fans. Inspite of his back giving him frequent trouble, he always got the better of it. Injuries were a frequent feature of his career but his unflinching resilience overcame them. Bob Willis was arguably the most courageous fast bowler who ever played for England. After undergoing operations on both knees in 1975, when he was 26, he almost always bowled with pain, and at one stage ran five miles a day to recover the strength to play at all.
Willis on his day was simply grit, resilience and determination personified, manifesting spirit of David conquering the Goliath. When steaming in with a new ball, few pace bowlers ever were more fiery or elevated aggression or competitive spirit to such heights. Willis was a combination of height and determination, in perfect proportion, standing at 6ft 6in.
Arguably no post-1970s Englishman was more lethal or penetrative with the new ball. Bob was a master at extracting pace and bounce, irrespective of the conditions. Willis lacked the classical repertoire of a classical fast bowler and had a rough and choppy bowling action. He was not pleasing to the eye like a shire horse, but in effect had the power of a thoroughbred horse. Few fast bowlers had a more accurate off stump line. In spite of his back giving him frequent trouble, he always got the better of it.
Bob was schooled in Guildford Royal Grammar School. In his young days. Bob Dylan was his idol, on whom he modelled himself..From age of 14, Willis created shivers down the spine of schoolboy opposition. In 1970/71 Willis made a spectacular leap from Surrey schools to win an England cap.
Willis faced acute insomnia in his early playing days, often spending nights without sleeping. Sydney hypnotist, Dr Jackson gave him the required medication to cure it.
Willis had to overcome a defective run from wide mid-off to be  so chest on at the crease that the ball would automatically dip into the right-handed batsmen, making it only possible to trap batsman leg before or bowl him.and not dismiss him in any other manner. He rectified this defect in the late 1970s, now running straight, enabling the ball to travel straight and lift.

Playing career highlights 

Astonishingly Willis had a haul of less than 300 wickets in English county cricket, representing Warwickshire, putting down around 2500 overs,which was meagre. In his best English season, he captured only 55 wickets.
Willis gained his baptism into test cricket in the 1970-71 Ashes in Australia in the final test .However he reappeared on the test scene only in the 1974-75 Ashes in Australia, taking 15 scalps in 3 games and facing knee injuries.
Willis made a spectacular return in the 4th test in 1976 against a top West Indies team at Leeds, capturing 8 wickets. He rattled the likes of Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Clive Lloyd.
Willis was most effective in India where he captured a series winning 20 wickets in 1976-77 at a most inexpensive average of 16.75.Outstanding, considering the docile nature of the tracks.
In 1977 he took his then career best 7- 78 at Leeds at against a 2nd string Australian team, deprived of best players, who had enrolled for Kerry Packer cricket. In that edition of the Ashes he captured 27 wickets at 19.77 apiece, which was a most meritorious performance.
In the 1978-79 Ashes series in Australia, Willis captured a series winning 20 scalps at 23.05 runs apiece, against an Aussie team deprived of the bets players who had signed off for World Series cricket
In most of his series he rarely averaged more than 25-30 with the ball which is commendable, be it in India, Pakistan, New Zealand, West Indies or Australia. It is also praiseworthy that he had more top order batsmen scalps than most fast bowlers, overshadowing Ian Botham in this regard.  
In 1980 and 1981 Willis resurrected himself from dire straits with a Muhammad Ali style comeback. 
In 1980 Bob Willis’s lethal spells of 5-82 and 4-65 at Trent Bridge against the mighty West Indies, all but created a dramatic upset at Trent Bridge with the Calypsos. A couple of dropped catches robbed England in toppling arguably the best test team ever. The West Indian batsmen were all at sea by the disconcerting bounce and pace of Willis. To me has to rank amongst the best spells ever bowled against the great West Indies team. 
In 1981 on the 5th day at Leeds Australia were coasting home at 55-1 chasing a meagre  target of 130 before  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 dislodged 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 ignited the first waves that turned into a deluge.
After lunch Willis carried on where he left switching on the screws of the Australian batsmen who were now perplexed. 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. 
On that day Willis was a cocoon of concentration. The fierce resilience of great military commander was written on his face. His line and length was simply impeccable, perfectly exploiting the uneven bounce on a wicket to perfection on an ‘untrue’ test pitch. He simply banged the ball in the right spot to make the ball rise alarmingly, doing exactly the job that the doctor ordered.  No English pace bowler more inspired me to overcome the depths of adversity as Willis here.
Even in the minute of glory Willis did not display ecstasy but ran off the field with spirit of vengeance accomplished written all over his face against the press, who had written him off. In my view this was the best ever spell ever by a bowler in a run chase when you consider he performed near miracle, to resurrect England from the grave, to turn fortunes 360 degrees and reach the pinnacle of glory. The scene was similar of character jumped into novel to give the plot a sensational turn.
It is praiseworthy that he had more top order batsmen scalps than most fast bowlers, overshadowing Ian Botham in this regard 
Willis also went on the rampage  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. Capturing 29 scalps in that edition of the Ashes Willis had reversed the fate of a test series as few bowlers ever did. 
At Lords versus India he captured a match-winning 6-103 in a marathon spell in the 2nd innings in his debut test as captain, penetrating the heart of the powerful Indian batting line up. He beautifully penetrated the gate of Yashpal Sharma, Syed  Kirmani  and Ashok Malhotra. 
At Leeds in 1983 versus New Zealand he bowled one of cricket’s most tenacious 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 match turning opening spells against a top class Pakistani batting line up at Edgbaston and Headingley in 1982 which played an important role in his team’s series win.
Even in the minute of glory Willis did not display ecstasy but ran off the field with spirit of vengeance accomplished written all over his face against the press, who had written him off. In my view this was the best ever spell ever by a bowler in a run chase when you consider he performed a near miracle, to resurrect England from the grave to turn fortunes 360 degrees and reach the pinnacle of glory. The scene was similar to a character jumped into a novel to give the plot a sensational turn.
At times Bob Willis could shine with the bat. I can never forget his unflinching resilience 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 resurrected  England on the verge  almost certain defeat. In 1982 against Pakistan at Edgbaston, in a defiant 79 run partnership for the last wicket with Bob Taylor, he turned England’s fortunes who were tottering at 212-9, in 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 in the bracket of 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. 
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. 
In ranking his 100 all-time great cricketers, late John Woodcock ranked Willis at 86th place, ahead of likes of Wes Hall and Alan Donald, which is controversial.
  In my view to join the club of ‘all-time greats’ Willis had to be more productive overseas, be it in Australia or the subcontinent. Bob was hardly at his best in Pakistan or West Indies.
Possibly Willlis’s undoing was his sole dependence on sheer pace .Unlike other pace bowling greats; he did not sufficiently work on fast bowling craft, in terms of variation of pace or swing and movement.


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 astute judgement and motivated his players to the optimum level..  His leadership played a crucial factor in England staving off a challenge from a strong Pakistani team in 1982 to win the series 2-1.


Bob was also a very fine commentator with very astute judgement of the game. I adored his down to earth, easy style. He rated Viv Richards as the best batsmen he ever bowled to and in his all-ltime XI chose Gary Sobers, Imran Khan, Glen Mcgrath, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis and Herbert Sutcliffe.Inspite of being an Englishman he did not select Ian Botham in it, which was most sporting. I can never forget the kind words he expressed for Sunil Gavaskar who he rated very highly and sportingly expressed that India deserved to win the 1979 test at the Oval. Nor can I forget his praise for India’s positive middle order batting 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. 
Appropriately a Bob Willis prostate cancer fund has been set up in his memory to promote research into it’s diagnosis. It would inspire affected persons to combat prostate cancer with the same resilience as Willis exuded in his cricketing days.
*Freelance journalist 



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