On Derek Underwood

The name has it.

Derek Leslie Underwood.

Cricketers aren’t called Derek anymore. Or Leslie. The name speaks of forgotten times. When Derek Underwood was born, in the anticipatory months between VE Day and the war’s ultimate end, people were called names like Derek and Leslie. Some of them even went on to be cricketers.

To me, the association of Derek Underwood, who died this week, with a time that all the world mythologises but increasingly few actually remember, is significant. Because, over the long years since he left the first-class game in 1987, he himself seemed a player who increasingly few remembered, but others, like me – who did recall the accuracy, oh yes, the accuracy – spoke of with a reverence and an admiration which could lead others to believe that the man was a myth. The figures helped; 101 wickets in his first season at barely 18 years old, 500 before the age of 22, a thousand at 25. To modern eyes these numbers are imbued with a strong sense of unreality.

But he wasn’t a myth. He could bowl like nobody else.

In cricket there are also mythologised times. As the game which people of my generation fell in love with hits the rocks and struggles for air, we reach for what we can. We reach for memories.

I am too young (How nice it is to say that. It is rare now.) to remember The Oval in 1968, which is what people older than me always talk about, but to me Underwood is symbiotically linked to the time cricket hooked me. It is the early to mid-1970s; the John Player League is on the television every Sunday afternoon in summer, presented by Peter Walker or Peter West. Kent, with their unique scoreboard, and a tree inside the Canterbury boundary, with Bob Woolmer when he bowled, and Graham Johnson, and the peerless cover work of Alan Ealham, and Norman Graham, and Asif, and of course Knott and Underwood, are always on and are usually winning. And Underwood is always there, splay-footed, tugging at his sleeve as he plods back and considers his options, before jogging in and bowling and hitting the spot with the rhythm and regularity of a metronome. In batting these are pre-evolutionary times: ramps are what you sometimes drive over, scoops are used to serve ice cream or what passed for mashed potato in school dinners. As Underwood bowled, batsmen defended then vainly attacked because their overs were limited and they had to; any amount of cut, or swing or swerve, or change of pace, and he would have them.

This also happened in Championship or Test cricket, where he had more time, more overs and more assistance from weather and turf, but I saw less of that. Championship games weren’t on TV and Tests often happened on schooldays.

But there are vignettes. Vignettes which speak of skill, and shrewdness and the competitiveness of the great bowler. In one such it is The Oval, it is August 1976 and the ground is brown. Viv Richards has a lot of runs – maybe 150, or 170, or even 230 – just a lot. Underwood has been toiling in the heat and dirt and sweat for hours. He is not renowned for variation or experiment or guile, but he knows what to do. So he holds one back and gives it a little air; Richards is fooled and drives it straight to mid off, where Chris Balderstone, who is having a nightmare match, drops it. Underwood looks daggers at him and then returns to his mark. People who met him talk of Underwood’s humility, but at that moment, with a momentary flash of dissatisfaction, you saw an element of the underlying steel which went with all the technical skill and layers of experience to make him the bowler he was.

In an era when innovation in batting demands innovation in bowling, and the worth of a seamer is judged on how well they can meet originality with their own sense of difference, the thought of a bowler doing what Underwood did, dropping it on a length year after year and letting the (often rain affected) pitch do its worst, seems alien. In a world addicted to mystery, to slower balls, yorkers and slower ball yorkers, Underwood’s image in the mind is of the conservatism of the post-war cricket that he was born into; the era of Derek Shackleton bowling maiden upon maiden at Northlands Road, or Ken Barrington blocking for England. A monochrome game in a monochrome era.

It is a truism to say that – sometimes for good and others for ill – the game is not what it was, and it is also a truism to say that nowadays nobody bowls like Derek Underwood.

But then nobody ever did.


When Autumn Comes

When autumn comes, we reflect. We reflect on what we have done, where we have been, who we have met. Where we are going. Literally and metaphorically.

County cricket supporters do this. This, of all autumns, we do this.

At this time of the English year, with skies darkening early and covers in place, there is always a sense of loss. For people whose lives revolve around the game, this can be acute, and now, with so many of the game’s old certainties cast to the winds and many more to go, it is stronger than ever before. It is reflection tempered by uncertainty, by confusion, by anxiety. Nobody likes to relinquish the things which have defined their life.

This sense of loss can be for players, for grounds, for memories, for things which are tangible and things which you just feel. This is what life is about.

For around half his life James Hildreth played cricket for a living. He didn’t become rich and he didn’t become famous. At least not in the way in which fame is generally understood now, but this is of no consequence to him or to those who knew and loved what he could do.

One of the signature emotional narratives of all sport is that of the lost player. The player who had it all and lost it, through carelessness or untimely misfortune. The player who could have had it all and didn’t, whether through design, circumstance or luck. The player who nearly had it all but let his chance slip.

The second of those descriptions fits Hildreth like a batting glove. And in Somerset, with its history of glorious failures and occasional success, it added lustre to an aura guaranteed by what he could do with a bat.

I moved to the South West as a young adult in the early nineties and so missed experiencing Somerset’s greatest years in person. I’ve often thought about what it must have been like to watch that team. In the era of transient overseas players who come and go as quickly as birds on the outfield, the idea that you could watch a county side containing Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Joel Garner seems like something from a fantasy world. But, apart from those years, Somerset teams have mainly been founded on more prosaic players and their virtues: dedication, devotion, honesty.

This was James Hildreth’s world, but he occupied his own space, somewhere above it.

A short man, whose body language tended to speak of his modesty, an untutored eye could mistake him for a mere mortal, especially on one of those days when he scratched around for form. But to see him at the crease on a good day was to see batting as art.

It is an observation so well worn that it has become a cliché, but it is nevertheless true that one of the essential signifiers of greatness in any sport is the way in which certain performers seem to have more time than others. Time to think, time to decide, time to execute. It may be illusory, but you know it when you see it. James Hildreth had time.

The kaleidoscope of the mind supplies the images at times like these. For me it begins with his 72 in the second innings of the game in which he made his maiden first-class century, against Durham at Taunton in May 2004. The young Hildreth is much the same as he always was: compact and unpretentious, stylish, if not in the elegant manner of Gower or Vince, in the way of a player who will get you runs with certainty and assurance when the force is with him. He immediately looks as though he belongs at the highest level of cricket he has ever played at, even though, to most of the people watching, he is just a kid.

The next time I see James Hildreth close up, he is not batting. He is not even playing. It is late July in 2005 and he is acting as twelfth man for England. He has very short hair and he is doing what twelfth men do as England toil in the field: running out drinks and towels, maybe even offering some reserved words of encouragement. I am standing at the back of the Long Room as he waits for an over to end and I notice him looking around. The Long Room at Lord’s is the sort of place that makes you look around, especially if you have not been there before. It is possible that he is thinking about what it would be like to play for England. Later that afternoon he does play for England, taking an easy catch at point off Matthew Hoggard to dismiss Ricky Ponting. He is mobbed by his temporary team-mates – Vaughan, Pietersen, Flintoff, Strauss – and he would not be human if he did not think what it would be like to play for England as a selected player, and to bat with the lions on his chest. Little does he know that it will never happen. This, in terms of international cricket, is as good as it will ever get.

Years pass at Taunton, and I see him make lots of runs. Soon, it seems, it is 2015 and he is creaming a rapid early season 187 off Middlesex. This innings is why, when it comes to the last day of that year and I am with a group of people who I don’t know, overlooking the lights of Cape Town, I am talking to anyone who will listen about James Hildreth. I am drunk, but not too drunk to get the impression that they are wondering who I am talking about. To them he is just another county batsman; I know he is far more than that.

The late Hildreth years see him as an elder statesman in the Somerset side, although that is a designation which doesn’t quite suit him, partly because of his nature and partly because Marcus Trescothick, whose career pre-dates his by ten years, plays on for so long. But he has the badges of honour: the faded cap, dyed by hundreds of hours of crease-bound sweat, the greying beard, the tens of thousands of runs and centuries in the book. By common consent – if that means anything – he is the finest cricketer of his time never to be selected to play for a full England side in any format of the game.

I can’t get to Taunton as much as I’d like these days. With work, poor fixture scheduling and the pandemic conspiring against me, I didn’t see a ball bowled there between July 2019 and August 2021. My first game back was a Royal London One-Day Cup match against Yorkshire which was reduced to 20 overs per side by rain. James Hildreth played a match-winning innings of 61 not out off 34 balls, batting for a pivotal period with James Rew, a player who was yet to be born when Hildreth made his first-class debut. There is a feeling that this confluence of careers – one embryonic, one fading – pleases Hildreth, even if it gives him a sense of his cricketing mortality.

People talk in terms of parents and grandparents taking pleasure in knowing that their offspring will be making their mark in the world after they have gone. This is natural, and it can be the case in cricket too. There will be a time when James Rew’s career will be coming to a close, and it will be a surprise if it is not for a very long time. He will find himself at the other end from a prodigy as yet unborn and he will feel like James Hildreth once did with him.

In the meantime, James Hildreth has time to reflect.

James Hildreth always had time.


First World Thinking

There was once a time – we can call it 2019 – when we in the world’s rarefied zones of privilege could lapse into thinking that we were immune from death. The feeling could drift at times, sure, with the death of an elderly relative, even parents, just as long as they’d lived until the arbitrary point where their passing didn’t come as a shock and you felt that they’d lived a full life.

Age diminishes this – and didn’t I know it, even before today – but what kills it stone dead (no pun intended) are pandemics, and wars and the death of the greats.

Over the last two years we have seen and heard of too many deaths for it ever to seem a remote possibility again. Deaths from Covid-19 and now deaths in war. Not in Africa or the Middle East but in Europe, and the result of a calculated invasion and not ageless sectarian tensions (which is not, of course, to overlook or accept what happened over generations in Northern Ireland or the Balkans).

So, if we didn’t before, we know we are all vulnerable, all the time. Life is just as fragile, just as precious as it has always been. Living in the first world – even as one of the greatest cricketers there ever was – guarantees you nothing.

One minute it is morning in England in early March; you notice how early the sun has risen and the clarity of the light. The next you are thinking about what is happening in Ukraine, where people have more pressing things on their minds than the coming of Spring. The next you are taking in the fact that Rodney Marsh has died. Rodney Marsh, who you saw from the very earliest time you knew what cricket was; Rodney Marsh, who was just about the first international cricketer you ever came close to (you were standing next to the pavilion steps at Chelmsford when he led the Australian team out, throwing his fag away and telling your 11 year-old cricket friend where to go (impolitely, it must be said) when he asked for an autograph). But Rodney Marsh was 74, and you knew that had recently suffered a heart attack, so it wasn’t especially shocking, just sad in the way that deaths of great sportspeople always are to those of us who believe.

Soon it is early afternoon. The sun is still shining and you are at home trying to work. You struggle to concentrate; it has been a crowded and draining week, although that is just an excuse really. So you look at Twitter and the first thing you see is that Shane Warne has died. Looking back you’re not sure what you said, but it probably bore a strong similarity to the expletive used by Rod Marsh that time in Essex 45 years ago.

This is different. For one thing Shane Warne is – was – younger than you. Shane Warne was one of the best people ever to do what he did; Shane Warne was famous; Shane Warne was (you assume) rich. Shane Warne wasn’t living in Ukraine; Shane Warne didn’t have Covid-19. But Shane Warne was dead. In a few weeks it will be the cricket season in England; he will not see it.

Like anyone who was interested in cricket (and you were much more than simply ‘interested’) in the years either side of the millennium you had your memories of Warne. In lots of aspects they are the same as everyone else’s, but the random fragments coalesce rapidly into thoughts about The Oval on Monday 12th September 2005. This is far from surprising since you think about that day a lot. It is one of the times in your life (along with the week you spent at the London Olympics) about which you are inclined to think that people who weren’t there can never know what it was like. You can only reach for clichés about there being ‘something in the air’ and they are inadequate. You had to be there.

Shane Warne was there. He bowled from the start that day in an atmosphere pregnant with hopes, dreams and suppressed euphoria. As you watched Vaughan and Trescothick battle away against him you saw a great bowler who wasn’t going to let the Ashes, held by his country since long before he became a Test cricketer, slip without a fight. Of course, ultimately, slip they did, and a dropped catch by Warne himself sealed their fate. It was the best of times for some of us, and it was the worst of times for others.

Only later do you remember that years earlier you saw Warne take a hat-trick at the MCG on your birthday, but that was a different time. England were falling headlong to depressing defeat in a cavernous ground. There were no resonances.

In these turbulent days when our first world thinking can lapse in a different way – towards a feeling that all the old certainties are gone for good (and they are, because of course they were never certain at all) – we need sport, and we need cricket, and we need our recollections more than anything else. Once more it is cliché, but if the present is too difficult to bear and the future is as uncertain as it ever was, you can always think about a better time in the past. Things are different there.

Old players’ epitaphs are not engraved in stone; they are made of memories. Memories of days when the Ashes came home and you walked back to Victoria Coach Station in the September twilight; memories of remembered glory; memories of times when life and the world was better.

Shane Warne, with all his skill, and optimism and ingenuous joviality, would have settled for that.


Returning to Cheltenham

There were times during the long sporting hiatus which followed the fracturing of the world, when it was easy to believe that one’s return to watching county cricket would be emotional. This was because, at the start of the pandemic, it was reassuring to invest in the belief that there would be a time when it would all be over, when everything would return to ‘normal’. That may still come, although nobody who has lived through the blighted era of early Covid will ever be the same as they were in 2019. Physically, if you are fortunate, yes. Psychologically, no. We know too much.

When I last went to the old, venerated Cheltenham College ground to watch cricket, on 15th July 2019, we bathed in the afterglow of England winning the World Cup, the sun shone out of an azure sky, and nobody had any idea of what lay ahead. You never do, of course, but no-one apart from scientists and those supposed to be planning for them ever thought about pandemics, and those supposed to be planning for them in this country didn’t think hard enough. Nobody had ever heard or spoken the word ‘Covid’, or talked about ‘social distancing’ or worn a mask to go the shops. Many people – possibly including some who were at Cheltenham that day – were alive who are now dead as a result of the unspoken word. Life was simple then.

Returning to Cheltenham two years on there was no sense of euphoria or palpable emotion. Simply a collective feeling that maybe, just maybe, the beginning of some sort of end had been reached, although, for some, there may have been an underlying sense of illusory fragility which they cannot escape.

For most, this messy collage of responses fades into the background as play begins to the hum of conversation born of the end of enforced separation. Friends are reunited, as much in thought as in physical proximity, the thought being how much they love cricket and how much they love watching it played in these surroundings. This is what kept them going in the dark days of a locked down January.

As play settles there is a lovely example of the simple humanity of county cricket. When James Bracey, Gloucestershire’s number three, comes to the crease, there is a hint of extra resonance to the applause. The home supporters recognise his proud Bristolian’s role in Gloucestershire’s renaissance, and sympathise with him over his recent Test appearances, during which he struggled with two largely alien roles. For Bracey’s part he repays this loyalty by batting in both innings with an authoritative neatness and judgement which has an element of timelessness about it to match his surroundings. For his surroundings are those of a Victorian English public school; an institution suffused in the cliché of ‘muscular Christianity’ perhaps embodied by Middlesex’s Daryl Mitchell or Matt Taylor of Gloucestershire, although I have no idea how either of them likes to spend their Sunday mornings.

It is also appropriate that Bracey’s main partner in both innings is Miles Hammond. He is a student of architecture and he designs a couple of important knocks, punctuated by powerful cuts and drives which provide a counterpoint to Bracey’s more restrained accumulation. Elsewhere, although gravely let down by their batsmen, Tim Murtagh, 39, and Ethan Bamber, 22, both bowl with energetic purpose and skill, accruing figures which at one point are almost identical. Murtagh is a man who may be able to glimpse the dying of the light but gives no impression of being bothered by it; Bamber resonates fresh-faced enthusiasm and promise. In the Covid world hunches feel dangerous, but there is a feeling that Bamber could go far. He is the sort of cricketer Middlesex need. On the second afternoon, as Gloucestershire build a lead after Middlesex subside, thoughts turn to the way in which empires can crumble; anyone who has been around English cricket since the pre-T20 era will recall the days when Middlesex bestrode English domestic cricket like a colossus. Here, at late Covid Cheltenham the gallows humour of their supporters (“Do Lundy Island have a team?” “We can be the first side to win the Third Division”) indicates the depths to which they have fallen.

But then, if there’s anything that the last sixteen months have taught us it is that nothing is permanent and anything can crumble. The old certainties of the world have been torn asunder by disease, and much of the pleasure of coming to somewhere like Cheltenham lies in a desire to reclaim some small elements of our former lives which can be enjoyed for what they are but also for what they signify.

On the game’s second morning more old certainties come crashing down. News spreads that the England team has been hit by an outbreak of positive Covid tests and one player from either side has been called into the team. David Payne and John Simpson are two players who have never previously engaged the attention of the England selectors, so for them this is far from a return to normality; it is a welcome and unexpected journey into the unknown. Something of the same feeling must permeate the thoughts of Michael Atherton’s son Joshua De Caires, whose first innings in first-class cricket ends early with a raised finger greeting an lbw appeal. His body language as he departs the crease speaks of guilt and unease, but unease is the way of the world these days. He will come again.

For most other people at the ground, a gradual resumption of former lives and their mundanities is all that they want. Overheard conversations speak of altered living arrangements and cancelled holidays, but the tone is one of rumination, not bitterness. Most people know that they are the fortunate ones. Fortunate to have escaped death or Long Covid, fortunate to have been vaccinated, fortunate to be here. They have done things over the past year that they never thought they would have to do, or possibly even believed that they could. They now want to do things that they always did and never thought they would have to stop doing. It can, as one sweatshirt proclaims, be cycling from Cork to Kerry, or it can be watching a cricket match among friends.

We have lived under metaphorical clouds for months on end, but, as we head south-west out of town at the end of the second day, the watery sun dips and real clouds intrude. Rain will soon follow, but we have a sense that something in the world is slowly changing.

That, for now, is enough.


Not Cool

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. For India these past few weeks they have come thick and fast: Rahane for assuming the reins with such assurance and clarity of purpose, Gill for the sort of strokeplay – those half cuts, half drives through cover, sure, but also the odd defensive shot – which leaves you with little doubt you will be watching him for years on end. Mohammed Siraj, bowling lines, nipping it around, testing the batsmen in the consistent way you rarely used to see from Indian seamers but which now, with the bar raised by Bumrah, you expect. Pant, of course Pant, his instinctive power and desire to attack supplemented by his blithe, hitherto unshaken confidence. These are just some of the people who helped secure a series win for the ages, and then some.

Then there is Pujara. Modern cricket’s great outlier; a man you could term an anti-hero if such a description didn’t have overtones of cool. Because cool is something Pujara has never been and will never be, but this is of no matter because being cool is something which will never cross his mind. One of the signature effects of the evolving hegemony of short form cricket is the way in which, in most circumstances, the raison d’etre of batting has become the need to score as many runs as possible as quickly as possible. Technical merit is optional, as is fear of dismissal. If you can’t score quickly you’re better off getting out. When this attitude trickles into the mindset of a team in long-form cricket, they can quickly start to resemble lemmings plunging off a cliff. The comical Sri Lankan first innings at Galle exemplified this.

Pujara has never subscribed to this approach, and, as he gets older, he gives the impression of someone who increasingly wants, almost self-consciously, to reject it. And it is easily forgotten that where the nature of a game is not rigidly circumscribed by a finite number of overs it is always helpful not to lose your wicket. It is more important that you are still out there, even if your ponderousness and lack of style can start to frustrate your own supporters. If it is doing that to them you can be sure that it is having a far worse effect on the opposing side.

Pujara can easily be defined by what he is not. He is not cool, he does not score quickly, he does not have the charisma of Kohli or the hair of Siraj. What he does have is a pile of runs and an ocean of bravery. For all that many of his responses to the barrage of short balls he faced in the second innings in Brisbane were inadequate and revealed a chink in his armour which other bowlers will seek to exploit, his ability to withstand danger and pain to preserve his place at the crease had echoes of another batsman who wore the white rose of Yorkshire in a very different place and time.

In his reflexive stubbornness, his rejection of the batting zeitgeist, and the way in which the staccato nature of his technique often masks his class, there is a tendency for Pujara to remind me of Shivnarine Chanderpaul. There were times in his more extreme moods when Chanderpaul seemed to have forgotten that the fundamental purpose of batting is to score runs, and, in his latter days in the West Indies side there was the question of who, if not him, was going to do so. This is less of an issue for Pujara, not because he doesn’t start to look like that at times – he very much does – but that these days he always has someone, Kohli, or Gill, or Rahane, or Pant, who will score rapidly at the other end.

Soon, against England, he will check his grip and resume his stance. If he does it once he will probably do so hundreds and hundreds of times. He will not be cool, but for as long as he is batting, it will not matter.


What Cricket Does

In the past few days one old cricketer has died and another has announced his retirement. In terms of seriousness or finality they cannot be compared, but, in its own way, cricket mourns them both.

The death of David Capel hit me hard. Unexpectedly so. He was someone I’d seen play a little for Northants back in what now seems like a distant and opaque era: of single division county cricket, of plentiful outgrounds, even of matches that only lasted three days. But, as with so many players, memories are distilled through the medium of television, of radio, of the written media. For me, Capel will forever be associated in the memory with his one and only innings of real substance for England, 98, made in Karachi in the third Test match of England’s notorious tour of Pakistan in late 1987. Tormented by a combination of great spin bowling, chiefly from Abdul Qadir, and some of the worst umpiring ever seen in Test cricket, Capel’s long innings was a quiet epic. The type of knock where you left the radio (no live TV coverage then) to go shopping, came back to your car two hours later and found to your astonishment that England’s innings hadn’t finished and he was still batting.

There were other times, though: getting Viv out twice in Bridgetown in early 1990, as England began the long pushback against years of West Indian superiority, or gesticulating through the gloom as the Port of Spain Test came to a shuddering halt. But, in truth, David Capel was a man of the English county circuit. He grew to maturity there, he left his mark there – as much in terms of his humanity as his runs and wickets – and he finished his career there. The heartfelt responses of many of his former team-mates and players whom he coached and befriended testified to his popularity and exemplified the unshakeable bond that exists between those who have spent the best years of their cricketing lives treading the boards in the English provinces. Unlike many, Capel had tasted life at the top table, but the source of his reputation lay closer to home.

It is a truism that cricket, and all that goes with it, reveals character like no other sport. An element of this, at first-class level, where games take days to play and time away from home is part and parcel, is the amount of time that players spend together both at and away from the arenas where they ply their trade. This leads to a depth of knowledge, respect and emotion that feels unique. Rob Bailey was just a little younger than David Capel, played hundreds of matches with him and shared many moments of collaboration, triumph and intense disappointment, including several on that tour of the Caribbean. No wonder he was in tears as he went out to umpire at Edgbaston on the day following Capel’s death.

This is what cricket, especially county cricket, does.

Ian Bell was different. Ian Bell was a prodigy. Ian Bell found a high level of fulfilment at Test level, although I would argue that he never quite achieved what he was capable of. But then which of us does? It is always a judgment call and it is never an exact science. In common with many another English player – many another player from anywhere and everywhere – there is a feeling that he didn’t realise just how good he was capable of being.

Ultimately, though, this doesn’t matter at all. What matters are the shimmering memories of Ian Bell easing the ball through extra cover with an easy elegance and a tiny, slightly self-conscious, flourish. What matters is Ian Bell’s part in a short but golden era (which for many went unrecognised since it lay behind a television paywall) when England were the best cricket team in the world. What may matter in the future is keeping the memory of outstanding batsmen and men such as Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott and Paul Collingwood alive when people’s recollections are focused on those – Vaughan, KP, Strauss, Swann – who, through personality, or seniority, or choice of future career, are more easily recalled.

This will happen, though, as it always has. People will be talking about players. They will be complimenting and comparing them, and someone, probably me, will say ‘Ah, but you should have seen Ian Bell bat’.

This is what cricket does.


Bob Willis and Me

People die all the time. Some of them are cricketers.

In many cases their deaths are expected, but sometimes they are not. For every famous cricketer who passes on, a range of reactions is possible, sometimes separately, sometimes in conjunction with one another. Awareness, acceptance, reflection, and, in the case of certain players, thoughts of what was and what might have been.

The death of Bob Willis - unexpected because I had no idea he had been ill - resonated more with me than the passing of any England cricketer since Ben Hollioake in 2002. In Hollioake’s case it was the loss of a young life, the denial of promise and future achievement; with Willis it was the awareness of the loss of a major part of one’s own life and the certainty of mortality. It is always about the certainty of mortality.

When Ian Botham retired from first-class cricket in 1993, the Nottinghamshire wicket-keeper Chris Scott - who later became much more famous for dropping Brian Lara early in his 501 - said ‘That’s a piece of my childhood gone’. That made an impression on me. I was still fairly young then myself and I’d never really thought in that way about a retiring cricketer, let alone a dying one. Back then, hardly anyone who I’d actually seen play had died.

In the hours after Willis’s death was announced, many people of a certain age talked about the way in which they used to impersonate Bob Willis’s bowling action in the park. I was one of those. I could also do a mean Tony Greig, and a handy Derek Underwood, although, for my purposes, he was required to mutate into a right-arm bowler.

We all did that sort of thing. It was a time when the sight of children playing cricket in the park was still commonplace, and not the curiosity of today. Even before July 1981, Willis was a favourite. Botham and Gower were the typecast heroes; younger, easier to relate and aspire to, their profound gifts more obvious, but Willis, certainly after Headingley, was, for me anyway, the third member of the trinity. He was a bloody good bowler, and he was a little different. The post-match interview with Peter West embodied that, and he was still showing the same independence of mind it in the Sky studios nearly forty years later.

I watched every ball of Headingley on television. The school term hadn’t quite finished, but I was confined to home after an operation. All kinds of aspects of that weren’t pleasant, but in retrospect it worked out alright. I was already mad on cricket; after Headingley I became increasingly obsessed with it.

For a few years now I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to the dinner held at Lord’s each Spring to launch Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, and, for me, there is always a pervasive air of unreality about it. For a few hours of an April evening each year I am a boy again, surrounded by heroes. The ageless Mike Brearley is always there; David Gower can usually be found in the Long Room Bar until late, genially chatting with people; other players of many generations come and go.

I never saw Bob Willis there. Perhaps he wasn’t invited, perhaps it wasn’t his sort of thing, and I never met him or had the opportunity to observe him at close quarters. The only personal anecdotes I can offer are two memories from times abroad watching England in the mid-nineties. Once, in Sydney, I saw Willis striding with grim purpose across the Domain, looking for all the world like he was marching up the hill at Headingley towards his mark. It was very early in the morning, so I wondered what he was doing. Some sort of fitness kick, I concluded, or perhaps he was just late for breakfast down at Circular Quay. Of course, I thought of Headingley.

The following winter I was one of the many England fans who, in an act of organisational madness which to my knowledge has never been repeated, were billeted with the England team in a beachfront hotel in Port Elizabeth. Bizarre things inevitably happened, such as the time, mid-Test match, that Robin Smith was found hammering on a room door at 12.30 in the morning because a deaf England fan had fallen asleep with their television on maximum volume. On another occasion somebody opened their door to find Bob Willis bowling a tennis ball down the corridor at Mark Ramprakash. Bob couldn’t get his full run in, and there wasn’t a speed gun handy. but as an attempt to find the mythical Holy Grail that is cross-generational Test cricket, it had its moments. I think Ramps played and missed.

Bob Willis was a very good bowler. The figures show as much, but it is always about so much more than numbers. The extracts from Headingley that were shown and re-shown on Wednesday evening acted as reminders of his virtues. Little subtlety, but a tight off-stump line bowled at high pace, with the constant threat of steep bounce. He couldn’t swing the ball like Malcom Marshall, or seam it like Richard Hadlee, but try batting against him, especially at Headingley.

Which brings me to the fact that for me, the most memorable spell he ever bowled at Headingley wasn’t the 8 for 43, but one two years later against New Zealand as they chased down a low total to secure their first Test victory in England. When the game was won Willis had all five wickets to fall. God, he was quick that day.

Despite a near-lifetime of watching cricket anywhere and everywhere, I have never been to Headingley. I can make myself feel even older than I am by recalling that nine years before 1981 I was on holiday with my family in Yorkshire, the county of my mother’s birth, and there was a plan to attend the fourth day of the Test match between England and Australia. Unfortunately the game ended in three days, with Underwood bowling Australia out on a fungus-affected pitch. To this day I have never been back to Leeds.

When I do, and I go to watch cricket at Headingley, even before I think of Ian Botham or Ben Stokes, I will think of Bob Willis.

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