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.

No comments:

Subscribe in a reader