I must confess that I was not a fan of Robert George Dylan Willis (Bob Willis) who passed away in the week that went by. In the first ever Test that I listened to cricket commentary full time (India vs England at Manchester, 1974), Willis helped Keith Fletcher take England’s score from 265/8 to 328/9. If Willis had not spoiled the script, Indian first innings total of 246 would have been a fighting one, and helped to make the match a more even contest. Since the loss in this Test was the forerunner to bigger defeats in the matches that followed, my young mind blamed Willis for all the misfortunes that our national side met with during that tour!
In December, 1976, I was in Chennai when India took on England at Kolkata in the second Test of the series. Those days Doordarshan used to telecast the highlights of each day's play at 10 pm. I was waiting eagerly to see my hero Sunil Gavaskar in action. But Willis spoilt my fun by having him dismissed for a duck in only the fourth ball of the match. This made it a double whammy for which I have never forgiven Willis!
Genuine strike bowler
Willis was the leader of England’s bowling attack during the late 1970s and early 80s when that nation was second only to the mighty West Indies in the pecking order of International cricket. He was a fast bowler, who could generate pace in the region of 90 miles per hour consistently and, more importantly, possessed the ability to pick up wickets at regular intervals. He also led the England side for a brief span during 1982-84, when the side played in 18 Tests and the 1983 ICC World Cup.
Willis was not a fast bowler in the classical mould. He was almost six foot six inches tall and was all arms and legs in his approach to the bowling crease. He had a very long run up, probably the longest one in contemporary cricket, and he used that to good effect to deliver the ball at terrific speed. His action was ungainly, to put it mildly, and was described by one critic as “windmill in motion”. However, he possessed tremendous stamina to keep going for long spells where his sustained aggression made him an opponent who was feared by even the top batsmen in the world.
Fortuitous circumstances helped Willis to make his entry into international cricket during England’s tour of Australia in 1971, when he was called up to perform national duties to replace an injured Alan Ward. This series, which has earned its place in cricket history on account of authentic win registered by Ray Illingworth-led England side over the hosts, saw Willis make his debut in the fourth Test at Sydney that the visitors won by 299 runs. Willis remained in the playing eleven for the remaining matches of the series and ended up with 12 wickets, thus starting out on a good note in the tough and tumble world of Test cricket.
However, the return of John Snow as the spearhead of England attack meant that Willis could not retain his place in the side on a regular basis during the years that followed. He played in one Test each against India and Pakistan in the summer of 1974 and was picked by the selectors to tour Australia as a member of the national side towards the end of the year. Though he ended the series with haul of 17 wickets, his career as a fast bowler appeared to be in jeopardy when he was forced to go under the scalpel in early 1975 for surgeries on both his knees. He had to undergo repeated surgeries and the complications that followed ensured that he remained on crutches for most part of the cricket season during 1975. He made his way back to the national side for the last two Tests of the series against the West Indies in 1976 and was selected for the tour of India and Pakistan that followed during the winter later that year.
Back with a bang
It would be no exaggeration to state that Willis reinvented his cricketing career in India during the 1976-77 series. He picked up 20 wickets in five Tests, but more importantly, he managed to get the early breakthroughs that forced the Indian batsmen on the back foot. Though the pitches were prepared to suit the Indian spinners led by Bishan Singh Bedi, Willis was able to generate considerable pace and lift from such unhelpful surfaces as to emerge as a match-winner. This series placed Willis in the category of leading fast bowlers of the world, a slot that he managed to retain till his retirement from the game.
Willis achieved his peak in international cricket during the phase between 1977 and 1982. He was the spearhead of the England team led by Mike Brearley that easily won the Ashes against a Aussie side depleted by the absence of their top players who had signed for Kerry Packer sponsored World Series Cricket (WSC). He was nominated as one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year in 1978 and led the attack with aplomb during this period.
Willis hit top form during the first Test of the series against England at Nottingham in 1980, when he took nine wickets and brought England to the doorsteps of a win. He took four wickets when the West Indies batted the first time, helping to restrict their lead to a mere 45 runs. Then when the visitors started their second innings needing only 208 runs for a win, Willis picked up five scalps to reduce the mighty West Indians to 180/7. It was only some fine rear guard action by Desmond Haynes and Andy Roberts that helped the visitors to scrape through by two wickets. But fitness issues surfaced yet again when England toured the West Indies later in the year and Willis was forced to return home midway though the series, prompting many observers to predict that this was the end of the road for him.
But the best of Willis was yet to come. Though England started as favourites to win the Ashes series of 1981, they lost the first Test and soon found themselves on the brink of another defeat in the third Test at Headingly. Ian Botham's epic unbeaten 149 helped England set Australia a modest target of 130. The visitors reached 56 for the loss of just one wicket and looked in control. At this juncture, Brearley, who had replaced Botham as skipper, handed over the ball to Willis and he did not let his captain down. In an amazing spell that is still spoken about as one of the best ever in Test cricket, Willis ran though the Aussie batting picking up eight wickets for a mere 43 runs to propel his side to a famous 18-run win.
Willis was appointed to lead England during the summer of 1982, which featured tours by India and Pakistan. This helped him to start his captaincy on a winning note in England but he could not maintain this streak during the Ashes series that followed, where they lost 1-2. The World Cup campaign too ended on a disappointing note, with England losing to India in the semifinals. In this match, Willis came on to bowl his second spell when the game was evenly poised and there still existed a slim chance for England to get better of India. But Sandeep Pati, who was at the crease, had other ideas; he launched a furious assault on Willis, thus knocking England out of the tournament.
At the dawn of the 1984 cricket season, selectors decided to invest in the future by replacing Willis with David Gower as the captain. He made his last appearance in international cricket during the third Test of the series. Willis finished his career with 325 wickets from 90 Tests. He also played in 64 One-Day Internationals and claimed 80 scalps. Statistics would place him in the same bracket as Fred Trueman as the most successful fast bowler from England during the second half of 20th century, though he did not create the same impact with the red cherry as Fred Tyson or Snow did in their heyday. He was more seen and acknowledged as a honest trier, who fought hard to overcome his fitness problems and gave his best, irrespective of the conditions.
After his playing days were over, Willis switched over to the role of a commentator, where his pithy and often highly critical comments did not win him many admirers among the players. However, it must be admitted that he was more than fair to Indian players and on one famous occasion even hailed Sachin Tendulkar as the “greatest batsman of all time”.
Willis would be remembered as a fast bowler who overcame severe odds to emerge successful in the hard grind of international cricket. He was not an iconic figure like Dennis Lillee, nor did he possess the skills and charisma of Botham or the tactical brilliance of Brearley. He was not blessed with either tons of natural ability or with physical prowess but he overcame those handicaps by hard work, perseverance and the intensity that he brought to the job. He would not figure in the list of favourite list of cricketers of many persons, but he would be remembered by the lovers of the game as a doughty opponent and an impeccable professional.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)