LONDON (Reuters) – Steaming in off his long run, curls bobbing, eyes fixed on the stumps, there have been few more intimidating sights in world cricket than fast bowler Bob Willis in his prime.
The spearhead of England’s pace attack in the 1970s and early 80s, the 6-foot-6 Willis took 325 test wickets in 90 test matches — a then English record for a fast bowler.
After retiring in 1984, Willis took aim from inside the commentary box, his withering analysis almost as formidable as his delivery of a cricket ball.
His playing career was characterised by graft and intensity and defined by one unforgettable Yorkshire afternoon in 1981.
The third match in that Ashes series was slipping away at Headingley. An innings defeat loomed before Ian Botham smashed an unbeaten 149 to leave Australia requiring just 130 to win.
A fired-up Willis, whose place in the team had been questioned before the series, then steamed in to take eight wickets for 43 runs as England won a thriller by 18 runs.
Team mate Geoffrey Boycott described watching Willis galloping in like a racehorse with blinkers on.
“He was not seeing anything else other than the batsman and the stumps,” Boycott recalled when Willis died in December from prostate cancer, aged 70.
“None of us needed to speak to him. There was no point anyway as his focus, emotion and passion all came together in that moment and he blew the Aussies away.”
Remarkably, Willis had undergone surgery on both knees, in 1975, and spent most his career bowling through the pain.
Born in Sunderland, Willis’s family moved to Surrey, the country for whom he made his first-class debut in 1969.
A year later word of Willis’s raw speed reached England captain Ray Illingworth and, from nowhere, the 21-year-old was on the plane to Australia for the Ashes series.
There were no heroics on his test debut in Sydney in January 1971, bowling 12 overs in total and taking one wicket, that of Ashley Mallett as England cruised to a handsome victory.
It was not until 1974 that Willis became a regular in the England attack and not until the 1976-77 tour of India that he finally won over his detractors.
Baked Indian tracks are hardly a fast bowler’s buffet but Willis tore into the home batsman like a man possessed, ending the series with 20 wickets at an average of 16.75. Later in 1977 he grabbed 27 wickets as England reclaimed the Ashes.
In the following years Willis became one of the world’s most reliable fast bowlers but when injury forced him to leave the tour of West Indies in 1980-81, many thought the years of toil had finally caught up with him.
His greatest day was still to come though.
A year after his Headingley heroics, Willis was promoted to captain — a role at odds with his tunnel-visioned approach.
His deadpan delivery as a TV pundit was not to everyone’s taste. During one test in Lahore, England’s Barmy Army serenaded him with the chant “Boring Bob, Boring Bob, Boring Bobby Willis”. Showman he was not, but with ball or microphone in hand, Willis left an indelible mark on English cricket.
His test wicket haul still stands him fourth on England’s all-time list, while he also took 899 first-class wickets, mostly during a 12-year spell with Warwickshire.
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar