A tribute to Bob Willis

It was a most bewildering sight. Film coverage of England against West Indies at The Oval in 1976 is instantly recognisable because of the parched grass in that driest and sunniest of years, and for the phenomenal performances of Viv Richards and Michael Holding. For me, though, an 11-year-old watching one of my first Tests, albeit on television, the unforgettable moment was of an England bowler steaming in, having started off from outside the confines of the television's screen, occasionally stuttering to the wicket, arms, legs and hair going maniacally in many directions. That was the moment that Bob Willis became one of my firm favourites, and he forever lasted that way.

The lion-hearted Willis's famous eight for 43 at Headingley in 1981 won a Test which seemed remote twenty-four hours earlier. Thank heavens school was over for the term as the anxiety of not only following this most exciting of Tests, but also keeping my radio secretly in my jacket pocket with lead going up the arm to my ear, would have been intolerable. The match left an indelible effect on many, not least myself for the fun and anticipation of such an unlikely result but the later effect it had. It showed that perseverance paid off and that, just occasionally, a hopeless situation could be salvaged. Never give up.

I had fun around that time sending SAEs to England cricketers requesting autographs. I was delighted when a signed photograph of an expressionless Willis with the somewhat unruly mop of hair arrived. Naturally, I still have it. (I was less flattered when, in one of his books, he wondered why on earth youngsters requested autographs by post. Surely it was better to meet the cricketer in person and obtain the autograph? Indeed, but the opportunities rarely presented themselves at that age but, yes, maybe I was too shy to ask if I was ever close enough).

Less than a year after the Headingley heroics, Willis, who was maybe fortunate to even play in the Test, was England captain. After a decent but fruitless first innings at Headingley, there may have been a feeling that the wonky knees had borne enough workload over the previous decade and that it was time to be put out to pasture. Again, the power of perseverance. The commentary box may have been put on hold (although who knows whether the media would have initially welcomed him after his candid thoughts after his eight wickets?) as he took England to Australia, and was the country's captain in the 1983 World Cup.

It was always exciting watching Bob Willis batting and bowling, and airing his formidable views on the game. I enjoyed watching footage of that 1976 series with Willis fielding on occasion in the slips and, I am sure, saw the extraordinary sight of his taking a catch at short-leg of all places in Australia in 1970/71. He may not always have looked as if he enjoyed batting but he did feature in six Test partnerships of over 50. One, an unbeaten 117 with Peter Willey, came against the might of the West Indies at The Oval in 1980; another, 79 with Bob Taylor at Edgbaston against Pakistan in 1982, saw the captain resume after tea without his bat. Lest we forget, he has the joint-third number of not outs (55).

I recently saw a comment by someone asking who, as a youngster, didn't copy Bob's action. It's a good point and this writer cannot deny it, in one match being encouraged to give it my "B.W." action as opposed to the normal donkey-drops. Perseverance let me down there, the effort being far too great for a similarly-sized and lean teenager, and the loopy leg breaks returned. Sir Alastair Cook's only Test wicket was one with a take-off of the Willis action (at lesser speed, mind), and Graham Gooch regaled spectators and players with a similar, but wicketless, rendition of one of the most famous bowling actions. Some of the most memorable journalistic quotes have been written on the Willis action but, again, what perseverance to become one of England's, indeed Test cricket's, all-time great fast bowlers. Exhilarating to watch.

What a terrible shame that Bob has been taken before his time should have been up. He will leave many happy memories, though, but his earthy and dead-pan comments will, I imagine, be much missed on Sky. What a wonderfully wide and expressive vocabulary he possessed which, with his vast knowledge of the game, made him, for me, one of the most enjoyable people to listen to and watch on a cricket field. It seems extraordinary that we will hear him no longer on Sky, but let us remember with great pleasure the many wonderful moments he gave us both on and off the field.