Today the sad news reached the cricket world that Robert George Dylan Willis has passed away. With it, a piece of my childhood went...
Born In Sunderland, Willis started out at Surrey before realising that his international aspirations might be better served by plying his trade at Edgbaston. An England debut arrived on the tour to Australia in 1971 in a game that England won, despite the best efforts of a dogged Bill Lawry knock. A John Snow seven for meant that England had a pair of curly haired pacemen and fought fire with fire, in the days before Lillee and Thomson.
Injuries wrecked the amount of England caps that were on offer but Willis off his long run was a sight for sore eyes. With his arm pumping behind his back in an idiosyncratic approach to the crease, his action was mimicked by many; none more so than Graham Gooch doing his impressions as a drawn Test was drawing to a close. Like a jockey whipping his horse, Willis willed himself into the crease before a whirlwind of arms propelled the ball quicker than any English bowler of his generation.
Willis was as quick as anyone, often having to bowl a huge number of overs. Overshadowed by Botham perhaps, he is still an English bowling legend in his own right and 300 plus Test wickets when you didn’t play 15 Tests a year, is proof in itself of how good a bowler ‘Goose’ was. A number eleven who boshed it, Willis once deliberately held a bat back to front in a Test. As Willis himself saud, “If I don’t know where the ball is going, I don’t want the fielding side to know either”.
His love of Bob Dylan meant that he added the surname to his list of Christian names by deed poll. No stranger to controversy in his latter years on television, his playing career had the odd bout too. A rearrangement of Iqbal Qasim’s teeth in 1978 caused controversy as the Pakistani tail ender was roughed up deliberately. A reaction to a farcical decision in Australia at a run out when skipper in 82/83 was also unusual at the time.
Willis will be remembered for Headingley 1981 when his brilliant 8-43, eyes bulging, steaming down the hill from the Kirkstall Lane end, was too much for those with the baggy green caps. It was always known as Botham’s Test. For me, it was Willis'. Mike Brearley squeezed the very best out of him. The UK may have been torn apart by riots during that fateful summer but Willis 'in the zone' was English cricket's Dunkirk moment. Before that Test he was close to retirement. No ball issues were playing havoc with this notoriously poor sleeper but it was Brearley who coaxed another three years out of his England career.
A captain famous for giving monotone press conferences, it was with some surprise that Willis entered the media playing the pantomime villain, horrified at another England batting collapse. He was worth watching when England did badly.
|Controversial media man|
For me Willis' career can be summed up by saying that the 1970’s was an era where fast bowlers used the short ball as a ploy to rough up batsmen. The bouncer, a surprise weapon until this era, had become a regular part of the bowler’s arsenal. Willis, along with Mikey Holding, Jeff Thomson, Dennis Lillee, Malcolm Marshall and Imran Khan, was responsible for this change in attitude. It was integral to the introduction of helmets for batsmen during this era. Willis was our man, our quick, our English answer to the raw heat.
Willis, will be remembered by every English cricket fan today. And every Australian. For an English quick bowler, there is no better accolade.