‘It’s like The Simpsons!’
Whenever I hear the name Bob Willis, a picture comes into my mind.
I saw this picture some four decades ago in a page of ‘krirajogot’- the Bangla word for ‘Sportsworld’. It showed a tall fast bowler jumping out in joy after picking his latest wicket.
I don’t exactly remember which Australian batsman was his victim for this particular wicket, but there is no doubt that Bob Willis’ 8/43 at Headingley on 21st July 1981 has rightly placed his name permanently in the annals of Ashes history.
This series is now known mostly as the ‘Botham’s Ashes’ series, but the final day of the Headingley Test belonged to just one man – Bob Willis.
His Headingley success against the arch-rivals was, without doubt, the highlight of his career. But, for someone who represented his country pretty regularly for more than a decade, there are bound to be other notable points and here I have tried to focus on those. Volumes have already been written about his Headingley heroics.
Bob Willis the bowler
As a fast bowler, he was quite hostile, especially during the early part of his career. While he was not as quick as Andy Roberts or Jeff Thomson, on bouncy pitches during the pre-helmet days he could become a handful even to the best players of fast bowling.
Rob McCosker found it out very painfully during the Centenary Test at the MCG.
In contrast to many other fast bowlers of his time, he didn’t always like to show his emotions on the field. Now, there were both positive and negative aspect to this.
At Lord’s in 1978, he got a ball to rise sharply to Sadiq Mohammad, the left-handed opener from Pakistan. Sadiq could do no more than just edge it to the slips where Graham Gooch dropped it. Willis didn’t utter a word and didn’t show any emotion.
He just walked back to his run-up. He produced the same delivery next up, Sadiq played the same shot and this time Ian Botham in the slips took the catch.
Less admirable was the incident in the first Test at Edgebaston. After his bouncer had hit the face of rail ender Iqbal Qasim, a real rabbit with the bat, Willis didn’t show any sympathy to the batsman. This led to severe criticism from the press.
Willis showed growing maturity with his age. During the home series against Pakistan in the summer of 1982 he cleverly exploited his counterpart Imran Khan’s obsession with hook shots to dismiss him. He became a great thinking bowler. No doubt this thinking ability helped him greatly with his astute analysis of the game as an expert commentator.
In short, he was a great fighter and a great survivor. In the summer of 1975 he had surgery in both his knees. Still, he returned to lead the England bowling against WI the next summer.
He very nearly missed the 1981 Headingley Test as he was suffering from the flu prior to the match. Even after he declared himself fit it was only Mike Brearley’s last-minute decision to go with a four-pronged pace attack that ensured that Willis got the nod over John Emburey.
The media, in fact, was heavily in favour of dropping Willis. At Lord’s in the rain-affected second Test he bowled 28 no-balls. Also, in the view of the press he had become more of a support bowler rather than a match-winning one. After his match-winning haul, Willis didn’t make any attempt to hide his feelings for the media.
Some memorable bowling efforts (Headingley 1981 excluded)
5/27 against India, Calcutta – January 1977
Despite losing to WI 3-0 in the summer of 1976, Tony Greig retained his captaincy job for the winter. Always an out of the box thinker, Greig deviated from the norm in his planning for the ‘Passage to India’. Normally, most teams would build their plans relying on their spinners, often picking the seamers just as tourists.
Greig, however, felt that the top order Indian batting was susceptible to genuine pace. So the plan was for the seamers to get early breakthroughs before Derek Underwood and Co. would get into the act.
The plan worked perfectly on the new-year day Test at the original capital of the British Raj. Willis got a big flip after dismissing Sunil Gavaskar for a duck early in the morning, and then he ran through the middle order.
England easily won the Test by ten wickets. Skipper Greig scored a fine ton, and Willis picked up two more vital wickets in the second innings.
5/65 against WI, Trent Bridge – June 1980:
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, WI almost totally dominated their Test rivalry against England. In this scenario, it is no surprise that Willis’ two best bowling efforts against the Windies came for losing cause.
At Headingley, in his comeback series in 1976; he took eight wickets, only to see his team lose by 55 runs. Hostile pace bowling by Andy Roberts, Micheal Holding and Wayne Daniel ultimately proved the decisive factor.
Trent Bridge in the summer of 1980 provided a real opportunity for England. Chasing 208 for victory, the WI middle order collapsed against Willis’ hostile pace. He dismissed Alvin KalliCharan, Clive Lloyd, Deryck Murray and Malcolm Marshall in quick succession as the Windies reached 7/180.
At the end the tourists found an unlikely batting hero in Roberts to win by two wickets. Willis’ nine wickets in the match went unrewarded.
5/35 against New Zealand, Headingley – July 1993
Again Willis took a nine-wicket haul in a Test for a losing cause. After the tourists took a massive 152 run in the first innings, a fine unbeaten hundred by David Gower gave England a ray of hope.
The opposition needed just 101 runs for a historic win, but the England captain was determined to fight until the very end. His hostile bowling reminded everyone of the summer of 81. Here, he took all the five wickets that fell, but the Kiwis scrapped home. Another 40 or more runs on the board and it could have been a different story.
Given the success he had enjoyed at Headingley previously, it was quite fitting that his final Test would come in this ground, against WI in 1984. Sadly, it was not a happy ending.
In the first innings, he took 2/123 from 18 overs, in the second 0/40 from 8. There was no rhythm in his bowling, no venom whatsoever. It seemed that almost a decade after his double knee surgery, his knees were finally giving way.
Ironically, Botham, for long his successful new-ball partner, also had a miserable time with the ball, giving away 45 runs from seven wicket-less overs.
An unlikely captain
At the beginning of the summer of 1982, Bob Willis was appointed the captain of the England team. Although all-rounder Botham had captained at the beginning of the decade, one has to go back to the pre-war days when Gubby Allen was the last out and out fast bowler to captain England.
Willis did a decent job leading his team to three-Test series victories at home. Also, in March 1984, his English team came desperately close to upsetting Pakistan at their impregnable (at the time) fort of National Stadium, Karachi. Chasing just 65 for victory, Pakistan became ‘Panikstan’ as left-arm spinner Nick Cook took 5/18. The home side eventually won by three wickets.
Bob Willis the batsman
He was generally a No. 11 batsman, but not the worst one in that position. His Test batting average of 11.51 is a bit inflated by his 55 not out innings. He once held the world record for the maximum number of not outs in Tests. He currently lies third in the list.
Going back to that famous Ashes victory, he partnered Botham for a 37-run last-wicket stand, runs which seem extremely valuable given the final margin of English victory. I must add that Willis’ contribution was just couple of singles before Terry Alderman dismissed him.