After battling a short illness, former England captain and fast bowler Bob Willis passed away. He had represented the nation of England in 90 Tests and his international career spanned 13 long years between 1971 and 1984. He ended his career with 325 wickets at an average of 25.2 which is England’s fourth-best and Willis was only behind the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, and Ian Botham. He also represented the national side in 64 ODIs and picked up 80 scalps.
Bob Willis was an integral member of the iconic Ashes-winning England team of 1981, claiming a memorable 8 for 43 in the team’s come-from-behind victory in the third Test at Headingley.
“We are heartbroken to lose our beloved Bob, who was an incredible husband, father, brother, and grandfather. He made a huge impact on everybody he knew and we will miss him terribly,” Willis’s family said in a statement.
With his long run-up, a sprint across 30 yards that earned him the nickname ‘Goose’, Willis offered a compelling sight with the ball in hand. Termed ”a tremendous trier” by Botham, he fought his way back after suffering multiple injuries to both his knees in 1975.
First, there was his playing career, a body of work which compares with the very best. It is no exaggeration to say that he was a true England great, one of the best fast-bowlers the country has ever produced. A tally of 325 Test wickets from 90 matches with 16 five-wicket hauls attests to that.
He captained England in 1982 in an ODI series against India. He tasted mixed success during his two-year stint and was sacked from the post in favor of David Gower in early 1984 after the Pakistan series.
Incidentally, his international career ended in 1984 at Leeds – the scene of his greatest triumph – after conceding at nearly seven runs an over against a marauding West Indies side.
At his best, Willis had genuine pace, one of a rare breed in a country which has traditionally produced a host of medium-fast bowlers but few proper quicks. Few England bowlers capable of bowling consistently above 90mph have followed since and had the success he had. Steve Harmison was a fine bowler but burned far more intermittently than Willis managed. Jofra Archer may, in time, do something special. But Willis remains England’s best out and out quick of the last 50 years.
That is all the more remarkable for the knee issues which dogged Willis’ career. He had surgery on both in 1975 but played on for another nine years at the international level. It was a testament to his sheer bloody-mindedness as well as, by his admission, careful management to hold himself back for the big occasion. In an era before central contracts, when bowlers were forced to flog themselves on the county circuit, it was the only sensible course of action. He still took 1,320 professional wickets.
In all Willis played 308 first-class games for England, Surrey, Warwickshire and Northern Transvaal, claiming 899 wickets at 24.99 including 34 five-fers. He also had an impressive List A record, finishing with 421 wickets from 293 games.
Wisden’s Cricketer of the Year in 1978, Willis was named in the country’s greatest Test XI by the ECB On the occasion of England’s 1000th Test in August 2018.
Post his playing career, Bob Willis made the jump to commentary like many of his peers and formed a partnership with his former teammate Botham on the Sky Network. He quickly gained a reputation for being one of the harshest critics of players and the modern game. He was pushed out of the first choice commentary panel in 2006 but remained active in the circuit without ever compromising on his opinions.
Despite his forthright views, he was not a mindless naysayer. Those who knew him and worked with him have spoken of his huge desire for England to do well. Willis may have not held back on the criticism but he relished victories and good performances from the country he represented with such distinction. He particularly enjoyed England doing well against the Aussies.
Before his role on The Verdict, Willis was a very good commentator. He was on air when Brian Lara broke the world record against England in Antigua in 1994 and he nailed it. “The new world record holder is Brian Charles Lara… What a moment for Trinidad and Tobago and West Indies cricket”. Simple yet mightily effective.
He is survived by his wife Lauren, daughter Katie, brother David and sister Ann.
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