One of the more difficult things- it appears- in Cricket journalism is to offer a tribute to a talent who made a name way before such a thing as online journals and blogs even came to exist.
Someone who belonged to an age where celebrating cricketing glories often signified raising a toast to the best Scotch and smoking from the pipe- but puffing away an e-cigarette- not so much.
The difficulty lies not in attributing respect to where it’s due. It lies in the absolute lack of familiarity about cricket in an age one just wasn’t a part of.
So obviously the first recollections of Bob Willis in my cricket-frenzied mind bring back memories of the Antigua Recreation Ground in 1994- a time where there was no obsession regarding the ICC Rankings, where a dismissal on the ground didn’t trigger a send-off, and where the mere idea of entertaining a T10 league would’ve been mocked endlessly.
As Brian Lara pulled a shorter one from a dreary-looking Chris Lewis, the unassuming voice behind the mic echoed, “There it is…the new world record holder is Brian Lara of Trinidad and Tobago!”
Not an iota of the passion lost despite witnessing the hammering of one of his own compatriots akin to a lamb led to slaughter. Not lacking in any bit of excitement whatsoever in describing Lara’s peak, opting to remember the tiny island as much as the record-holder it birthed.
This genuine, honest, no-nonsense style of punditry mirrored the straightforward and resolute style in which Bob Willis- long time leading English wicket-taker, bowler of breathtakingly hostile spells, the architect of Botham’s 1981 Ashes victory, wearer of glorious long mane, inspirer of people, a believer in the purity of hard fast bowling- lorded on the ground.
Bob Willis- who stayed true to his own spirit, whether plotting the downfall of batsmen on the pitch or mocking incompetent umpiring and faulty batting as a pundit- didn’t shield even the younger English generations of English cricketers from his transparent assessments and deadpan delivery.
One such instance is Willis being particularly forthright about Naseer Hussain’s position as the ODI number. 3, the batsman going as far as conceding whether “he was going to crucify me on the TV!”
But that’s what made Willis stand apart; his honesty and expressiveness provided access to the soul of the competitor who focused and excelled through playing a pure and passionate brand of cricket, reserving no regard whatsoever for shenanigans or lip-service.
He was yet someone who never had to go out of his way to please anyone, least of all, his own countrymen.
But make no mistake. Bob Willis didn’t have it any easy either. In merely four years of playing cricket for England, Bob Willis had both his knees chronically busted. He collapsed midway through a County match.
For someone who had to walk using crutches having only arrived in 1971, this was a near definitive warning that the inevitable brink- something all cricketers dread- had perhaps neared sooner than he would’ve ever liked.
But instead of suffering from what could’ve been potential heartbreak, Bob Willis decided he wasn’t going to lay low.
A remodeled bowling action meant that he was back, picked in the Test side. He immediately succeeding with an 8-for against West Indies.
That he ended up picking 325 Test wickets, not to forget the envy-inspiring, even shock-inducing tally of 899 First-Class wickets, despite contesting with a 6 foot’ 6 frame, should be held above anything else in exemplifying the career of a man who epitomized lion-hearted will.
This is why we’ve got to tip our hat to a man who did more than just ‘survive’ the rigors at the highest levels; someone who seldom eschewed the intensity with which he competed.
The stares accompanying the long hoppy run-up belonged to him, not the rubbing of his successes on the batsman’s face.
The tipping point of the career, one that sealed the glory arrived at Headingly in Leeds, in the 1981 Test, where England blanked Australia.
Just like the 2019 vignette of a world-beating English team with Stokes, Woakes, Root, Morgan and the rest cannot ever be wiped away from the annals of English cricket, the recollection of Ray Bright’s middle stump cartwheeling with Bob Willis’ iconic fist-thumping in the middle of the ground cannot ever be denied as one of the lasting Ashes memories of all time.
That he possessed the appetite to engage in the struggle, a quality that enabled him to further his career when the toll of physical injuries threatened to cut it all too short should serve a reminder to the younger generations to keep going in this age of instant gratification.
But there was also a sense of style to what Bob Willis brought to the middle.
Few sights, it ought to be admitted, were as eye-pleasing as the long, almost drain-inducing run-up of one of the most inspirational fast-bowlers of all eras.
Willis’ skill lent Cricket a great leveler when the elan of batsmen and copious depictions concerning the art of run-making threatened to paint the narrative of the sport rather one-sidedly. With the arrival to the bowling crease so captivating, it brought even more thrill to witness the wearer of flowing locks engaging with brute pace thereafter.
In a world where one often too casually engages with nomenclature, where 280-character rants are heralded as success stories, it ought to be said, Bob Willis’ departure separates us forever from a voice of reason, from a personality who wasn’t interested in being the ‘cult.’
The furious world of fast bowling will now forever seem a tad bit bereft of the pace that Willis provided unabashedly with his burst of energy.