In the 1970s and early 80s, when English cricket was beset by regular crises and deep malaises, offset by the occasional moment of outrageous glory, there was one sight to gladden patriotic hearts: Bob Willis – all 6ft 6in of him – charging towards the stumps.
Willis, who has died of cancer aged 70, was the best English fast bowler of his generation, and also the staunchest. When others defected, first to play for Kerry Packer’s rival circuit and then to comfort the banned white South Africans, good ol’ Bob was there whenever his legs would carry him.
His apotheosis came at Headingley in 1981, which somehow remains (despite the competing claims of Edgbaston 2005 and Headingley 2019) the most resonant of all England Test wins. The match is best remembered for Ian Botham’s batting, but it was Willis who achieved the truly incredible: with Australia needing just 130 to win, he raced in, eyes blazing, over after over, to bowl them out for 111, finishing with eight wickets for 43.
There was never another day like that – there could not be. But Willis remained at the heart of the game for the later part of his life as a Sky commentator, making his last on-air appearance in September.
He was born in Sunderland to Ted Willis and his wife, Anne (nee Huntington), who moved south to Surrey when Ted became a radio subeditor and then a news executive at the BBC. Bob went to the Royal grammar school, Guildford, which was then a state school, and grew up playing endless cricket in his garden and at the local recreation ground with his elder brother, David.
He also embraced the 1960s by growing his hair and adding Dylan as an extra middle name. The broadcaster Christopher Martin-Jenkins faced him briefly in club cricket: he called him “a deceptively awkward-looking young beanpole, mop-haired, silent and mean”.
Willis made his debut for Surrey in 1969, but was still nowhere near a regular first-teamer by November 1970. Suddenly, aged 21 and expecting to spend the winter keeping goal for the Corinthian-Casuals football team, he was called out to Australia as a replacement. The England captain, Ray Illingworth, had never seen Willis play, but he said he wanted someone scary even if wayward, and the Surrey batsman John Edrich told him Willis was the man.
There was no eight for 43 or anything like it, but he played four Tests, came second in the bowling averages, took some fine catches, helped regain the Ashes and generally made a good impression with his youthful zest. In a team of gnarled old pros, soon to be nicknamed Dad’s Army, Bob and his wild hair at least added a contemporary feel.
His progress was never smooth, however. That was literally true: his run-in resembled the progress of Stephenson’s Rocket, according to Frank Keating. Or possibly an antique biplane trying to take off in a gale. Or a goose doing the same. And “Goose” was the nickname that stuck.
It was true in career terms too: Geoff Arnold and Robin Jackman were ahead of Willis in the Surrey pecking order, and the hierarchy thought he should change his action to something more classical. So long before such moves became routine, he upped and left for Warwickshire. But his precocious arrival in the England team was an illusion: for more than five years his Test appearances were intermittent and unconvincing, and he faced a constant battle against bodily wear and tear.
On the 1976-77 tour of India, then the last place on earth one would expect a fast bowler to flourish, it all came right. He straightened his run, tore India apart in two of the tests, and was proclaimed by Wisden as “a bowler of genuine pace and indisputable class”. The following summer, when England again took back the Ashes, Willis was even more dominant, with 27 wickets in five Tests.
There was still a certain fragility – of body, mind and technique. But Mike Brearley, who had now replaced Tony Greig as England captain, was a great admirer. “He was quick, awkward, liable to move the ball in with his natural inswing, and occasionally the ball would hold and go the other way off the seam,” he said.
Willis was constantly seeking to improve as well and saw a Sydney hypnotherapist who helped him work on his stamina by going on long runs. “I think this suited him by getting him in the zone,” said Brearley, who also noticed Willis emerge as a major influence when he was promoted to vice-captain in 1978. “He was a great team man, passionate, impatient of frivolity or looseness. If someone was not pulling their weight, he would insist, ‘They should be told’.”
There was another dip after that, and on the West Indies tour of 1980-81 Willis had to fly home. The legs were going, permanently it seemed, and the Guardian suggested: “This may be the end of an uneven but often exhilarating Test career.” There were concerns for his health even as he marked out his run-up five months later on that amazing morning at Headingley.
In fact, Willis was still on the way up. A year later he was promoted to the captaincy, in defiance of conventional wisdom not to appoint strike bowlers to that role. It was not a disaster in the manner of Botham’s earlier tenure, but “the zone” is no place for a captain, and in the field Willis’s England often seemed to be on autopilot. He was also responsible – apparently egged on by Botham – for a bizarre decision to let Australia bat first at Adelaide in 1982, which did much to lose the Ashes that had been so hard-won by the pair of them only 18 months earlier.
After 90 Tests and a then record of 325 wickets for England, he retired as a player in 1984, the year his daughter, Katie-Anne, was born. His marriage to Juliet Smail broke up and in 2005 he married Lauren Clark. There was a brief, unhappy stint as England coach on the 1985-86 tour of West Indies, after which he became chairman of the National Sporting Club, an old boxing institution transformed by Bob and David into an events and hospitality organisation. He also began to dabble with television commentary; Sky liked his work and it sustained him until his final illness.
His broadcasting style was lugubrious, and not to everyone’s taste. During a Test in Lahore he took an ill-advised walk round the boundary and was greeted by the Barmy Army of England fans with the chant: “Boring Bob, Boring Bob, Boring Bobby Willis!”
But he was forthright in comment and remained part of Sky’s main commentary team for nearly 20 years before retreating to the post-match analysis feature, The Debate, a format that suited him well: he could produce withering put-downs and umpteen plans to reform county cricket. Away from cricket, maturity took him towards opera and away from Bob Dylan.
He was always an interesting, wide-ranging, slightly melancholy character and even that Barmy Army chant was tinged with affection. Bob was a true son of the game and cricket will miss him.
He is survived by Lauren, Katie-Anne, a grandson, Jack, David and his sister, Ann.
• Robert George Dylan Willis, cricketer, born 30 May 1949; died 4 December 2019