Bob Willis’ passing away was sad news indeed. We knew that he had been unwell for some time but his enthusiasm for work, especially for English cricket, meant that he turned up for duty as recently as the Ashes as a pundit for Sky Sports cricket programme called the Verdict which was a review of the day’s play. When his beloved England did well he was all smiles and came up with a funny quip or the other but if the team wasn’t doing well then he could be most trenchant indeed. So, with England struggling to win and Bob firing away, the Verdict was a must see programme. Of course, that didn’t make him popular with the current players, who are easily upset at the slightest indication of a flaw in their game, but take praise as if it’s due to them. Ironically, the players who are most upset about being criticised are invariably the ones that take to the media once their playing careers are over and are then seen and heard having a go at the current players.
Bob and I were rival captains when India toured England in 1982. He had taken over from Keith Fletcher, a complete misfit as the England captain on the tour to India a few months earlier. Fletcher, who had not played for England for quite a few years, was brought in as captain after the incredibly successful Ashes series where Mike Brearley was the skipper. Brearley, who had taken over from Ian Botham after the second Test of the 1981 Ashes series, was unavailable to tour India and so the selectors turned to Fletcher, who was highly rated as captain in county cricket. However, with strong personalities like Geoffrey Boycott, Ian Botham, David Gower and Bob Willis, who had all been part of the epic Ashes win a couple of months earlier, Fletcher found himself as an intruder. These guys could not understand how someone who had not played for England for quite a while and who hadn’t been part of the win in summer could be foisted on them by the selectors.
They never really warmed up to him and England played some pretty ordinary cricket, despite winning the toss and batting first in most Tests in India. Those were the days of five and half hours of cricket every day and England would finish with barely 200 for two or three wickets down on the board at the end of the day’s play. Fletcher just wasn’t able to lift his team up, proving once again that there’s a big gulf between captaining a first-class team and the national team. Just like many tremendous first-class players can’t do well at the international level, so also many top first-class captains come a cropper at the international level. That’s why it’s always amusing to read some being referred to as the best player never to have played for the country or the best captain never to have captained his country. As we have seen so often in the past there’s a big gap between first-class and international level especially in Test match cricket.
Bob, who took over from him, clearly did not relish the captaincy. Being used to standing at deep fine-leg boundary after bowling his over, it was hard for him to come to terms with standing at mid-on when the next over was being bowled and looking at the field placing and whatever else a captain was supposed to do. He was proud, of course, at the honour of leading his country but he would have preferred someone else doing the job while he just bowled flat out fast and believe me he was quick. He was fortunate to have two of his buddies Botham and Gower near him and that eased his burden considerably.
His record as fast bowler for England is terrific and it would have tickled him to have gone past Freddie Trueman’s record of 307 Test wickets for his country. He had an impish sense of humour and was one of those rare people who could laugh at themselves. He did give the impression of being eccentric and lost in his own world at times and that was laughingly brought out when once he walked out at No. 11 to face the fearsome West Indies attack without a bat in his hands. It was nothing to do with showing off that he could play them without a bat but clearly in his nervousness he had forgotten to pick the bat on his way to the crease. That it happened at Edgbaston, Birmingham where he began his first-class career brought out a big laugh from the crowd who shook their heads indulgently too.
But that was Bob.
The cricket world will be the poorer for his demise. May his soul rest in peace.
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