Bob Willis, the tearaway fast bowler who passed away on December 4, helped Sandeep Patil become a friend of Viv Richards. Interestingly, Willis was not a friend of Richards. In Patil’s words, they did not really like each other but he became the beneficiary of their mutual animosity.
The 1983 World Cup semifinal against England in Manchester saw Patil giving finishes touches to the match with a flurry of boundaries against Willis — four to be precise. For fans of Indian cricket, the onslaught revived memories of his 129 in the Manchester Test in 1982. Patil batted at No. 7 and pulled off a stunning century to win the hearts of the English audience too.
The unbeaten 51 in the World Cup semifinal was a critical knock, too, for Patil. “Before the final, Richards shook my hands and congratulated me for the innings against Willis. That day, Richards and I struck a friendship that has lasted so long. All, courtesy Willis and I shared it with him too,” Patil told Sportstar.
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Willis was a much feared and well respected fast bowler on the international circuit. “I am very sad at his passing away. He was a fierce competitor, but a gentleman off the field. I know people talk of the six fours that I hit off Willis in one over (in 1982), but believe me I was never comfortable facing him. He would put fear in the mind of the batsman with his searing pace. You had to watch him very closely as he neared the stumps and be ready for the thunderbolts that he would unleash. Thunderbolts they were,” recalled Patil.
On slamming six fours off a Willis over, Patil said, “It just happened. It is sad that people equate him with that one over, but it just happened. I had respect for his fast bowling and believe me it was a gesture from him that I remember the most in that match. As I got to my century, he patted me. How many would do that. He should have been annoyed with what I had achieved, but here he was patting me. He won my respect that day. To face him was a discomforting thought because he would rattle you with his pace.”
The next Test Willis hit Patil on the helmet and smiled at the batsman. “He made a sign that it was all squared up. I had hit for six fours and he had struck me on my helmet. He did not speak a word. I never heard him abuse either, on the field. He was a lovable fast bowler,” added Patil.
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Willis and Headingley have a connection and a cricket story for ages. His eight for 43 to destroy Australia in 1981 is one of the iconic spells of fast bowing the game has known. Australia had a target of just 130 to win and Willis, a one-man army on that momentous day, stung the opposition with a sensational demonstration of fast bowling. That it came in an Ashes contest made the performance all the more dearer to Willis.
The Headingley show had come 10 years after his Test debut in 1971 against Australia in Sydney. He had a fantastic Ashes record — 128 of his 325 wickets had come against Australia. “To me, his 325 wickets were as good as 10,000 runs by a batsman. Willis was bowling to some of the best batsmen in the game and he commanded respect on all pitches,” remembered Patil. He played 17 Tests against India, seven at home, and was regarded as the biggest threat even on docile pitches.
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Willis was one rare bowler who struck Kapil Dev. “I have fond memories of Willis. He was the only one who ever hit me. It was during a Test in England. He pitched the ball short and I went for my Nataraj pull. I was caught half way. It was a very sharp ball, faster than I had imagined, and hit me on the ear. It was the only time I was struck. Willis was a terrific fast bowler, with a run-up that was unique. Not a fluent run-up but once the ball left his hand it was terror for the batsman. The ball that he brought in would leave you stranded. He was a very difficult bowler to face. I never heard Willis swear at a batsman, never saw him argue with the umpire. He did not believe in talking. He wanted his ball to speak for him. A true legend he was.”
For Yashpal Sharma, who had a few good knocks against Willis, including a century in Chennai in 1982 when he made 140 with G. R. Viswanath scoring a career-best 222 at the other end, the England fast bowler was a legend. “He was second to none, in speed, skill, and feats. Willis was an extraordinary bowler with his height, high-arm action. If the pitch helped him, he was a terror, unplayable. Willis was a bowler who never allowed you to relax for a moment. His incoming ball was hard to spot and tackle. He was a quiet man on the field.
"His bowling spoke for him. I would rate him alongside Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall in terms of speed. What I liked most was how he appreciated the opponent even though he competed hard on the field. A rare gentleman fast bowler.”
Willis, who claimed 325 Test wickets in 90 Tests and 80 in 64 ODIs, in a career lasting 13 years, was also a popular commentator and respected for his analysis.