Sportstar archives - Bob Willis: We need to look after the fast bowlers

In this chat with The Sportstar at the Brabourne Stadium, Bob Willis recalls his association with England and the high points.

Bob Willis at the Lord's balcony during Pakistan's 1982 tour of England.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Robert George Dylan Willis – or simply Bob Willis – can be credited with one of the greatest spells in Test cricket. The Warwickshire and England fast bowler feared he may lose his place in the Test team in the event of England losing the match. But he singlehandedly destroyed Australia, taking eight wickets for 43 runs at Headingley in 1981. Since the victory was against Australia, something so cherished by the Englishmen, it was doubly sweet.

Bob Willis played for England in 90 Tests and took 325 wickets, spearheading England’s attack after the exit of John Snow, another outstanding fast bowler.

Well, Willis was a bowler of genuine pace...a tearaway, one could call him. And having overcome several injuries and performed with distinction, Willis feels international sides should ‘take care’ of their fast bowlers.

“Personally, I would like to see the best players in each country only playing in international cricket. I don’t think you can expect the best players to perform all through the year. Those coming up on the way can play the state and county competitions.

“Well, fast bowling is a specialised business. Fast bowling day in and day out is a very arduous business. Devon Malcolm is given ‘offs’ by Derbyshire so that they can get the best out of him. I honestly don’t believe that a fast bowler can bowl 12 months a year. We need to look after the fast bowlers. We bowl them less in the early part of their careers so that they can build up their strength.

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“One of the good points about the Australian Cricket Academy is that although they have a lot of young fast bowlers, they don’t make them bowl in the nets all the time. They concentrate on their mental approach to the game and get them physically fit. They don’t turn the men out in the sun and make them bowl for five hours when they are 17 or 18 years of age.”

In this chat with The Sportstar at the Brabourne Stadium, Bob Willis recalls his association with England and the high points. Excerpts:

Would you agree that Bob Willis has been the last of the genuine fast bowlers to have represented England with great distinction? Ninety Tests and 325 wickets...that gives ample indication of your prowess.

Yes, that’s after discounting Ian Botham...because I retired in 1984 and in 1985 Ian Botham was still a very potent opening bowler. Well, if you take pure pace, there has been only Devon Malcolm since I left I guess... One or two more have been tried over the years, but they haven’t been able to sustain their performances in the team. But Devon Malcolm is as quick as any bowler in the world. Unfortunately, he has not had the accuracy required at top Test match level and he also has had no support bowler that one needs. Devon is a good fast bowler though...

You were the one who believed that bowling fast and straight could be effective on most wickets. But in recent times, the English county system has not thrown up another speedster to merit recognition as a genuine fast bowler.

I don’t think that the domestic cricket in England lends itself to producing fast bowlers...players play too much cricket. And there’s far too much domestic one-day cricket, which is hard going for fast bowlers.

They have brought in legislations...they cannot bowl short, they can bowl only a limited number of overs, whereas the batsman can bat the whole day. And a bowler can bowl only a certain number of overs in a limited overs match. The one-day games are very tough on the quick bowlers and I don’t think so much domestic one-day cricket helps produce fast bowlers.

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You were one of the very few who managed to get lift on even docile pitches.

It wasn’t a particularly orthodox action that I used. It may have helped me get that steep rise. Early in my career I used to run out of steam, and it wasn’t until 1977 that I got myself really fit for fast bowling. I used to do a lot of training and running. And, most importantly, a lot of stamina training.

I was never one for a lot of gym work. I did not do weights. But I believed being a fast bowler, you got to build the strength in your legs. And that was my secret in being able to keep going on a long and hot day. Particularly in India and Australia, where the weather is very hot throughout the day.

You got your chance in 1970-71 as a replacement for the injured Alan Ward. Were you ready then for international cricket?

Well, we (England) had such an experienced pace attack on that tour with John Snow spearheading it, with Peter Lever and Ken Shuttleworth, the two experienced Lancs (Lancashire) county cricketers, for support.

I think Ray Illingworth was happy to take a gamble with a young fast bowler. John Edrich, who was on that tour and was my colleague at that time with Surrey, recommended me because Illingworth had hardly seen me bowl.

When were you certain of your place in the England team?

Well, it wasn’t until I got myself really fit. It was in the fourth Test against the West Indies in England. Oh...that was the year I went through 60 or 70 matches.

I missed only two games. I was fortunate in some ways because even when my form was not at its peak, I was selected in the team because I was the only fast bowler at their disposal. And that was the distinct advantage I had throughout my career... I was a genuine fast bowler.

Bob Willis: Fast bowling is a specialised business. Fast bowling day in and day out is a very arduous business.

Bob Willis: Fast bowling is a specialised business. Fast bowling day in and day out is a very arduous business.   -  Getty Images


You carried a lot of injuries throughout your career and still managed to play 90 Test matches. The present England speedsters have not been able to do so.

Well, I had spells of injuries... In fact, I had to come back home from two tours. In 1975 I had to come back after the fifth Test in Adelaide to have two operations on both the knees and then in 1981 I returned from the West Indies after bowling only seven overs for a further operation to my left knee. My left knee took a lot of pounding when I was bowling because I used to twist around that when I bowled and I don’t think the knee enjoyed that very much. But I was determined to come back. Playing for England...that was what I wanted. I wanted to get back on the scene and keep bowling for England.

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After those knee surgeries, how tough was it to come back and perform consistently at Test level.

Well, the first of the knee operations was pretty serious. I missed almost the whole season in 1975.

I had the operations done at the end of April and did not play till the middle of August. So I missed a lot of cricket through that season. When I came back from the West Indies in 1981, I was back running after about two weeks after the operation, which was actually a microsurgery. So that operation was not as serious as the first one. But I always wanted to get back to my running as soon as I could.

You went in for hypnotherapy treatment. How did that help you mentally before an important series?

Well, I had great difficulty in relaxing and sleeping when I was playing. Hypnotherapy helped me to get proper sleep. Sometimes on the field, too... Haha.

You bowled extremely well when playing under Mike Brearley.

Well, Mike Brearley’s captaincy is overrated. He was very fortunate. He had five very good bowlers at his disposal... Bob Willis, lan Botham, Chris Old, John Lever and Mike Hendrick. An England captain now will just dream about having one of those five bowlers, never mind all five of them. So Brearley was fortunate to have those seam bowlers. He could play in the side as a front-line captain... He didn’t have to worry about his batting.

Obviously the spell of eight for 43 against Australia at Headingley in 1981 would rank as your best. Everything was in favour of Australia.

Yes. Ian Botham had changed the tempo of the match with a magnificent 149 not out. We were dead and buried in that match really.

We felt that after we got a couple of wickets before lunch and when they were 62 for three, there was a chance because Australia always had the reputation of crumbling while chasing small targets. It was not a very easy wicket to bat on.

I bowled knowing that I would have been left out of the England side if we had lost that Test. It was one of my better spells. But the wicket was helpful, the ball was bouncing from the good length. But I gave all the energy I had and I was fortunate that the nicks went to the fielders and the hook shots went to long leg. Mike Gatting took two brilliant catches.

Bob Willis has the best economy rate (3.28) of any of the 29 bowlers to take 50 or more ODI wickets for England.

Bob Willis in action for England   -  Getty Images


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What was it like when you surpassed Freddie Trueman’s record?

Well, it was great. Fred always turns back the clock when he talks cricket and says nobody was as good as them in those days, and so it was nice to pass his record.

I would never suggest I was as good a bowler as Fred because he got all those wickets in far fewer Tests. But the main thing was I was managing to keep fit and keep going. And we have also seen bowlers break records and go past 400 wickets.

Your wicket-taking ability is conspicuous for England, but not for Warwickshire for which you played for a dozen years in county cricket.

Well, I could not have bowled quick for England and Warwickshire. That’s the reason. I decided to bowl quick for England.

You toured Australia six times. Which was the most satisfying trip?

Well, it was the first tour in 1971 because we were playing a strong Australian side under Bill Lawry and later under lan Chappell.

That was a very arduous tour... There were seven Test matches because the third one in Melbourne was washed out. John Snow bowled brilliantly in that series and it was for the first time in 12 years we won the Ashes. I felt great because I was playing alongside Snow, (Geoff) Boycott and (Colin) Cowdrey, and I used to pretend like them when I was in my short trousers.

Who has been the toughest batsman you have bowled to?

It has to be Vivian Richards. I played against Rohan Kanhai and Garry Sobers in the latter part of their careers. They were both great batsmen. I never bowled to Barry Richards in Tests, but he played in county cricket and for South Australia and after seeing him, you cannot imagine there are better batsmen than him. But I think Vivian Richards would be the best of all.

And what about the present England batting line-up. Except for Michael Atherton, no one seems to be confident against the genuine speedsters. Graeme Hick is so inconsistent in Tests.

I will not agree with that view. I think England has got potentially good batsmen.

The fact is England had some good batsmen in the West Indies and they performed creditably, not brilliantly, and the last thing Michael Atherton said at the end of the series is that he wanted to keep that nucleus of players, particularly the batsmen, together.

We got a new chairman of selectors in Ray Illingworth and he made seven changes.

That’s a mistake the West Indies and Australia never make. They don’t chop and change their sides. They find out which is their best side and stick with it through thick and thin.

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They give a batsman six or seven Tests before they leave him out of the team and that should be the policy for Test cricket. Batting in Tests is a very demanding business, particularly mentally, and you have to have faith in the class players you pick. I believe in that.

(This interview was first published in the Sportstar magazine dated 22/04/1995)

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