He has always been his own man

Umpire Peter Willey shares a joke with Craig McMillan during an ICC Cricket World Cup Super Six match between New Zealand and India in South Africa in 2003.-GETTY IMAGES

Modern Test cricket often misses such romantic heroes as Peter Willey, writes Ted Corbett.

Peter Willey was a cricket writer’s dream. Ask him for an interview and he always said yes; ask him a question about his part as the all-rounder in the England Test team 30 years ago and he would provide a bright and breezy answer that would satisfy any sports editor.

I once knocked on his door in the team hotel in Jamaica the morning after he had defied the West Indies attack — think of it, Holding, Garner, Patterson and Marshall, one of the greatest of all time — with flashing strokes, 71 runs and gleaming eyes.

To see him play so audaciously was to know that he had got out of bed that morning relishing the prospect of taking on these giants. He loved a battle and particularly against the odds. Modern Test cricket often misses such romantic heroes as Peter Willey.

I told him that I wanted his version of this unequal contest. “Aye,” he said in that north eastern accent, “and I guess you will want me to give you all the defiant words in the dictionary. Well, come in and we will see what we can do.”

Thirty years later I cannot remember the details but I know that I left his room with exactly the sort of quotes you might expect from a cricketer who has always been his own man.

In those days Ian Botham — Guy the Gorilla according to his team-mates — was the big, tough saviour of England. Willey defied him. How many of the stories of their confrontations are true I have no idea, but I hear Willey never took a backward step in the face of this national hero.

Later he retired and, missing the life I guess, turned to umpiring so effectively that he was quickly appointed to the Test panel. It made us wonder what might happen if a batsman gave a sign he did not approve of a marginal decision. With a satanic beard and those piercing eyes umpire Willey was not a man to question and, wisely, none of the batsmen he gave out offered too strong an argument about their dismissal.

When he found that the life got in the way of his family life he quit as an international umpire and, quite happily, stuck with county duties.

He would always admit being wrong. As captain of Leicestershire he thought he might have to discipline young Phil DeFreitas when he came back from his first tour abroad with England and was happy to confirm no such action was necessary. “Not the slightest sign of a swollen head,” he said. “He will make a good one for England.”

Andy Roberts was just one good judge who thought England did not value DeFreitas highly enough and at his best “Daffy” was as good a swing bowler as any.

Now we have a chance to see how the next generation of the Willey family make out. Peter’s son David, 25, quick bowler, hard-hitting batsman, fit as anyone in the game and a tigerish fielder, has left his home county of Northamptonshire to play for the champions Yorkshire.

Yorkshire have married experience and youthful vigour but their one-day performances have been ordinary and they clearly expect Willey junior to provide a boost.

I don’t know the lad but I know the father well enough to suggest that if David promises runs in the middle order, tight bowling and full on fielding, he will deliver. This is a skilled, thinking and blow-a-gasket family of cricketers.

The Ashes have been magnificent whether you supported Australia, still capable of a fight in any circumstances, or wayward England. David Willey might have been a strength if he had been chosen but I fear he is still regarded as a one-day all-rounder rather than a Test specialist. His father would certainly have found a place in the middle order.

Now both sides will have to reshape themselves before the next series two years from now. By then we will have an idea how well Steve Smith has settled into the role of captaincy and who will be Australia’s new opening batsman.

As I told you before the series began, England lack a partner for Alastair Cook. No one has put up a convincing case for a permanent place since Andrew Strauss retired and despite a long trial it looks as if Adam Lyth is not the answer. Where are the modern Hutton, Hobbs, Sutcliffe? Nowhere to be seen.

England have still to find a spinner. Imagine it: the country that gave us Derek Underwood, Jim Laker, Tony Lock and Graeme Swann cannot find a world class tweaker of the ball. Still there are a bunch of talented swing and seam bowlers and England will just have to rely on them; although as his injury this time showed Jimmy Anderson may be coming to the end of his great career. Not yet I trust. Most of all England need an opening bat, the one headache the selectors cannot cure. I have wondered if they might consider going back to the man they have missed most of all those who have dropped out in the last 10 years: Marcus Trescothick.

This tall solid left-hander is still scoring the runs for Somerset, he has the experience, the lovely slow off drive and the talent even if he must be close to retirement. Why not?

The selectors will say they cannot pick a man who is unwilling to tour. It sounds like a sad case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face and England have been the lesser side while that policy has been in place.