Much like policemen and teachers, aren’t the Sky Sports cricket pundits getting younger? Last summer Nick Knight was promoted to the Test match commentary team and this winter has seen a long line of recently retired (or soon to retire) players giving their views on the various matches from around the world. But amidst the Butchers, Corks and Keys lurks a strange grey-haired giant. A tall, haggard creature with a deathly stare and large feet planted square on the ground, fixated by the camera as if it were a hunter invading its lair. It’s of course angry Robert George Dylan Willis (he added the Dylan himself in tribute to his musical hero): a venerable Bob Dylan to Mark Ramprakash’s Olly Murs.
It is odd to think that for several years Willis was a mainstay of the commentary team. His voice seems slightly too dull compared with the wit and banter provided by Botham, Hussain and Lloyd. It is only since 2006 that Willis has been cast away in dark studios, often sitting opposite Charles Colville and bemoaning anything and everything. But this is Willis’s true home: he has time to stew here, the little things that have annoyed him bubble away until the interval arrives and he can pour them out as steaming bowls of vitriol, often preceded with a throaty “Well Charles…”
It is true that Willis divides cricket fans. In a world of IPL, mascot derbies and snakes of empty lager beakers, Willis is alien. Old-school. Miserable. But why are those traits that cannot be enjoyed by viewers and fans? His grievances are worth a dozen of Rob Key’s babbles (Key really ought to stop one sentence before starting another) or Steve Harmison’s incomprehensible mutterings. However, even we can understand why he is disliked – he doesn’t toe a party line and nor – we suspect – does he give a hoot about anything apart from what he believes.
Now that England are (pretty) good, Willis has fewer bones to chew. But when England do badly, he never holds back, his voice getting higher with incredulity. And when umpires get it wrong? Oh boy does Willis entertain. Especially if the umpire is Darryl Harper.
We often find his playing career is overlooked – yet he was a fairly-modern great bowler. Willis was genuinely fast and his 325 Test wickets for England are second to only Botham; the average (25.20) considerably better. His career started in the late 1960s at Surrey. He won the county championship in 1971 before leaving for Warwickshire, where he immediately won the championship again.
His England debut came in the 1970/71 Ashes series at the age of 21 and he played intermittently for a number of years. In 1975 he had operations on both knees, as a result he rarely bowled untroubled by pain. His selection became more consistent in the late 1970s, with a haul of 20 wickets from five Tests in India in 1976/77 being particularly notable.
His action – a long galloping run-up with high knees, followed by a high (he is 6’6”) chest-on delivery – was unusual, but effective; he was able to extract awkward bounce from most surfaces. His wild hair only added to the distinctiveness. Of course, his most famous moment came in that most famous of series. Similar to Stan Mortensen scoring a hat-trick in the Matthews Cup Final, Willis took 8-43 in the Headingley Test during Botham’s Ashes.
In 1982 he was appointed England captain – an unusual position for a bowler- and immediately won a home series against India. The following Ashes series was less successful (losing 2-1). In all, he captained England 18 in 18 Tests (7 wins, 5 losses) as well as the 1983 World Cup before being sacked in 1984 in favour of David Gower. He played in three further matches against the West Indies that summer before retiring after an expensive battering at the hands of Viv Richards et al. At that time, only Dennis Lillee had more Test wickets and oddly, he had the most not-outs in Tests. Even odder was the time at Edgbaston in 1982 when he went out to bat without a bat. He soon turned to the media, firstly the BBC and latterly Sky. It pleases us no end when he turns up on the television – after all, there is a certain happiness in misery – and perhaps ultimately, Bob Willis is at his happiest when annoyed. And he does get annoyed.