Bob Willis, A Cricketer and a Gentleman credited to Bob Willis & Mike Dickson, edited by David Willis.
Bob Willis (1949-2019) was the second England fast bowler to take 300 Test wickets and also captained England, which is rare for a bowler. He is a cricketing legend due to his heroics at Headingley in 1981 when, playing Australia, he took eight wickets for forty-three and won the game for England. His fellow players talked of ‘a red mist’ or ‘a trance’ coming over him. Richie Benaud, commentating, said it was ‘one of the most fantastic wins in Test Cricket’ and that Willis seemed ‘almost as if he was in another world’.
Bob Willis, A Cricketer and a Gentleman is rather a hotchpotch of a book but still very interesting. The introduction is by his long-term friend, Ian Botham. There’s a biographical section written by Mike Dickson, anecdotes from friends and colleagues plus extracts from his own writing, all edited by his brother, David. Bob Willis didn’t look like an athlete. At 6’6", his long run and the thump of his foot on the ground as he bowled put a terrible strain on his knees and he was often unable to play due to knee injury, operations and other illnesses. Add to that depression, anxiety and insomnia and it’s a wonder he could play at all, let alone be remembered by all his friends as ‘great company’ and ‘very funny’. In those days there wasn’t the support for top players that there is now; they travelled with about three aides, in contrast to the army of coaches, physios and a doctor which travels with today’s England team. It was up to the individual to keep himself fit, which he worked hard at, always believing that running was more useful to a bowler than time in the gym. He found hypnosis helpful and, at the peak of his career, was lucky to have Mike Brearley, the supreme man-manager, as his captain. After retirement he eventually found his métier broadcasting for Sky, where he was famous for his acerbic comments and telling it how it was. He was so passionate about England cricket that he couldn’t bear to watch his team play badly. As I don’t have Sky, I missed all that.
When he was in his teens, Willis was introduced to Dylan’s music by a friend and was knocked out by it. He was such a fan that he changed his own name by deed poll, so that he became Robert George Dylan Willis. All the chapter headings in the book are Dylan song titles. Not everyone shared this passion, but they all understood that it was part of the man. In his introduction, Ian Botham says that wherever they were touring, if Bob Dylan were playing within a 300-mile radius, Bob would drag him off to the concert. Mark Nicholas recalls road trips with the in-car entertainment alternating between Dylan for Bob and Springsteen for himself. According to Mike Atherton, Positively 4th Street was playing at the end. There can’t have been a dry eye in the house as It Ain’t Dark Yet was played at the funeral. One of the little extras in the book is a piece Willis once wrote for The Times about his love of Dylan, listing his favourite albums and those he considered duds. He had every record ever made and, according to his friends, knew the words to every song. He went to every gig he could: ‘not so good at Hammersmith, should have put his sweater on after Tangled Up In Blue.’ His other passion was Wagner; sitting through six hours of opera was actually a pleasure for him. He often calmed pre-match nerves by playing Dylan over and over again ‘to get him in the mood’, as he wrote, but also calmed himself down with a hypnosis tape or Julian Bream playing the lute. A complex man. His own writings about cricket are some of the most interesting things in the book.
This book has perhaps been published too soon, while family, friends and colleagues are still grieving a recent loss. In time, perhaps there will be a fuller and better biography.
Here is a long clip from YouTube of the amazing Headingley bowling spell. The sight of players running off the field to avoid the fans, the interviews (Peter West, remember him?) show how much matches have changed since those days. Willis was keen to bring cricket more up to date and full of ideas on how to do it. He had no time for the ‘resting’ of players which has been causing some controversy during England’s current tour of India. Why should the team be without some of its best players? In Willis’s view, players had ‘filled their wallets’ playing in the IPL and their priority should be playing for England. For him, it meant everything.