When Bob Willis died last year he left an incredible legacy and so many fantastic memories on and off the cricket field. Now, from a new book celebrating his life and career here’s… Willis in his own words
- Cricket legend enjoyed many fantastic memories both on and off the field
- The fast bowler took 325 wickets in 90 Tests for England from 1971 to 1984
- As a commentator for the BBC and then Sky he was known for his plain-speaking
- Willis died aged 70 last December after a long battle with cancer
Bob Willis wrote this reflection in April 2019, eight months before his death aged 70.
I guess you never know how you are going to react to being told you have cancer. It is not something you ever want to find out, but now I know.
It was April 2016 and I was seated, as an apparently healthy 66-year-old, opposite a doctor in a hospital in west London when he gave me the results of a biopsy on my prostate. There is a scale of one to 10, with the worst scenario being upwards. I was a nine, and there was worse to come. The cancer was not confined to the prostate but had spread.
Cricket legend Bob Willis enjoyed many fantastic memories both on and off the field
I recall being reasonably stoic upon hearing the news, although it did feel something akin to sustaining a huge blow to the solar plexus. I was more stunned for the next two or three hours until I started to come to terms with what I had been told. It takes a while to sink in and then you start working out the best way to proceed. Nor did I feel much in the way of self-pity, although you inevitably ask yourself why it is you whose number has come up.
I have, by and large, looked after myself. While always an enthusiastic drinker — of wine and beer, not the hard stuff — I have not been prone to too many other vices and I have kept myself in reasonable shape, always taking plenty of vigorous exercise. My diet has been decent. Going back to my days as a cricketer I have, for many decades, had a personal rule that I eat nothing but fruit until lunchtime. These days I am a 24/7 vegetarian and have found that regime unexpectedly agreeable.
But here I was, being given the kind of news everybody dreads, trying to work out how to soften the blow for those I care about the most. You wonder, inevitably, if it could have been spotted or investigated sooner. But there is no point trying to turn the clock back, and being over-emotional is not my style. If anything, I surprised myself with my relatively phlegmatic response.
Willis was known for his plain-speaking and he thought it was the best way to stay in the job
Perhaps it helps that my life has been one of relatively abrupt twists and turns, with events rarely turning out as I expected. I certainly never grew up thinking I would make it as a high-profile athlete in international sport, as there was precious little indication in my childhood or teenage years that my dreams would swiftly become reality.
By the time I left school at 18, after a less than blissful time at grammar school, I was shaping up to be a half-decent bowler with hopes of a county contract, while also being a non-League football goalkeeper. At 21, having only recently broken into the Surrey team, I got a call telling me to get on a flight to Australia to join the England team, the flight leaving in 36 hours. A few months later I had featured in four Ashes Tests in a winning team.
Having played for and captained England over a 14-year period — much longer than I ever thought possible — I never envisaged such a lengthy career in broadcasting, 30 years spent with Sky.
Willis was not afraid to hand out criticism and praise to the current crop of cricket stars
So when I was given my diagnosis, on that spring day, it was another tale of the unexpected to be reckoned with.
When something like this happens, you do take stock and reflect upon all the things that have happened: adding Dylan to my name as an unconventional teenager, in homage to my musical idol; roaring down the hill at Headingley in 1981, in something of a trance, to knock over the Australians; the sleepless nights while captaining England (I have always tended towards insomnia); the fantastic friendships and lifelong bonds anyone lucky enough to play professional team sports establishes.
In my case, I wonder if I allowed myself to enjoy it all enough. And then a second life as a former cricketer, for which I am also grateful, commentating on and analysing the game I love while visiting fascinating places and meeting a huge array of people.
I was first employed by the Beeb in 1985, the year after my body gave up on me as a cricketer. Like most players-turned-commentators, I wasn’t given much formal training; you’re just put in the seat next to the lead person and off you go. In my case it was Richie Benaud, the master. In his very understated way he was tremendously helpful.
Willis with Ian Botham following their victory over Australia at Edgbaston in 1981
I began, like a lot of people who have just left the dressing room, by making excuses for friends when they fouled up or played a bad shot. Richie told me I had to be a bit more critical and not just put a superficial gloss on things.
As it happened, I never wanted to go back into the dressing room after a day’s play to socialise with the likes of David Gower, Allan Lamb or Ian Botham when they were still playing, friendly though I was with them. So by the time I joined Sky four years later my style had evolved. Being plain-speaking came naturally, but it was a conscious thing in that I thought I had to do something different to stay in the job. I resolved to be fairly blunt. I didn’t want to be like Fred Trueman asking what was ‘going off out there’, or banging on about what it was like back in my day.
BOB WILLIS: A CRICKETER AND A GENTLEMAN
BOB WILLIS : A CRICKETER AND A GENTLEMAN edited by David Willis, published by Hodder at £20. © Beneficiary Of the Estate of Bob Willis 2020 Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed of all cancers in the UK. Bob’s wife and daughter will be giving the full advance payment and royalties on this book, less expenses, to Prostate Cancer UK.
To donate further in Bob’s memory visit: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/bobwillis
I wanted to tell it how it is and talk as if I was in the pub with a mate: ‘Why on earth have they picked him?’ What I was determined to avoid was falling in with a lot of what you heard, and still hear, on football, as in the ‘He’ll be disappointed with that’ approach. I will say that something is not good enough, or is unprofessional.
Contrary to some perceptions, I am also keen to hand out praise when I believe it is merited, and I hope that, by the same token, this carries more weight.
Perhaps it can come across as personal, although it isn’t intended that way. For example, I felt obliged, when watching Keaton Jennings play for England, to ask why he could not learn to avoid getting out in the same way all the time. Maybe I should not have called him a ‘robotic stick insect’, but that was the image that came into my head.
When James Vince, clearly a naturally talented player, was batting for England in Tests, he would hit three glorious cover drives before getting caught at second slip — so frustrating for the watching fan, and you had to point it out.
I am also aware we are all human and make mistakes. When Andrew Strauss and Paul Farbrace asked me to meet the England team in 2015, I will admit to a little trepidation, because I have never sought favour with the team of the day. I had given a few fearful stick, people like Adam Lyth and Adil Rashid, but I found myself welcomed and cordially received. I gave them a lot of respect for that.
Trevor Bayliss had told them they would all end up being poacher-turned-gamekeeper one day, that I was just doing my job and they ought to do theirs.
It had become part of Strauss’s philosophy to bridge the schism between the commentary box and dressing room by hearing from the likes of myself, Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain. He had been in the commentary box and knew what we had to offer, although we cannot get involved in coaching in any formal way. Anyway, to my surprise, nobody looked to punch me on the nose.
SIX OF BOB’S GREATEST HITS
1 ‘There it is . . . And there it goes. Put the cheese in the trap, in walks the mouse and off goes his head.’
Darren Gough, out for a duck, proves no match for the wiles of Shane Warne in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston in July 2001.
2 ‘There should be three sets of stocks in the town square in Leeds: one for Andy Flower, one for Alastair Cook and one for Jonathan Trott. And a great big barrel of rotten tomatoes to hurl at them.’
Bob finds England’s negative tactics hard to take in their laborious victory over New Zealand in the second Test at Headingley in May 2013.
3 ‘I have never had a Jagerbomb. Maybe Australian beer is even worse than it used to be.’
Bob gives a damning assessment of David Warner’s reported choice of drink before the altercation with Joe Root in the lead-up to the 2013 Ashes.
4 ‘Would I have liked to play Twenty20? Not half, only four overs a day? Wouldn’t mind getting smashed around for the sort of money these guys are earning these days.’
Bob reveals some of his feelings about Twenty20 cricket.
5 ‘Well, he isn’t an international wicketkeeper, is he, let’s be honest about it. You know, I called him a stopper standing back. I mean, standing up he looks like a performing seal at feeding time… flapping away there!’
Jonny Bairstow’s performance in the first Test at Durban in December 2015 fails to win Bob’s approval.
6 ‘The last idiot to put Australia in at Adelaide in an Ashes Test was yours truly, RGD Willis. I thought Joe Root might have learned from that mistake, but apparently not.’
Reflecting on the lessons of history after Joe Root’s ill-fated decision to bowl first in the Adelaide Test during the 2017–18 Ashes.
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