One Of Us: RIP Bob Willis

Will he be missed? He certainly will, Charles. Today is a really sad day. Like many people I feel absolutely gutted at the loss of Bob Willis. He was loved by all and he’s left us all far too soon.

Bob was one of the few cricket pundits who was just like us supporters. He was candid and critical because he cared so much about the team. And, just like us, he spoke his mind and didn’t particularly care if his passion overflowed. In an era when too many pundits and commentators seem too close to the players, and too afraid to criticise, Bob Willis was real. You knew he was giving it to you straight.

Yes there were times when Bob was probably a bit too harsh on certain players. I’d be interested to know how the likes of Keaton Jennings felt after a Bob roasting on Sky. However, this only made him more like us. As supporters we all get carried away now and again. Watching Bob rant on the television, just like we do on the sofa when England collapse after a succession of crap shots, was cathartic. If there weren’t any positives then Bob wouldn’t waste time trying to find any.

Bob also had an uncanny knack of summing up the prevailing mood in just a few words. They might not have been clever words that would win him a writer’s job at a prestigious broadsheet but somehow they always hit home: “A load of rubbish, Charles”, “abject and pathetic, Charles”, “they’re bird-brains, Charles”, “these guys cannot bat, it’s as simple as that, Charles”. Go get ’em, Bob.

By keeping it simple, and eschewing all the usual cliches and paralysis through over-analysis, Bob also managed to be remarkably incisive. He instinctively knew when a particular player couldn’t cut the mustard at international level and he was rarely wide of the mark. But when someone did occasionally prove him wrong, or the team produced an unexpected comeback after he’d written them off, he wasn’t afraid to be gracious and gobble up his humble pie.

Bob’s passing also seems to underline the passing of the commentary baton from one generation to the next. With Sky pensioning off David Gower and Ian Botham (wrongly in my opinion) and replacing them with younger blokey types like Rob Key and Ian Ward, Bob Willis’s continued role on The Debate (formerly The Verdict) felt reassuring. The decor might have been changing but one hoped that Grumpy Bob would remain part of the furniture for a long time to come.

Sadly, however, this wasn’t meant to be. Although Bob’s colleague Charles Colville tried to reassure us last week that his absence from our screens was down to a “small operation” his condition was obviously far more serious than that. It was a shock to hear he’d been suffering from Thyroid cancer. Sky’s cricket coverage simply won’t be the same again.

It’s worth remembering, of course, that Bob Willis had a tremendous career as a player before making the switch to media. Unfortunately I didn’t see much of him live – he played his last test in 1984 which was a year or two before I started watching cricket on the BBC as a kid – but he was clearly the exceptional England fast bowler of his generation.

Indeed, one could argue that Bob Willis (statistically at very least) was the best pace bowler we’ve had in the last half century: 325 wickets at an average of 25 and a strike rate of 53. Only Jimmy Anderson comes close. How England could use a young Willis now.

On a personal level I will miss him just as much as I miss Richie Benaud. Although I never met Bob in person, I used to see him around town in Wimbledon when I lived there during my twenties and thirties. What’s more, as a fellow Bob Dylan fan, I always saw him as a kindred spirit.

Perhaps it’s fitting, therefore, that I end this tribute by quoting the most influential singer-songwriter of the 1960s.

“When the storm clouds gather ’round you, and heavy rains descend,

Just remember that death is not the end.”

– Bob Dylan, 1983.

James Morgan


  • Sadly, I am old enough to remember the young R.G. Willis (not yet self-Dylanised) made his first appearances for Surrey. He was astonishingly quick. I don’t think I had regularly seen county batsmen beaten for pace, because even the great fast bowlers of my schooldays didn’t really turn it on (Trueman and Statham and Snow we exciting, but not really fast, when actually seen). Willis, briefly, was really fast. Then, in no particular order, he got knee trouble and left for Warwickshire. Of course, his exploits at Headingly in 1981 cannot be forgotten. Unfortunately, I also cannot forget his totally unimaginative and surly spell as England skipper – a sort of active prelude to his curmudgeon on “The Verdict”. Much missed, as everyone says.

    • I read that he took the captaincy out of a sense of duty because nobody else wanted to do it.

      • Almost correct. Nobody else wanted to do it, and nobody else wanted Boycott to do it again. I think it was Willis who told Both to run out Boycs when the latter was captain, also on a tour of NZ as it happened. As I’ve said elsewhere, Willis wasn’t a very gracious loser (he was skipper when NZ won its first match on English soil and later when NZ won its first series against England), but at least he was more honest about his own side’s failings than any modern skipper would be.

  • Very sad news. I laughed at Vic Mark’s piece about him in the Guardian when he allegedly said “when I retire the last thing I’m going to do is become a pundit and slate the players”. You’ve mentioned Jennings, I’d like to know what Craig White thinks as he was someone in particularly who Willis always seemed to have it in for.

    But despite this, and to go back to the Vic Marks piece and your comment about him “being one of us”, it’s worth remembering that at a dinner a couple of years ago in which he was there with several of England’s current fast bowlers the new crop arrived wary given Bob had been giving them a hard time on Sky. They left having had a great evening having discovered that Bob really was one of them.

    RIP Bob Willis.

  • My first live cricket was a Rest of the World XI vs the 1977 Australians at Arundel – and Bob Willis took a hat-trick (all top order batsmen too). He was the best England fast bowler I’ve seen over a sustained period of time (I only saw Snow at the very tail-end of his career, Malcolm, Finn and Tremlett may have matched him briefly but couldn’t sustain it and it’s too soon to say about Archer and Wood).

    It’s a great shame there’s no TV of the 76/77 tour of India which was his real breakthrough. Everyone rightly mentions 8/43 but I also recall him taking a five-for against NZ when they were chasing a small total (not so well remembered as NZ did manage to crawl over the line). He played some useful knocks in his idiosyncratic style (a partnership with Peter Willey against the mighty WI was probably his best although going out against Pakistan and forgetting his bat was funnier) and he was also an outstanding close catcher when his knees allowed (fine catches in 70/71 and to dismiss Kim Hughes at the Oval in 1977 stand out). Unlike some genuine quicks he was a fine ODI bowler as well and it was a pity he missed the 1979 WC Final with injury.

    As for the captaincy and why the England selectors broke their long-standing antipathy to bowler captains, his outspoken opposition to Packer just beforehand might not have been entirely coincidental. He wasn’t a great captain and the decision to take three off-spinners to Australia in 82/83 because he couldn’t tolerate Phil Edmonds was a bad mistake.

    After England batsmen had copped it from Australia in 1975 and the West Indies in 1976, there’s no denying part of the affection for him was seeing someone who could dish it back. He hit Iqbal Qasim in the face in 1978 and his blow to Rick Darling’s chest in 78/79 isn’t as famous as the Ewen Chatfield incident but is probably the nearest there’s been to an on-field fatality when England were involved after it.

    Thanks for the memories, Bob. I don’t think anyone watching you ever felt like you weren’t giving it all you had.,

  • I best remember him in the “Botham’s Ashes” which were as much his as Beefy. The sight of him steaming in, hair flowing in the wind with a manic look on his face was unforgettable. His 8 for 43 was a sight I have happy memories of watching. I think the Aussie team simply folded because they were terrified of him.

    And loved him on Sky. He was so Eeyorish and. Grumpy and it was great. Mark Butcher seems to be the only other commentator who will not mince his words. The rest are all a bit blokey

    He will be missed

  • As a Warwickshire man I was always frustrated by the call ups to the national side which deprived us of his services for so many years. However in 1980, under his captaincy and with a somewhat underwhelming side in which he played pretty much every game coming off his short run, where he still worked up enough pace to trouble the great and the good, we managed to win the John Player League, still my favourite one day tournament. I still have the engraved commemorative shield the club produced for the supporters. It’s now hanging in a more high profile place in memory of the big fella.
    Don’t know how he got away with some of his punditry, singling out players for dismissive criticism, but at least it was his honest personal assessment. You never felt there was anything arch about Bob.
    One of my most treasured memories of him were his warming up excercises on the pitch before play. As he was not the supplest of individuals he did a lot of stretching and the England physio Bernard Thomas, a short man, used to help him by standing next to him so Bob could put his leg up on his shoulder and bend his back.
    However the prevailing memory is of his World weary walk back to his mark followed by his what always seemed to be huge effort to get to the crease, he always seemed to be running uphill, followed by his whirlwind action displaying so much commitment. Even when Viv Richards was toying with him he always gave it everything. Though not the most gifted cricketer, especially with the bat, he never short changed the punter.
    God bless you Bob, we will not forget you.

  • His greatest achievement in my view was that he did it all singlehanded ! For his entire Test career he was England’s only genuine Test quality quickie. Our only genuine opening bowler. He never had the luxury of bowling in tandem with someone of similar pace; being able to put batsmen under sustained pressure or of batsman feeling the need to ‘get away from the other end’. If only he had been a contemporary of Snow or indeed of the class of 2005 – especially Jones. In the circumstances he achieved miracles.

    • But he did have the likes of Old, Hendrick, Botham, Lever and Dilley to bowl alongside, with Edmunds and Embury to share the workload. I think you would agree that’s a site better than today’s bunch as a whole, Anderson excepted.
      Considering the knee problems he had throughout his career his 325 test haul was remarkable. The down side as a Warwickshire supporter was he didn’t play much for us once established in the test side.

      • Oh yes, I certainly agree with that – Underwood too of course.
        In relation to playing for Warwicksire , Jack Bannister, I think, told a lovely story about how The TCCB were desperate to keep Bob fit for Tests and, pre central contracts, used every excuse in the book to ensure he was unavailable for County matches. He finally played for Warwickshire in September at a near empty Edgbaston. As he turned to begin his run up for his first delivery, a shout from the stand echoed round the ground. In a broad Birmingham accent : ‘Bowler’s name please!’

        • I wish that had been me, and I’m sure it appealed to Bob’s sense of humour, which we all knew he had one once we’d seen him bat.

  • I was unable to get along to see the first 4 days of the 1981 Headingley Test – much to my annoyance – but I insisted on taking a bit of time out to watch the finale and an almost certain Australian victory. Firstly I popped in to my office in Harrogate for an hour and on arrival at the ground found I’d missed only the last England wicket and the first Aussie one. The ground was by no means full but we soon realised we were seeing something special. Aussies cam and Aussies went and Border’s dismissal seemed pivotal. I vividly remember the look of horror on Marsh’s face when he realised they were staring into the abyss. Even though Bright and Lillee cobbled a partnership together the writing was on the wall. Willis was certainly in the zone, bowling fast and accurately before sprinting off the field at the end. It all happened in the space of 36 overs. I went back into the office and was quizzed as to how many wickets Oz had won by. Nobody believed me at first. A great day.

    I disagree that Willis’s achievements were single-handed. OK, he didn’t have another really quick guy at the other end in Tests but he had the luxury of some other fine pace bowlers including Old, Hendrick, Dilley and Botham.

    Nor can I agree that Wobbly Bob was one of us. He had to ability to be supremely focussed to the extent that I would suggest few of us could manage. And however critical we may be about England’s shortcomings he had the balls to let rip in the studio. He certainly didn’t care about upsetting the authorities. The last time I saw him in the flesh was as a commenter at New Road,
    walking round. I was hoping to speak to him but he completely blanked me (before I realised he was on a mobile). How much was an act and how much for real? I don’t know but he got it right about Jennings.

    Anther man who’s gone far too soon.

    • Much though I admire Old, Hendricks and Dilley they were not Test quality quicks. None of them struck fear into the hearts of top quality opening batsmen by their pace. Botham did but briefly. Willis bore the brunt of being our one and only genuine Test quality fast bowler throughout his career.

      • Sorry to disagree about Old and Hendrick. Neither ever had pretentions to be quicks but both were supremely accurate and certainly test standard. They were more like Anderson and Broad. Hendrick particularly could trouble the best. He frequently beat the bat but because he bowled slightly short of a length, which restricted runs, he didn’t find the edge often enough. Old did pitch the ball further up but was not as skilled a seamer, so if the ball didn’t swing he could be expensive, though I do remember him bowling at an Indian side including Gavaskar, Wadekar and Vishwanath and conceding just fifteen runs from twelve overs. Can you imagine any of our present seamers doing that, Anderson accepted. It’s also fair to say that the standard of red ball batting then was far superior to now.


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