Roll on forever, champion cricketer

On the pace and grace of the fast-bowling great Bob Willis. 

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“I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” John O’Hara’s tribute to George Gershwin, when the great composer was plucked from life at the age of 38, found a melancholy echo when Bob Willis died in early December.

Few men gave so much so freely as Bobby, and he was loved freely in return. For those who knew him the loss was grievous. The outpouring of love from those who did not, which went beyond the usual words of regret, was extraordinary.

Three score years and ten is the biblical span, yet 70 is no age these days. The prostate cancer that struck him three years ago had spread in recent months, and the final days were an ordeal for his family. Lauren, his wife, was accompanied in his final hours by his daughter Katie, brother David, and a close friend, Paul Allott, the former Lancashire and England cricketer. Shortly before 2pm on 4 December Lauren played two of his favourite songs by Bob Dylan, “Forever Young” and “Positively 4th Street”. “When the song finished,” she said, “he left us.”

Dylan was one of the lodestones of a life that began in Sunderland and matured in Surrey, where Willis attended the Royal Grammar School at Guildford when Terence Parry Jones, later Terry Jones of Monty Python, was head boy. Christened Robert George, he added a third name, Dylan, in his teenage years after falling under the spell of the Minnesota minstrel.

Willis’s fascination with Richard Wagner came later, in 1984, when he was living in Birmingham. That first Ring Cycle he heard, conducted by Reginald Goodall for the Welsh National Opera, was a debt of honour he repaid happily for the rest of his days.

Bobby was best-known in the public eye as a fast bowler for Surrey, Warwickshire and, on 90 occasions, for England, who he also captained. Of the supreme postwar English bowlers, he was not as fast as Frank Tyson, nor as great as Fred Trueman, nor as fine as Brian Statham or John Snow, and he knew it. But he belonged in their company.

In July 1981, on a day at Headingley that has become part of national folklore, he did something none of those bowlers achieved, blowing away eight Australian batsmen for 43 runs as England won the most famous Test match of all by 18 runs.

He was not a natural fast bowler. Bobby answered to the pet name of Goose because his approach to the crease, arms flapping, was ungainly. Throughout his career he had serious problems with his knees, which required surgery. “When I saw myself bowl on television for the first time, I got a big shock.” Yet he took 325 Test wickets for England, a total bettered only by Ian Botham, Stuart Broad and James Anderson.

His friendship with Botham was a very English affair. They loved one another but felt no need to express that love in a sentimental way. Bobby despised sentimentality, as he loathed bombast, selfishness and deceit. He valued above all the loyalty of his teammates and friends, though he was inclined to keep bat and pad together when Botham was on the rampage. “Beefy always talks about having ‘a glass of wine’. He means three bottles!”

Their greatest triumph came in that summer of 1981, in the series known as “Botham’s Ashes”, when England, having squared the rubber at Leeds, went on to win at Edgbaston and Old Trafford.

After retiring in 1984 Willis became a pundit on Sky Television, where his criticism could be withering. That was the public mask. Among his friends he was known for his modesty, wit and consideration for others. He had that rarest of virtues, grace.

He was never deceived by stardom, trusting in the song Schnozzle Durante used to croak: “Fame, if you win it, comes and goes in a minute./Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?” He admired Eric Clapton and George Harrison for their human qualities, and sometimes claimed to have come up with the idea for the musical supergroup the Traveling Wilburys at a party at Botham’s house in Worcestershire. He was also taken by Lauren Bacall when Harold Pinter introduced them at a pub in Birmingham.

Bobby loved the “real stuff”: ale, wine, plays, books, films and “the laughter learned of friends”. He attended the Olympic Cinema in Barnes, west London, every week and could then be found in the bar, reflecting on life’s idiocies.

It isn’t easy to isolate memories from 30 years of friendship, but three go together: a lunch in Adelaide, with the vintner Geoff Merrill and a gang of wine-making pals; a dinner in Edinburgh with Michael Kennedy, the great music critic, after a performance of Das Rheingold; and a mighty slurp at his flat overlooking the Thames on the Sunday afternoon in May 2012 when Manchester City won the Premier League.

We belted out Dylan that night, and gave particular force to “Shelter from the Storm”: “Beauty walks a razor’s edge,/Some day I’ll make it mi-ne!”

Roll on, Bobby, down the Rhine, where the Rhinemaidens rise to greet you; down the Thames, where Botham and Merrill pour bottles of something red and robust; down the Wabash, past Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. Roll on forever, champion cricketer and incomparable friend. We who remain will always keep a place at the table.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special