Personally, the memories of Bob Willis that endure take the contours of a trenchant, gangling and acerbic cricketing pundit who never shied away from calling a spade by any other name. However, my earliest introduction to one of England’s and the world’s most formidable pacemen was courtesy a grainy, frazzled and intermittent-in-between-unscheduled-load-shedding, footage emanating from a Sears Elcot Black & White television set. Needing the installation of an external antenna that looked to the untrained eye as if it was reaching out to Mars, the television accorded its owner not just a choice of channels as would be determined by the national broadcaster, which was not many, but also warned its possessor that the vagaries of weather was beyond its control. Thus, the prospects of a batsman negotiating an out swinger or a fielder positioned under a steepler would remain enslaved to a huge gust of wind that would cause the antenna to sway, thereby distorting the feed, or a sudden burst of rain resulting in a power shut down of infinite duration.
It was the semi-finals of the 1983 World Cup and our house in a quaint and sleepy village in South India was abuzz with excitement. The year also had heralded the arrival of the first Television sets in our colony and what better way to embrace this wonderful technology than celebrate the exploits of Kapil Dev’s Devils. Although by way of confession, a better part of what transpired in the game is lost to memory, the one unforgettable image was of this extraordinarily stretched English bowler with a singularly curious mop of hair running in to bowl from what seemed to be a ridiculously long way! Even though Sandeep Patil and Yashpal Sharma had Willis’ number on that day, the sight of this skyscraper tearing into bowl with a maniacal frenzy captured the imagination of a collective set of kids huddled around the television and yelling in tandem with the adults.
Of course, as time wore on, and the love for the game transformed into an unrestrained obsession, I learned that the human skyscraper was a man of many parts. I read that one of the most outspoken and confident cricketers to have graced the game, was also one of its most vulnerable. Reaching out to his idol-in-perpetuity, Bob Dylan for succor in times of desperation, I learned that this fragile genius was a connoisseur of wines, a Wagner worshipper, and most of all, an admirable loyalist to his friends. The more I read about Bob Willis, the more I appreciated his seemingly vitriolic comments on various programmes such as “The Verdict” and “The Debate.” The more I read and read about Bob Willis, the more I found and keep finding it hard to believe that he is no more. “Bob Willis, A cricketer and gentleman”, is a fitting tribute to the man himself. Edited by his brother, this is a quasi-biography that cobbles together Willis’ own writings, stirring testimonies of his achievements both on and off the field as recounted by teammates and opponents alike and a rewind of the six greatest test matches in Willis’ career. The man who added the name of his hero to his own name in a rebellious act could produce some incomparable sporting music of his own.
Interspersed with wit and punctuated by nostalgia, the book makes for some memorable and poignant reading. Playing for Surrey, mostly in the Second XI’s and also doubling up as a goal keeper in the lower rungs of semi-professional football for Guildford City Reserves, when not working at Harrods that is, Willis’ mundane routine gets a veritable shake up when he is given thirty six hours to get things sorted out before boarding a flight to Australia. It was the Ashes series of 1971 and injuries to Alan Ward and Ken Shuttleworth ensured that Willis got the call up since England were desperately looking for a tearaway fast bowler to give company to John Snow.
Even after distinguishing himself with the ball and with his fielding on the tour Down Under, Willis is forced to change counties from Surrey to Warwickshire, due to the surprising intransigence exhibited by his former county. An out and out quickie, the elaborate run up and the concomitant pounding on the knees ensured that brittleness was always an attendant feature of Willis’ game. A stinging remark by his captain Tony Greig about Willis’ fitness after generous swigs of the amber nectar, transformed Willis’ attitude and approach towards fitness. Embracing a dual strategy of hypnotherapy and long-distance running, Willis took his level of fitness to a different league altogether. However, the spindly legs were a constant victim to a surgeon’s scalpel as the torch bearer of the English attack underwent multiple surgeries throughout his playing career.
In addition to regaling the readers about the unforgettable Headingly Test of 1981, where Willis single handedly routed a much vaunted Aussie attack to scalp an unbelievable 8/43, the book also takes readers down memory lane to exemplary performances that Willis put in, in India, Pakistan, West Indies and New Zealand. However, the primary lure of the book is in the snippets of humorous incidents that it contains within. After the curtains came down upon his glowing cricket career, Willis established the International Luncheon Club. The plan was to host business lunches with a sporting theme once a month. Authors seeking to publish their work, cricketers, visiting teams were all the targeted invitees.
“In 1995 Brian Clough was the star invitee, coming down by train from his home in the Midlands on the morning of the lunch. Unfortunately, en route he became rather too well acquainted with the buffet car and turned up the worse for wear. “Brian had clearly had a few drinks already,” recalls David. “For some reason he was trying to kiss all the waiters, and we were frantically telling them not to oblige his frequent requests to fill his glass up. By the time he got up to do his question-and-answer he was barely able to speak, and we had to sit him down after seven or eight minutes. It was not long after the famous Eric Cantona kung fu kick incident at Crystal Palace. When asked what he would do to discipline the offender, Brian responded that he would “cut his balls off”. The strange thing was that we had organised another event for Brian in Manchester the following day, so we went up there fearful. But he turned up on time and sober, and was brilliant with everyone.”’
A man who was preternatural with nicknames, as the book illustrates, the Willis habit of bestowing nicknames ranging from the sublime to the silly, not just to his teammates but to his own parents as well, was legendary. The Chapters piecing together selected writings from Willis’ days as captain of England provide some guffawing insights. “At dinner this evening the main topic of conversation was the voracity of those local mosquitoes. They seem to have taken a particular fancy to the ankles of A.C. and Nick Cook and the backside of Allan Lamb, of which I entirely fail to see the attraction.”
“In ducking rather rapidly, however, I succeeded in putting a twelve-inch split in the backside of my trousers. Dear old ‘Flash’ Cowans came to the rescue with a surprisingly nimble needle and thread during the tea interval.
“We all ate well, none better than Mike Gatting, who has become known as ‘Jabba’ after a character in Return of the Jedi which eats everything it comes across!”
A reproduction of a piece that originally appeared in the Times edition of 5th September 2012 alluding to the rationale behind Willis adding the name “Dylan” to his original name is unmissable.
Bob Willis was a cricketer of tremendous abilities. He was also a human being beset with a roiling cauldron of emotions. Plagued by insomnia, suffering from depression and prone to self-doubt, he was a susceptible personality at the most granular level. However, he did not allow fragilities and foibles to usurp a good life. Good friends, great food and glasses of carefully selected wine more than made up for life’s more gullible moments. Moreover, Dylan was always within arm’s length to lend the necessary support and encouragement.
Robert George Dylan Willis touched not only those with whom he was in proximity but also had an appreciable influence on people about whose very existence he could not even be aware of. One such non decrepit and ordinary person was a 7 year old boy who kept his eyes unblinkingly glued to an unreliable television, and kept gasping at the sight of a windmill running in to hurl itself at full tilt against a set of people, some of whom would go on to become the boy’s most loved cricketing idols.
Sleep well Mr. Willis and THANK YOU SIR!