I remember watching Bob Willis demolish the Australians in the Headingley test match of 1981. I was not in Leeds, of course, but home alone in my house in Brislington. I had endured a horrible summer, succumbing to a long bout of depression and anxiety that saw me barely leave the house. The drugs I was prescribed left me wiped out to the extent that just getting out of my chair to do anything was a struggle. Watching the sports antics of Bob Willis and Ian Botham lifted my mood better than any drugs or therapy could manage.
In 1981, cricket was on the BBC and, it seemed to me, lots of people watched it. Cricketers were household names, transcending their sport, putting them up there with footballers. Botham in particular, went on to be one of the biggest sports stars in the land. But the death of Bob Willis, at the age of 70, hit me quite hard. I’d quite forgotten how much I loved to watch him bowl and, more specifically, how great his spell was at Leeds.
Willis, a tall man with flyaway curly dark hair, ran in like a man possessed. He bowled with fire, with pace and with hostility and, for most of the time, devastating accuracy. He defied his advancing years and wonky knees and became a legend of the game. And now he has died.
There have been better fast bowlers, there may have been better spells of fast bowling and in any event it’s subjective. For me, this was greatness before my eyes. Despite the chaotic state of my mental health, for a short while there was light in the darkness. Sport can do this to you.
I thank Bob Willis for what he did in 1981 and everything he did in his cricketing career and in his life. Yet I have another memory of him, here in Bristol at the County Ground.
One afternoon, for reasons I can’t remember, I found myself watching the final afternoon of the final day of a County Cricket champiopmnship match between Gloucestershire and Warwickshire. To the best of my knowledge, it was the only time I ever went to a County Championship game. Gloucestershire were batting and the game was heading for an inevitable draw when Bob Willis came on to bowl. I can’t even remember whether this was before the Ashes series of 1981 or after and it doesn’t really matter. I knew who he was though.
With nothing to play for, other than professional pride, Willis came in off his long run and bowled several ferociously hostile overs at the home batsmen. I viewed the action from side on and simply could not see the ball leaving the bowler’s hand. The first thing I would hear would be the loud thump into the batsman’s front pad or, more often, the slap as the ball flew into the wicket keeper’s gloves, a wicket keeper who seemed to be halfway back to the boundary. I can’t remember if Willis took any wickets and I rather think he didn’t, but the image is vivid. Close my eyes and I am almost there, along with barely a few dozen others, watching one of England’s great cricketers.
In 1981, the England cricket team lit up the country and it lit up my life. And now one of the biggest stars has left us all too soon. Sad times.