Former England captain Bob Willis has been hailed as a “phenomenal” cricketer following his death at the age of 70.
The fast bowler took 325 wickets in 90 Tests from 1971 to 1984, claiming a career-best 8-43 to help England to a famous win over Australia at Headingley in the 1981 Ashes.
David Gower, who succeeded Willis as England captain, said his former team-mate and commentary colleague had a “burning, bright passion for the game”.
And ex-England fast bowler Darren Gough said Willis was “hugely admired around the world”.
- TMS Special: Bob Willis tribute
“He was a phenomenal cricketer,” added Simon Hughes, editor of The Cricketer and former Middlesex bowler.
“I still have that image in my head of him running off the ground at Headingley. He was a man on a mission. The passion and desire to win that game was too much for the Australians.”
Willis captained England in 18 Tests and 29 one-day internationals before his retirement from all cricket in 1984.
He subsequently worked as a summariser on BBC TV before joining Sky Sports as a commentator in 1991.
Willis continued to work for Sky and was part of their coverage of this summer’s Ashes series.
Firm, fair and a Dylan fan
Gower was in the England side, inspired by Willis and Ian Botham’s heroics, that famously fought back to beat the Australians against all odds in 1981.
“Headingley was a brilliant moment, the irony was they tried to drop him before that Test match, so that was him making a point and he was very good at doing that during his career,” Gower, 62, told BBC Radio 5 live.
“He has always been making points and he makes them very firmly. Anyone seeing that game would have seen a burning bright passion coming through the eyes.
“There is a huge contrast to Bob, a lot of people have seen him on programmes where his trenchant opinion is put across in great style. He was very forthright on players of the current generation, but behind it all is a very different character. He was multi-faceted.
“He was a huge Bob Dylan fan, in fact he changed his name to Robert George Dylan Willis by deed poll, which tells its own story, and he could tell you any Dylan lyric. He was a bright man, very good company and a wine connoisseur.
“He was very civilised and erudite, maybe too erudite for most, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was very eclectic in all sorts of things. He was passionate about cricket, and the way he talked about it too.”
Willis represented Surrey for the first two years of his professional career before spending 12 years at Warwickshire, finishing with 899 wickets from 308 first-class matches at an average of 24.99.
Despite needing surgery on both knees in 1975, he became one of the finest fast bowlers of his generation, playing another nine years and claiming his 325 Test wickets at an impressive average of 25.20.
At the time of Willis’ retirement, only Australia fast bowler Dennis Lillee had taken more Test wickets.
James Anderson (575), Stuart Broad (471) and Botham (383) are the only England bowlers to have since surpassed Willis’ tally.
Willis moved into commentary soon after his playing career ended and worked alongside former team-mates Botham and Gower.
After moving away from live commentary and summariser duties in 2006, Willis continued to work as a pundit on Sky Sports programmes such as The Debate and The Verdict.
He was frequently firm in his criticism of current players, which was seen by some as being unfair.
Former England fast bowler Darren Gough told Talksport: “As a player he had a big heart, he’d run in, nearly 6ft 6ins, and hit the pitch hard. At his peak he was one of the best three bowlers in the world.
“He was hugely admired all around the world. Everybody knew who he was.
“If you just saw him on TV, people might think he’s a bit straight, but in his company over a glass of wine he would make you laugh all night.”
‘The Goose’ and charades in India
Mike Brearley, captain for that 1981 Ashes series, says Willis “went into the zone” more than anyone he played with and used a hypnotherapist to aid his focus.
“You almost had to knock to find out if anyone was in. He was in, but he had this particular zone he got into, and I think it helped him a lot,” he told a BBC Test Match Special tribute podcast.
“He was fierce, but he wasn’t unpleasant. He was a great player of charades – in India where we stayed in little hotels or guest houses up in the country, he would be a great figure of the after-dinner in-house entertainment.
“Bob hated players losing their wickets cheaply. There were little remarks he made like ‘they have to be spoken to’ about David Gower or Derek Randall when they made a pretty 43 and got out, He wanted the best and wanted us to produce our best.”
Willis steaming in from the Kirkstall Lane End at Headingley inspired a generation of cricketers to copy his style.
“Bob was tall, a very awkward bowler to face. He was at you all the time, very persistent,” said Brearley.
“It was an extraordinary run-up to bowl – it was a sort of curve from slightly wide of the stumps. He came in from behind the umpire to deliver the ball with his characteristic in-swing action. We called him goose because it was as if he was labouring to take off as he came in to bowl.”
Tributes to a cricket great
Actor and cricket enthusiast Stephen Fry: “Oh no, not Bob Willis…what joy he gave, and what a marvellous man. That 8 for 43. Used to lunch with him occasionally to talk cricket, Wagner and Bob Dylan, his three great passions.”
BBC Sport presenter and former England footballer Gary Lineker tweeted: “Saddened to hear that Bob Willis has died. One of our greatest fast bowlers. Met him on many occasions and he was always great company with a sense of humour that was as sharp as his bowling. #RIPBob”
Sky Sports managing director Rob Webster said: “Our hearts go out to Bob’s family at such a sad time, we have lost an icon of British sport and a wonderful man.
“A cricketer of fantastic talent, his career was etched with high points and incredible achievements at the highest level. Captaining England and setting a tremendous standard as fast bowler, his game was the stuff of legend and his records will stand the test of time.
“Joining Sky and becoming part of our coverage three decades ago he has made a similar impact on how we have broadcast the game to our viewers. His style and, in particular, his voice will always be remembered fondly. We shall miss him.”