It is infuriating that his intelligent ideas for the game’s future were never absorbed, considered or acted upon. Twice he put forward detailed reform of the English cricket system and twice his words fell on deaf ears
It is with the heaviest heart that these fingers hit the keypad. Bob Willis has gone, just like that, gone. He had been suffering from an aggressive form of prostate cancer for some time, not that other folk would have known. That was Bobby for you, no fuss. It seemed as if the fight could be won, but no, even the indomitable Willis spirit was mown down. The loss is gut-wrenching. Those close to him are a mess - disbelieving, discombobulated, heartbroken. Robert George Dylan Willis was very special.
That Sky television persona was the game face. Away from the call of lights, camera, action, he was the kindest man: charming, polite, funny and not in the least bit judgemental, unless standards were breached. Then he could fire both barrels. Oh boy, could he fire.
Bob first appeared in my life when the England selectors sent for him in Australia during Ray Illingworth’s successful 1970-71 tour. Alan Ward had broken down and pace was needed. It was a brave call by the selectors, for there was little pedigree to go on, but it turned out to be one of England’s best. As, of course, did Bobby.
I was a young boy with a crush on John Snow - Bob’s own gold standard - and precious little of that series passed me by thanks in the main to a tiny wireless radio that brought commentary from the Great Southern Land to a small boarding school in southern England. Each night I smuggled this splendid trinket of technology to bed, nestled it beneath my pillow and positioned the long, retractable aerial between the iron bed head railings in order to find an acceptable signal. The slightest move compromised this so I lay still, transfixed as Lawry was beaten, Redpath held and Chappell trapped. To the sound of Alan McGilvray, Bob took four wickets in the final Test, in Sydney, as England completed a 2-0 series win. Oh my days!
On occasions I was lucky - or unlucky, depending on your take - to play for Hampshire against Bob but, gamely as he ran in for Warwickshire during the evening of his career, he was not a patch on the bowler who blew Australians away. Of course, he was all arms and legs but it never appeared to the opponent as a shambles, more a clear and present threat. Sure, Snow was smooth, economical, rhythmical while Willis was, well, Willis but somehow you knew that he knew that you knew that he had you covered.
The piece de resistance came at Headingley in 1981. There is nothing I can add to the many thousands of words that have celebrated that incredible performance on the most extraordinary of days other than to say that Bob had those figures of 8 for 43 in his soul. Somewhere, sometime RGD Willis was going to do something utterly compelling, ridiculous even, as if it were written. He cared so deeply for the game - almost to the point of aching - and the destruction of Australia on July 21, 1981 was both a return for his investment in sweat and blood and a calling card for his future as pre-eminent observer, coach and critic. It is infuriating that his intelligent ideas for the game’s future were never absorbed, considered or acted upon. Twice he put forward detailed reform of the English cricket system and twice his words fell on deaf ears.
Those of us lucky to know him well have golden memories of friendship, a gift that comes in many guises. With Bobby, friendship came in an unconditional, organic form and with a leaning towards kindness. Examples of it have been everywhere this past couple of days but none better illustrates his legacy than the journey made by two fine men of Adelaide, one a wine-maker, the other from the motor industry, who travelled to sit by his bed last week and share the final chapter. They, like Sir Ian Botham who telephoned with the news, are beset by grief.
Bob knew right and wrong like few others and when I sought his advice at the early stage of my stuttering career, he invited me to dinner at a favourite Indian restaurant. In summary, his message was: “Be true to yourself, trust yourself, leave nothing out there and let others do the worrying.”
Thus, it was a privilege to join Sky in 1995 and be able to work with him. We lived nearby and invariably travelled by car together - I was always at the wheel, Bob never drove - creating a road trip narrative to our life that covered anything and everything but always, by the time we hit the North Circular on the way home, came back to our respective affections for Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. While filtering left to the A40 and into town, the cursing of political leaders and pusillanimous cricket administrators was drowned out by “Visions of Johanna” or “Thunder Road”.
He could be very funny, a point often missed by TV viewers who failed to pick up the wit in the barb and the relevance in the fun. He was a fine broadcaster and his role in The Cricket Debate, Sky’s Test match review show, became cult.
When I left Sky for Channel 4, he never once judged the new kids on the block, only encouraged. Neither did he talk behind our back, preferring to applaud when something was well done and otherwise keep his counsel. I valued that more than words can say. First up for Bob was warmth and kindness, like a beacon in the often selfish world of professional sport.
Meantime, I shall think of his smile and remember our wonderful lunch in London this last autumn, bathed as it was by sunshine and with the best of friends from cricket and his other lives.
Yes, the memories will linger of a brilliant cricketer and an even more brilliant and inspirational man. I will leave the final word to his own greatest inspiration - the other Bob, Dylan.
“May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the light surrounding you.
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
May you stay forever young…”
And, apart for the grey hair (!), that was Bobby. He knew the truth, he lent us his wisdom and he lived his life with the heart of a lion. – Cricinfo