Bob Willis: A Cricketer and a Gentleman

Published: 2020
Pages: 284
Author: Willis, David (Editor)
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Rating: 5 stars

With the passing of Bob Willis last December English cricket lost one of its most popular playing heroes of the 1970s and early 1980s, and one of cricket broadcasting’s iconic figures of the twenty first century. One suspects the man himself might have been surprised at just how many tears were shed at the news of his death. The suddenness of his passing served only to exacerbate the grief as many, this reviewer included, were unaware that he was unwell.

Big Bob had, apparently, been planning an autobiography last year, thirty four years on from his last venture into that genre, a book that was appropriately titled Lasting the Pace. That one was, as post retirement autobiographies go, not a bad read. I dare say the new book would have been a pretty good one too, but alas we didn’t get it. Instead of a decent book however we have this one, and Bob Willis: A Cricketer and a Gentleman is a stunningly good read. That said I am sure we can all agree that we would rather Bob were still with us, telling us just where our great game and those who play it are going wrong.

Mark Butcher sums up Bob rather well when he is quoted as saying: The public perception might have been of a miserable old sod …… but it couldn’t be further from the truth. The reference there to public can only mean the casual observer though, as anyone who sat and listened to what Bob said for more than a few minutes soon knew what Butcher meant. It rapidly became obvious that in addition to knowing what he was talking about Bob also cared deeply about cricket and cricketers. In addition whenever he was speaking and however critical he was being his dry wit would surface from time to time and, just occasionally, he could be positively impish.

Another characteristic of the true curmudgeon that Bob lacked was the conviction that everyone and everything was better when he had been playing the game. On that one whilst he could be excoriating at times about those who displeased or disappointed him, he would also give credit where it was due, never better exemplified than by his quoted comment on the denouement of last summer’s Headingley Test: Forget about me and Botham in 1981, this was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen. Ironically enough on that particular one I think he was wrong, but his error is forgivable given that, being part of it, he never ‘saw’ 1981’s Headingley Test in the way he saw 2019’s.

So what do you get with Bob Willis: A Cricketer and a Gentleman? It begins, appropriately enough, with a five page foreword from Ian Botham. Not always a man to bend his back Sir Beefy has certainly done so on this assignment with a perfectly paced reflection on his old teammate. That foreword is followed by a preface from the editor, Bob’s older brother David, whose perspective inevitably brings a lump to the throat, the first of several contributors who do so.

The first hundred pages of the book then comprise a biography of Bob, written by Daily Mail writer Mike Dickson, who had been assisting Bob with the proposed autobiography. It is a traditional biography in the sense that it is chronological, but whilst the major milestones in Bob’s career are referenced the nine chapters are much more about telling the story of his life outside the game and exploring his character and personality than documenting his cricketing deeds. Each of the chapters bearing  the title of a Bob Dylan track is not unexpected, but a nice touch nonetheless.

Some of Bob’s great on-field deeds are referenced later in the book, but some are not and there may be many who as a result of reading Bob Willis: A Cricketer and a Gentleman decide to try and track down any or all of Lasting the Pace, the two tour diaries that Bob published following the two winters he led England, and his earlier diary of the 1978 summer. The good news is that none of them are too difficult to find.

Part two of the book starts with a detailed look at Headingley ’81. Over the space of 22 pages there are a selection of contemporary press reports and contributions from many of those involved, generally in the form of extracts from their books. The best here is undoubtedly Bob’s own account, written in 2019 with the benefit of the best part of four decades reflection, but the account of the match from Dennis Lillee’s most recent autobiography, Menace, is not too far behind.

The longest chapter of the book follows, a selection of fulsome tributes from inside and outside the game. The list is is an impressive one and comprises Paul Allot, David Brown, John Lever, Rod Marsh, Martin Tyler, John Major, Mark Nicholas, Michael Holding, Michael Atherton, David Lloyd, Michael Parkinson, Scyld Berry, Michael Henderson and, last but not least, a sonnet from Tim Rice.

The tributes over the book moves on to consider Six Memorable Matches (ie other than Headingley ’81) which begins in Bob’s debut series in Australia in 1970/71 and ends with that nail biting encounter in 1983 at the MCG when, by a catch from Geoff Miller via Chris Tavare, England memorably beat Australia by three runs after Jeff Thomson and Allan Border had added 70 for the last wicket.

David Willis wisely recognised that he needed to include some of Bob’s own writings, and there are  almost fifty pages of that, mainly extracts from the books I have mentioned, but from one or two other sources as well. Much shorter, weighing in at just ten pages, is a selection of some of the pithiest Willisisms from his days in the Sky studios/commentary box the best of which, perhaps, remains his comment at Edgbaston in 2001 when Shane Warne dismissed Darren Gough for a duck: There it is …… and there it goes. Put the cheese in the trap, in walks the mouse and off goes his head.

At this point the book is almost at an end, but not quite. There are two more chapters, the first of which will be a thought provoking one for all, but particularly those of us of a certain age, as something prepared for Bob’s autobiography appears, his reaction to his initial diagnosis back in 2016. Finally there are, under the chapter heading Farewell, Bob some more tributes, this time much shorter, some comprising just a single sentence or two. This time there is a cast of exactly fifty, only one of whom featured in the chapter of longer appreciations, so perhaps I should finish with Lloyd’s second contribution: Such sad news that Bob Willis has passed away. A true friend to so many. An outstanding man. God, we will miss him. Amen to that one Bumble.

And that word outstanding is, realistically, the only one that can be applied to Bob Willis: A Cricketer and a Gentleman. The narrative alone justifies the use of that adjective but if more were needed, and this is another advantage of having David Willis as editor, the selection of photographs that the book contains is a particularly captivating one.

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