I first saw Bob Willis in the flesh bowling for England at Headingley in 1976 against the West Indies. Although England lost by 55 runs, the Windies were so dominant at the time that we actually felt this was pretty much a win really, especially as Bob had ripped through their second innings taking 5/42.
Fred was an ex-miner who was enjoying his retirement from hacking coal out of the west Yorkshire seam by watching a lot of cricket at all levels and cooking curry in a shed on an upturned hub cap with his Indian pals (because his wife wouldn’t let him cook ‘that muck’ in the house).
Born at the turn of the 20th century, he’d seen all the greats going back to 1910 when as a boy he’d seen Jack Hobbs ‘The Master’ score a century with what he later said was “like poetry written with willow.”
So we turned up for the fourth day of the fourth Test at a sold-out Headingley in late July, expecting to see England get put to the sword, but instead saw the Windies back in the hutch for under 200 thanks to a blistering bit of bowling from the big 6ft 6 inch man.
It was the first time I’d seen him in the flesh and he was quite a sight. We were sitting in the pavilion end, pretty much behind the bowler’s arm. This was the end Willis would bowl from.
He ran in via a long curving run, always looking a little dishevelled, as though the whole process was a lot of hard work. The first ball I saw him bowl was a thrilling thing to witness. A huge, tall man, as he set off on the run I recall thinking that he was almost too tall, too awkward. I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone in my 15 years who was that lofty. As he reached the crease and delivered the ball there was a low ‘ooooh’ from the crowd as it flew into the wicket-keeper’s gloves, a little wide and erratic. It was fast. Very fast. The fastest ball I had ever seen. I’d watched Lillee and Thomson in the previous year’s World Cup semi-final who must’ve been as fast or faster but we were sitting side on to the wicket at the time and you didn’t get the sense of how quickly it went down the track in the same way. This was different.
His second ball was, if anything, faster. Fred turned to me and raised his salt and pepper eyebrows, “we’re in for some fun today, lad” he said. He had a funny way about him, almost a sixth sense, when it came to cricket.
I assumed the West Indies would win. You just did back then, but I hadn’t anticipated them being bowled out for under 200.
Of the five wickets Willis took, four were clean bowled, bails sent flying, wickets smashed askew; the most thrilling of dismissals.
Fred wasn’t really a fan of out and out fast bowling, feeling that it was too much muscle and not enough brain but the two he appreciated were Willis and Michael Holding.
Holding bowled very fast with what looked like very little effort, barely breaking a sweat with his perfectly balanced, smooth, aerodynamic action. Willis, on the other hand, left you in no doubt that this was all a lot of chuffing physical work which was taking a lot of ouf him.
First there was that long curving run-up. What did the curve give him that a more straight run couldn’t? After each ball, his shirt would be baggy and loose and often need tucking back in, that mid-60s Dylan mop only added to the air of beatnik dishevelment. And he was what Fred called “a trudger” meaning that after he’d bowled a ball, he’d turn and, as though pulling a cart up a hill, would trudge back heavy-footed to his mark.
My diary notes from the day record Fred as saying this about Willis: “When people underestimate you, you can more easily get the better of them. Willis looks shattered and the moment you think that is when ‘e’ll take out your off stump.”
The diary also records him following this up with a long lecture about how posh people think the working class are stupid and how to use this fact against them to get your own way. Fred did this a lot; using cricket to illustrate something important about the way the world worked.
It’s probably hard to convey how shocking it was to see the West Indies bowled out for so few, much more familiar to see England trudge back after registering just over 200. It might not have been Bob Willis’ greatest moment playing for England, that was to be another Headingley day, five years later. But that 5/42 remains a special cricket memory for me and one that I’ll never forget.
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