Over the years there have been great cricketers, charismatic cricketers and cricketers who have raised the bar - each in a small and prestigious category of their own.
But perhaps the smallest and most prestigious category of all is that of cricketers whose abilities as a player and attributes as a person made them unique. In that category sits Bob Willis.
When Willis died, aged 70, in December, shock and mourning spread throughout the cricket world. He was globally respected and admired both as a great fast bowler who virtually carried the England attack for much of his 90-Test career and, later on, as a punchy pundit and astute broadcaster.
The sense of sadness spanned the globe, but nowhere was it more acute than at Warwickshire which ‘Big Bob’ made his cricketing home between 1972 and 1984. Already a Test player when he was signed from Surrey, within weeks of making his Bears debut, he was part of the title-winning side of ’72. He outlined his talent in the victory that clinched the crown when his eight for 44 (including a hat-trick) demolished Derbyshire at Edgbaston.
In that match Willis opened the bowling with fellow England quick David Brown. It was the start of a professional rapport which was to evolve into a lifelong friendship. The two men were to share many a new ball, many a hotel room and many a pint. They became the closest of friends – although Brown admits that, initially, he had a doubt or two that this star signing from Surrey was all he was cracked up to be.
“Our captain AC Smith signed Bob,” recalls Brown. “Bob had played for England was very highly-rated but when I first saw him in the nets I thought: ‘Is he as good as Alan thinks?’
“I soon found out. He turned out to be one of England’s greatest fast bowlers and one of my closest friends.”
A great fast bowler and also a fine man. Never mind his waspish TV persona, though that made for entertaining punditry, Willis was by nature a man of warmth and wisdom, humanity and good humour.
“The TV programme he was on encouraged criticism and he did it very well,” said Brown. “He was a charismatic character with strong views, there were no grey areas with Bob, so that suited him. But the tributes that were paid to him after he died said it all about the warmth and respect in which he was held by so many people. He was a very kind man.
“He was a wonderful friend to me. We had so much fun down the years. There were no airs and graces to Bob. I remember when we first moved here to the farm, he came along and ended up helping the bricklayers!”David Brown
But what of Willis the cricketer? A haul of 325 Test wickets speaks for itself – especially as, for much of his career, England had a poor team with little or no top-class pace support for the Warwickshire ace with the strange but devastatingly effective action. James Anderson and Stuart Broad are fine bowlers but have invariably had each other at the other end. Among those with whom Willis shared the new ball in Test cricket are Mike Selvey, Paul Allott and Derek Pringle.
He also played in an era before central contracts and when the fixtures schedules were mightily unforgiving. Sometimes a county match would end on Tuesday evening at one end of the country and eve-of-Test practice would take place on Wednesday morning at the other end. County and international commitments together were hard enough to bear for any cricketer, never mind a pace spearhead with reconstructed knees and an illogical action.
“Bowling was hard work for Bob,” said Brown. “He had an unusual action and, if you look in slow motion, his arms and legs were going all over the place. We used to watch Gladstone Small and others bowling and they annoyed us because they made it look so easy. For us it was bloody hard work!
“I went to see Bob after his operations in 1975 and his knees looked like maps of the world. I thought: ‘how on earth is he going to come back from that?’ That he did shows what an amazingly strong bloke he was mentally as well as physically.”
A talisman for his country in Test cricket, Willis made no secret of his difficulty in getting motivated for county games.
“Bob was an adrenalin performer,” said Brown. “He always tried for Warwickshire but did find it hard to lift himself when matches started to peter out and got stale, as a lot did in those days. But if there was a tight one-day game or we needed a big spell from him in the championship, then he was a different beast. You just had to look at his face after he bowled the Aussies out at Headingley in ’81 to see the intensity – he was so high on adrenaline.
“He carried the England attack for a number of years and always tried like hell but, with his action, it was quite draining and took a lot out of him. He just couldn’t operate at 100 per cent all the time.
“But he regarded himself very much as a Warwickshire bloke and was always upset when the team wasn’t doing well. He got involved behind the scenes after his playing career and crossed swords with some people but it was only because the team wasn’t doing well. He cared. It was all about Warwickshire, not Bob Willis.”
Shortly before Willis’s funeral, journalist Michael Henderson wrote: “The wider public recognised him as a magnificent fast bowler who played 90 Test matches for England. His friends knew a different man, who made time for everyone and brought much joy into the lives of those who loved him.”
Willis was as generous as a friend as he could be hostile as a bowler – and, in both guises, he was indefatigably single-minded in ways which brought either wickets or smiles.
Take April 28th, 1985, a famous night in another sport, for example.
“When Dennis Taylor played Steve Davis in the great world snooker final we were watching in it our beds in the hotel room. It was the early hours of the morning and suddenly the fire alarm went off. I looked in the corridor and people were rushing out. I said to Bob: ‘Come on, we’d better go.’ “He said: ‘You clear off, I’m watching this’ and stayed.David Brown
“The rest of us filed out into the cold and, of course, it turned out to be a false alarm. I got back to the room just in time to see Dennis Taylor lifting the trophy – and Bob grinning all over his face! Great cricketer and great man!”