Former Bear Bob Willis recalls his international journey which saw him make his debut in the 1970/71 Ashes before becoming one of England's top five wicket-takers of all-time.
Not many cricketers travel to their Test match debut via Moscow.
Probably only one ever did, in fact. When Bob Willis replaced the injured Alan Ward midway through the Ashes tour in December 1970, the long-haul flight from England to Australia included a stop in the Russian capital.
My whole raison d’etre in my cricketing life was to play for England and look down on my sweater at the crown and three lions.cite=”Bob Willis
Strange route-planning, for sure. But it didn’t do the 21-year-old fast bowler any harm, even though he was thrown in at the deepest of deep ends – into one of the most fractious ever Ashes series.
Willis made his debut in the fourth Test at Sydney with the series still locked at 0-0. He helped England go 1-0 up and then played the rest of an increasingly rancorous series which stretched, after draws at Melbourne and Adelaide, to a seventh Test, arranged due to the washout of the third.
The series and the destiny of the Ashes would be settled back at Sydney – and it all came down to the final afternoon with Australia chasing 223 to level the series and retain the urn.
Feelings were running very high. On the second day, England captain Ray Illingworth, whose unpopularity among Aussie fans rivalled that of Douglas Jardine 40 years earlier, had led his side off the field in protest at the crowd’s hostility to John Snow. On a tumultuous fifth day, Illingworth’s off-spin bowled his side to a 62-run victory.
Willis contributed the vital wicket of Doug Walters and the Ashes had been regained in one of the most controversial series ever. During it, England were not awarded a single lbw decision!
Quite a baptism, then, for young Willis.
“I was lucky enough to start my Test career in Sydney against the old enemy and we won the Ashes back for the first time in 12 years,” he said. “It was a bit of a fairy-tale for me. There I was alongside the likes of Ray Illingworth, John Edrich, Keith Fletcher, Colin Cowdrey and Basil D’Oliviera. Five or six years before I’d been pretending to be these England cricketers in the garden. It really was Boys Own stuff. I played in four of the Tests and we won the two at Sydney so that was a great start to my Test career.
“The series had started off with boring draws at Brisbane and Perth and the third Test, scheduled for Melbourne, was washed out so it was nil-nil when we arrived in Sydney for the fourth. We won that, as John Snow bowled them out, and then we returned to Sydney for the final Test still 1-0 up.
“The umpiring was totally biased. We were expecting that but perhaps not to that degree so we were always having to get 14 or 15 wickets to get the Australians out. A lot of decisions went against us but then it kicked off again on the second day of the last Test.
“It was all a storm in a teacup really. Terry Jenner ducked into a short ball from John Snow and the umpire Lou Rowan warned Snow for bowling bouncers. But Jenner was a number eight batsman, not a number 11, and anyway the ball that hit him wasn’t a bouncer, it was a short-of-a-length ball and he ducked into it.
“There was no helmets in those days, of course, so it was a nasty crack on the head and the crowd didn’t like it. The bottles and cans came on to the ground and the atmosphere was pretty unpleasant. Raymond took us off for a while but the officious Australian umpires came in and said ‘if you don’t get back out there you’ll forfeit the match.’ Raymond said: ‘Well, you clear the debris off the outfield and we’ll go back out.’ We did go back out – and went on to win the match and the Ashes.
“On the last day Australia needed 100 runs with five wickets in hand. It was nail-biting stuff. Having been away from home for about four months, to have the whole series dangling on that last day was very exciting and a very big thrill to be part of.”
Willis had taken adroitly to top-level cricket, yet that did not earn him a regular place in Surrey’s team the following summer. Selected for only 14 of their 24 championship matches, he quit The Oval and joined Warwickshire, immediately helping them to win the county championship in 1972.
The paceman was to end his Test career with 325 wickets, the product of a sustained aggression and quality achieved despite a number of injuries, some quite early in his career, which would have demoralised and deterred a lesser player. He overcame them to lead England’s attack with talismanic heart and hostility, most notably against Australia at Headingley in 1981. Ian Botham’s rollicking 149 would have been merely a colourful deckchair on the Titanic if Willis’s brilliant eight for 43 had not turn an entertaining show of defiance into an astounding win.
Willis was destined to become an England great. Despite its spectacular start down under, however, his Test career was a stop-start affair until England captain Tony Greig administered some forceful advice.
“My England career fell into two halves,” Willis said. “Pre-1977, I was injured a lot and in and out of the side but then Tony Greig gave me a rocket after the Centenary Test in Melbourne in March 1977. He said I had to get myself a lot fitter. He said he’d looked after me in India and Sri Lanka and in the build-up to the Centenary Test but then I ran out of steam, so I had to get a lot more fit.
“He said there were going to be great riches available for top-quality cricketers, I didn’t realise then that he was referring to World Series Cricket, but I took his words to heart and worked hard and got really fit when I got back. Then I hardly missed any Tests at all in the second half of my career.”
The riches to which Greig referred came from Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket which split the sport in the late 1970s. Many of cricket’s biggest names accepted the WSC offer but Willis remained with England.
“I was very close to the cricket establishment and the likes of Doug Insole who was very influential at the Test and County Cricket Board, and former Warwickshire captain Alan Smith who became TCCB secretary,” he said. “And I knew that, although the players that went to World Series Cricket would earn a lot of money, they would be banned from playing for England. My whole raison d’etre in my cricketing life was to play for England and look down on my sweater at the crown and three lions.
“Warwickshire also looked after me and gave me a contract where they would pay me even if I got injured and my career finished through injury, so that was very good of them to support me. The same thing happened later in my career when a staggering offer arrived from the South African Breweries tour to skipper the rebel side in South Africa. I turned that down as well so I could keep playing for England.”
Which he did with a degree of success which saw him become only the second England bowler, after Fred Trueman, to reach 300 Test wickets. Willis loved representing his country all over the world – and especially at his home county ground in Birmingham.
“We had some excellent wins at Edgbaston including against Australia in 1981 and a memorable one in 1982 when I was captain against Imran Khan’s Pakistan side,” he said. “We always had great support and the old Rea Bank Stand, now the Eric Hollies Stand, was always very vocal and normally well-lubricated.
“It was much more quaint when I was playing, with the small pavilion and the stands either side of that. It must be magnificent playing there now with the spectacular new pavilion.”