England cricket legend and popular Sky Sports presenter Bob Willis has died at the age of 70.
The former pace bowler played in 90 Test matches for his country and took 325 wickets but his standout moment was undoubtedly the ‘Miracle of Headingley’ in the 1981 Ashes series.
His sensational bowling saw him end the third Test match of that series with figures of 8-43 as England went on to win the game. Willis is England’s fourth highest wicket-taker of all time with 325 wickets.
England cricket legend Bob Willis, pictured in August 2018, has died at the age of 70
The standout moment of Willis’ career was the ‘Miracle of Headingley’ in the 1981 Ashes series
Willis was at the forefront of England’s Test bowling attack for over 10 years and also played in 64 one-day internationals. He retired in 1984 but then went on to have a successful career in broadcasting with Sky Sports.
Willis’ family, who revealed he had died ‘after a long illness’, said in a statement: ‘We are heartbroken to lose our beloved Bob, who was an incredible husband, father, brother and grandfather. He made a huge impact on everybody he knew and we will miss him terribly.
‘Bob is survived by his wife Lauren, daughter Katie, brother David and sister Ann.
‘The Willis family has asked for privacy at this time to mourn the passing of a wonderful man and requests that in lieu of flowers, donations should be made to Prostate Cancer UK.’
A statement from the ECB said: ‘The ECB is deeply saddened to say farewell to Bob Willis, a legend of English cricket, at the age of 70.
‘Bob spearheaded the England bowling attack for more than a decade and took 325 Test wickets.
Willis is England’s fourth highest wicket-taker of all time with an impressive haul of 325 wickets
Willis celebrates after getting Australian Graham Yallop out in the sixth Ashes Test in 1981
‘He will always be remembered for his outstanding cricket career, in particular his 8-43 in the dramatic Headingley Test victory over Australia in 1981.
‘In later years as a broadcaster Bob was a perceptive and respected voice at the microphone. We are forever thankful for everything he has done for the game. Everyone at the ECB sends sincere condolences to his family. Cricket has lost a dear friend.’
Willis’ former county Surrey paid tribute on Twitter, saying: ‘All at Surrey County Cricket Club are devastated to learn of the passing of former Surrey and England bowler Bob Willis.
‘Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.’
Yorkshire County Cricket Club, who play their home games at Headingley, also tweeted, saying: ‘Yorkshire Cricket are devastated to hear of the passing of Bob Willis. One of the Headingley heroes from the 1981 Ashes triumph.’
Former England captain David Gower described Willis as ‘a very loyal friend and a loyal supporter’.
Gower told BBC Radio 5 live: ‘I toured with him as a captain and I took over the captaincy from him and then had him as what was called in those days as an assistant manager. He was a very loyal friend and a loyal supporter.
‘Without going into too much unseemly detail, it was an era where you were allowed to have more fun than you are possibly today. Various tours Down Under were colourful, let’s put it that way.
‘There is a huge contrast to Bob because a lot of people, especially in recent years, have seen him doing Sky’s ‘The Debate’, ‘Verdict’ those sort of programmes where his opinions have been put across in great style.
‘He’s a multi-faceted character. He’s a Bob Dylan fan, the fact he changed his name by deed poll to Robert George Dylan Willis gives you a clue there. He could tell you any Dylan lyric over the last 5000 years.
‘He was a bright man, very opinionated in all sorts of things, not just cricket, and was such very, very good company and not just a wine connoisseur.’
David Gower (second from left) paid tribute to Willis in an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live
Former England fast bowler Darren Gough said Willis was ‘hugely admired’.
‘As a player he had a big heart, he’d run in, nearly 6ft 6ins, and hit the pitch hard. At his peak he was one of the best three bowlers in the world,’ Gough said on Talksport.
‘He was hugely admired all around the world. Everybody knew who he was.
‘If you just saw him on TV people might think he’s a bit straight, but in his company over a glass of wine he would make you laugh all night.’
Gary Lineker tweeted: ‘Saddened to hear that Bob Willis has died. One of our greatest fast bowlers. Met him on many occasions and he was always great company with a sense of humour that was as sharp as his bowling. #RIPBob’
England and Manchester City star Raheem Sterling also paid tribute, tweeting a prayer and heart emoji.
Sportsmail’s MIKE DICKSON: The Bob Willis I knew was a man of deep generosity, humour and humanity. And he knew so much about the game… just ask Stuart Broad
The Bob Willis that most people might recognise would be him coming in off his long run, whether it was delivering a cricket ball at high speed or his famously blunt critiques of the game via television.
Some may have perceived him as curmudgeonly, but beneath the occasionally forbidding exterior lay deep reservoirs of generosity, humour and humanity, and someone with an unusually broad hinterland.
In common with many of the most interesting sportspeople, he did not grow up expecting that he would become a professional in the international arena.
An early indicator of his independent nature came at just sixteen when, well before there seemed to be a great fast bowler in the making, he added Dylan to his forenames in homage to his musical idol.
Only when he grew into his height later in his teens at Guildford’s Royal Grammar School did the potential become clear, and not just as a cricketer. Having signed up with Surrey he occupied a couple of winters as a decent goalkeeper, playing for Corinthian Casuals in an FA Cup tie while sharing a bachelor pad with a then aspiring football commentator, Martin Tyler.
Willis poses as he gets his boots ready for England’s winter tour of India in November 1976
The surprise call-up to his first Ashes tour as a 20 year-old in 1970 – where he ended up playing three Tests in a 2-0 series win – came while he was earning some winter cash as a petrol pump attendant.
It was to be the first of many ferocious battles against the old enemy (35 of his 90 Tests were in the Ashes), for which he was to become best-known. Ironically he was to develop a deep personal affinity with Australia and Australians, numbering many among his closest friends.
A strong sense of loyalty being reciprocated, several made the long journey to see him in recent weeks. This when it became clear that he was losing what had been a long battle with cancer, something he fought privately and with remarkable courage and stoicism.
Bob was attracted to the best of Australian values. He did not carry airs and graces, and had little time for those that did. While there were phases in his life when he mixed with personalities like Elton John and Eric Clapton he was equally happy with, and interested in, people from more ordinary walks of life, as well as the many former team-mates who remained friends.
He liked meeting in the pub – ‘fancy a gargle?’ was the usual form of invitation – where the winelist would come under scrutiny as exacting as any he would apply to a batsman’s technique.
Bob Willis talks to HM the Queen before England played India at Lord’s in the summer of 1982
Overpriced vino was one pet dislike, bad manners and rugby were others. Indeed he would happily recall that part of the motivation for bowling fast at school was to reap revenge in the summer months on those who had inflicted pain on him, in the scrum, during the winter.
There were many loves, too, family and friends being paramount. Music, especially Bob Dylan and Wagner, was a passion and so was wine. He knew his stuff and for years produced a vintage bearing his name alongside one great friend, Sir Ian Botham, and another, the renowned Australian producer Geoff Merrill.
He loved entertaining, and was a good cook and warm host. Sumptuous (and long) lunches served at his riverside flat overlooking the closing stages of the Boat Race became a regular fixture of early Spring.
He enjoyed football, tennis and golf but nothing matched his genuine love and fascination for cricket, which he cared about deeply.
From that passion flowed a sometimes unflinching dissection of players. He was aware this could be seen as harsh, but viewed it as being honest and doing his job.
From his passion flowed a sometimes unflinching dissection of players during his TV career
Offering unvarnished opinions as he did on Sky, latterly in what became the cult show of the Cricket Verdict and Debate, was in his nature. He never sought a privileged pass into modern day dressing rooms.
That said, you could detect the quiet satisfaction he felt with the outcome of his meeting with Stuart Broad two nights before his 8-15 demolition of Australia at Trent Bridge in 2015.
Sharing a glass or two of red at the instigation of Andrew Strauss, Broad found the former player turned pundit anything but an ogre. He enjoyed not just listening to the invaluable advice but the dry humour that accompanied it.
That ready deadpan wit, so familiar to friends, was perhaps connected to a natural tendency towards melancholy.
I went to see him earlier this week, it was difficult. Brave and uncomplaining, ever thinking of others, he was coming to the end of a remarkable life. An irreplaceable presence in cricket, and to those fortunate enough to have known him.
OBITUARY: Bob Willis took 325 Test wickets, but generations will forever remember his Headingley ’81 heroics as the finest performance of a glittering career
By Paul Newman
It is an image that will be forever remembered as one of the greatest moments in the history of English cricket.
There is Bob Willis, arms aloft but still with that almost trance like look on his face, sprinting off on his own after taking his eighth wicket of the innings to complete the original miracle of Headingley in 1981.
It was the undoubted highlight in the career of one of the greatest of all English fast bowlers who has died in hospital near his London home after illness aged 70.
Willis, with that distinctive long hair and much impersonated piston-like action, knees pumping throughout his extra-long run-up, defied repeated injury to take 325 wickets in his 90 Tests and captained his country towards the end of a distinguished career.
Willis bowls to an Australian batsman as he produced one of the sport’s greatest performances
But it was that day in Leeds when, running downhill from the Kirkstall Lane End and defying his penchant for no balls, he took eight for 43 to demolish Australia for 111, just 18 short of their modest target, that has gone down in cricketing legend.
It was a performance to inspire a generation of young cricket fans – including this correspondent who, aged 15, bunked off school to watch the closing stages of that tumultuous Test across the road on TV at a friend’s house.
We later confessed what we had done to our geography teacher who was furious – not that we had missed his lesson but that we had failed to tell him what we were doing so he could come and watch the gripping denouement with us.
Years later I was privileged to be handed one of the highlights of my journalistic career when, together with Sportsmail colleague Mike Dickson, we took the by then retired Willis and Dennis Lillee back to Headingley to revisit the scene of that unforgettable Test from both an English and Australian perspective. How we hung on every word the pair said.
That fabled 1981 series will always be known as Botham’s Ashes but it was Ian’s great friend and sparring partner Willis who bowled England to a sensational against the odds victory that everyone insisted could never be repeated – until Ben Stokes pulled off ‘The Miracle of Headingley, the Sequel’ only last summer.
It says everything about Willis the man that he was delighted Stokes had somehow upstaged him by producing an even greater individual performance to again upset the Australians at that same fabled Headingley ground 38 years on.
Willis serves champagne to teammate Ian Botham after the fourth Ashes Test match in 1981
For the reputation Willis later garnered as an outspoken pundit who was never afraid to come off that long run up of his on Sky and let rip at today’s generation was at odds with his warm and funny, albeit a little reserved with those he did not know well, personality.
Make no mistake, Willis was passionate and forward thinking about cricket throughout his life and cared deeply about the England team and the health of the domestic game, criticising administrators as articulately and fearlessly as any player.
And how satisfying it was to his many friends and admirers that Willis in the later stages of his broadcasting career should carve out such a niche for himself on Sky’s Verdict and Debate programmes after each day’s play alongside Charles Colvile.
His opening gambit of ‘Well, Charles,’ before taking a deep breath and then informing and entertaining us with a lengthy monologue about how and why England had gone wrong became unmissable TV and was copied almost as much as his bowling action..
But however successful Willis became after retiring from playing, both as a technically brilliant broadcaster and a Chardonnay loving wine producer who would tell his companions ‘life is too short to drink Italian wine’ and ‘Sauvignon is rat’s p***’, it was as a fast bowling great that he left an indelible mark on the game.
Willis, pictured in Perth in 1982-83 Ashes, is one of five England bowlers with 300 Test wickets
It was when he was still making his way with Surrey (he grew up near Cobham after being born in Sunderland) that Willis was called up by Ray Illingworth to England’s 1970-71 Ashes tour as a replacement for the injured Alan Ward.
When he returned to the Oval to help Surrey win the 1971 championship he found his path to a regular place blocked by Robin Jackman and, unhappy with the offer of a new contract, controversially left the next summer for Warwickshire.
It was at Edgbaston that Willis found his county home and had a spell as Warwickshire captain but he was ahead of his time ahead of central contracts in wanting to save his best overs for England rather than ‘waste’ them on the county treadmill.
Willis’s prioritising of England became even more acute when he had surgery on both his knees in 1975, operations he nonchalantly described as ‘similar to a 50,000 mile service,’ but what were to provide him with constant pain for the rest of his career.
With that in mind it was another miracle that he was able to go on to have the outstanding career he enjoyed, bowling with real pace and hostility to become one of only five England bowlers to take 300 Test wickets alongside Fred Trueman, his great mate Beefy, Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson, who has gone past them all. When he finished his career in 1984 only the legendary Aussie Lillee had more Test wickets than Willis.
Willis (centre), pictured in 1997, enjoyed a long career with Sky Sports after his retirement
Yet, whether it was because of that fragile body or unfair doubts about his effectiveness, Willis’s place in the England side always seemed under threat and he could easily have missed out on his greatest hour at Headingley.
It is often forgotten that Willis, struggling with both his general fitness and a chest infection, was actually dropped for that third Test of a 1981 series that had been going badly wrong but managed to convince chairman of selectors Alec Bedser to restore him to the squad ‘on condition he played in a Warwickshire second team game, a 40-over match and bowled 12 overs in the Headingley nets ahead of the Test.’ Willis obliged and the rest is history.
For such a bright cricketing man Willis’ spell as England captain after being appointed to succeed Keith Fletcher in 1982 was not great as he was found wanting tactically and as a man manager, perhaps because he was absorbed so much in his own game.
Willis’ 18 Tests as captain brought seven victories, five defeats and six draws while he won 16 of his 29 one-day internationals at the helm, confirming that he was much better off being led by others, not least when being let off his leash and told to concentrate on what he did extremely well by Mike Brearley in 1981.
Willis, Michael Atherton and Ian Botham chat during Sky Sports’ coverage of a match in 2017
It was perhaps ironic that Willis should go on to become such a hard-hitting pundit because he was always slightly suspicious of the media as a player, notably in a tetchy interview with Peter West of the BBC in the immediate aftermath of his Leeds heroics.
Willis admitted in later years he regretted that interview but he really was always a players man, as he showed to England’s current crop of fast bowlers when he was invited to have dinner with them two years ago by England management.
England’s bowlers went to that dinner with some trepidation knowing Willis had not always been kind to them on air but they were quick to discover the real Bob, the charming and innovative man of cricket who always badly wanted them to win. It is fair to say those bowlers were very pleasantly surprised and converted.
In the end cancer was to become the one adversary Willis could not conquer and he was noticeably absent from his regular chair alongside Colvile for the Debate programmes during England’s New Zealand series as he fought in vain to beat it.
Robert George Dylan (he added the name of his musical hero by deed poll in 1965) Willis is a huge loss. He was, truly, not only a great bowler and great voice of the game but he was undoubtedly one of the great men of cricket.
NASSER HUSSAIN: Bob Willis created this grumpy image for TV. But that’s all it was. He was a great man, loved by everyone, and nobody cared more for his country
The Bob Willis you saw on TV and the image he created as a somewhat grumpy persona, staring at the camera and coming out with so many great lines, was far from the truth.
When people take on the role Bob did they can sometimes be happy when England do badly because it gives them ammunition and something to be miserable about. It can make their era seem better for the ‘in my day’ type of pundit.
But the one thing I found out very quickly when I started working with Bob at Sky was that he was desperate for England to do well. He was England through and through. He absolutely loved it when they won games.
He was a model professional around the commentary box, too. He would turn up early, do his prep and research and always gave the director and producer great ‘grabs’ to work with. For instance I can remember him building up towards the first ball of the 2005 Ashes as if it were a boxing contest and he found the perfect words to describe Brian Lara’s history making batting against us in Antigua. He would nail the theatre of the moment.
And he made such a niche for himself on the Verdict and Debate programmes. In recent years when England had been having a bad day I just had to look at social media to see so many people saying ‘I can’t wait to hear what Bob Willis has got to say about this.’
The image Willis (back) created as a somewhat grumpy persona was far from the truth
I fell into the trap myself of believing the Willis TV persona when I played. The three fingers I aimed at the media box when I scored a one-day century against India at Lord’s were for Bob, Ian Botham and Jon Agnew.
He made you cross because he was so forthright with his opinions and I would go back to my room as a player wondering if he was going to crucify me on TV.
But it wasn’t his job to get to know players and he didn’t go out of the way to be nice about them yet when we did all meet him we quickly realised he was one of the good guys.
Bob was so pleased when he saw Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad go past his Test-wicket tally and the mantle of Botham and Willis being passed on to them. And when he did sit down with them they quickly realised what a font of knowledge he was.
Willis was a fun loving guy who loved his wine and music but he kept himself to himself round the commentary box and was actually quite introvert and shy. He was never someone to tell you how good he was.
But I certainly knew what a great bowler he was because when I was growing up it was Gower and Gooch with the bat and Botham and Willis with the ball and for everything Beefy did at Headingley in 1981 it was Bob who bowled England to victory.
Willis was delighted when Jimmy Anderson (L) and Stuart Broad went past his Test-wicket haul
He was unique back then. Just look at some of his celebrations and that long wiggly run up, with the unusual arm gathering behind him and the flowing locks. I can still see him now running off at Headingley looking in a complete daze.
A great bowler but not a great batsman. He even forgot to take his bat out with him once and that was classic Bob.
I am really pleased Sky did a documentary last summer about cricket in the 80s because it showed Bob in all his greatness in an era when fast bowlers were not really looked after properly and had to bowl a million balls for county and country.
I would sometimes play golf with Bob and the effect that workload had on him and how much it had taken out of him was clear. It needed so much effort for Bob to put a tee down or pick up a golf ball because various parts of his body were creaking.
There will not be many who came across Bob Willis without liking him. He had the time of day for everyone, whoever they were, and he never took himself too seriously. Those who knew him will not have a bad word to say about him and that is the perfect tribute. He was a great cricketer but more importantly he was an even better bloke who will be missed by the whole cricketing world.