When one watches cricket in the 70s and 80s, there was one sight which intimidated you, awed you and inspired you to take up bowling. Here was this six foot six inch guy with curly brownish-auburn hair marking his run outside of the circle getting ready to bowl. Arm tucked behind, he would run like the wind sideways from 30 yards, charged down onto the pitch and deliver with his arms flapping a delivery which would be fast and furious. Perhaps Shoaib Akhtar's run-up was inspired by him. Even Alastair Cook's one wicket in Tests, which was Ishant Sharma of India in the Trent Bridge Test in 2014, came after he had impersonated Willis' bowling action. But, as a cricket fan, you would have been amazed at the sight of England's Bob Willis bowling at opposition batsmen in the era which was dominated by the almighty West Indies team.
No wonder Willis' nickname is Dylan, a tribute to Bob Dylan, considered one of the greatest music icons. When one looks at Dylan's photos in the late 70s and Willis' hairstyle, the similarity goes deeper. He made fast bowling cool in England among a generation who had probably forgotten to bowl fast and furious. Willis made fast bowling fashionable in England and pretty much changed the face of pace bowling in England when the modern era approached.
Consistently bowling fast and furious for 90 Tests in a career spanning 13 years is a testament to Willis' character considering the story of his injury and his frail body. Willis underwent operations in both of his knees in 1975. For any fast bowler, a knee operation is almost equivalent to a career killer, just ask Australia's Ryan Harris who bowled with the pain of a dodgy knee for most of his career. After the two operations, Willis had to run five miles everyday just to get strength. The passion for bowling for England made him go the extra mile and he did go the whole mile in order to gain full fitness.
Without a shadow of doubt, Willis' greatest contribution to England cricket came in the Headingley miracle of 1981. Many people have labelled the win primarily due to the efforts of Ian Botham's batting. However, in the backdrop, it was Willis' deadly spell which ensured England created a miracle. Australia had managed 401/9 declared and they bowled England out for 174. At 135/7 in the second innings, it looked all over before Botham unleashed the first part of the Leeds miracle by smashing 149 and sharing a stand of 117 with Graham Dilley, 67 with Chris Old and 37 runs with Willis. England managed 356 and gave Australia a target of 129.
When Australia reached 56/1, it looked like the Ashes was slipping out of England's hand. However, England skipper Mike Brearley switched ends for Willis and it was then, the game turned. Willis found rhythm bowling from the Kirkstall Lane End and ran through the Australian batting line-up to finish with 8/43 from 15 overs as England won by 18 runs. Before Botham's onslaught, England's chances of winning the match were 500-1. But, Botham, in association with Willis ensured England won for the first time after following-on.
Willis ended with 325 wickets at a staggering average of 25. However, he never picked a ten-wicket haul. Yet, such were his contributions that Willis remained the leading wicket-taker for England for a long time. He almost put his career at the crossroads when he accepted an offer to go on a rebel tour to South Africa in 1982 but he rejected it at the last moment. Willis was the benchmark and he would be later surpassed by Botham, James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Cricket will forever miss that run-up and the guts that he showed. Rest in Peace, Bob Willis. You have gone too soon at the age of 70.