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Icon, survivor, grandee: Farewell Bob Willis, the man with the longest run

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A bit like the relationship with one’s parents, or the pictures on the walls in your childhood home, some memories are set in stone before you’re even aware of who or what they represent.

Take the Headingley Test of 1981. How many people aged 40 or under can say for certain when they first witnessed footage of England’s most storied victory? For this onlooker, it was almost certainly on a rainy afternoon at school in the mid-1980s, and undoubtedly before I was even aware that cricket was the sport that would seize control of my formative years.

But by the time cricket’s rules and reputations had begun to take root in my conscience, the towering significance of Bob Willis, England’s mightiest of fast bowlers, was already one of the most fundamental prisms through which I and so many others understood and loved the game – thanks to countless replays, countless newspaper and magazine reports, and countless anecdotes that bounced off the walls that connect the myth to the legend.

Willis’s death today, aged 70, is a shattering and irreparable loss to the sport.

Willis was a grandee of English cricket in the most absolute sense. Iconic matchwinner, fast-bowling survivor, long-term leading England wicket-taker, Test captain and later manager, and ultimately a titan among pundits – best remembered in recent times for his pantomime savagery on Sky Sports’ Debate and Verdict shows, but a king-pin commentator in his 1990s heyday too. Try to imagine, for instance, the defining moment of the world-record 375 at Antigua in 1994 without “Brian Charles Lara of Trinidad and Tobago” ringing through your mind.

But he was too a gentle, knowledgeable, and deeply humorous soul – a man who signalled his independence of thought as a teenager by adding the middle name “Dylan” by deed poll in tribute to Bob of that parish – and a man whose love of the game was absolute, in spite of that distinctive nasal voice and a deadpan delivery that could be all too easy to misconstrue, not least for the players who followed in his wake in the Test team.

“But then, Brearley made his legendary switch to the Kirkstall Lane End, and Willis clicked into his ultimate Berserker mode – eyes glazed over, fury focussed on a distant point way, way beyond the stance of Australia’s rapidly scattered batsmen”

By his own admission, Nasser Hussain was one of those who initially took Willis’s bombast too literally, and upon scoring an ODI century against India at Lord’s in 2002, he infamously waved three fingers in the direction of the commentary box – one each for Ian Botham, Jonathan Agnew … and Willis, who had been particularly forthright about his place at No.3 in the batting order.

“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,” Hussain wrote in his own tribute in The Daily Mail “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.”

And for the even younger generations of England player, who had grown up with Willis’s tyrannical commentary and saw him only as a fire-breathing beast, it wasn’t until a series of meetings were brokered by Andrew Strauss in 2015, during his early months as England’s director of cricket, that Willis’s generosity of spirit was able to cut through.

It just so happened that his dinner with England’s bowlers came on the eve of that summer’s Trent Bridge Test, and having sampled his choice of wine (Willis was quite the connoisseur – he even launched his own label in conjunction with Botham) Stuart Broad emerged with the opinion that Willis wasn’t “as scary as he had thought”.

Whether that had any impact on Broad’s subsequent 8 for 15, who knows, but by the end of that same Test victory, Joe Root (face hidden beneath an Albert Einstein mask) was able to send up Willis’s style in a memorable dressing-room interview on Sky Sports – one that led Willis, teeth baring but humour shining through, to retort that “when your little purple patch comes to an end… I’ll have you back in the dock!”

When it came to Willis’s live commentary, Hussain et al probably had a point – as a viewer, let alone as a player, and particularly through the night on another Ashes tour drubbing, the misery of his intonation had a tendency to overshadow whatever point he had been making, however valid. As a post-match pundit, however, with a licence to channel that long run of his playing days into his off-field excoriations, Willis was for a time unequalled.

Quite apart from making for compelling television, he rarely missed his mark – whether it was incompetent umpires, shambolic batting or administrative ennui in the high towers of the ECB. It was a fitting tribute to his second innings as a broadcaster that his catchphrase “well Charles…” began trending on Twitter shortly after news of his death was made public – though the man himself would doubtless have sighed wearily at that fact, and mock-grumbled that nobody seemed to have remembered the 325 Test wickets with which he’d truly made his name.

Well, most people with any affinity for Test cricket remember eight of those wickets, no question. For nothing compared to Headingley for the dent it left in the brains of a certain generation – and if it was Willis’s misfortune that the match will forever be synonymous with Botham’s “village-green slogging”, as Mike Brearley later dubbed it, then no-one who witnessed his role, in the flesh or otherwise, will be in any doubt that the truest quality of that contest came in its savage denouement.

As legend has it, Willis almost failed to make it to the contest at all. He had missed Warwickshire’s county match the previous week due to a bout of flu, and was dropped from the squad in favour of Mike Hendrick – only for that invitation to be intercepted in the post after Willis had explained he’d been saving his energy for the Test match, rather than merely lying low on his sickbed. In spite of his hefty haul of 899 first-class wickets in 308 matches, Willis could be a reluctant county performer – the legacy of his twin knee operations in 1975 and the daily agonies that his gangly frame had to go through to perform at the very highest level.

But even after his Headingley reprieve, Willis had seemed off-colour. He went wicketless in Australia’s first-innings as Australia’s grip on the Ashes tightened, then struggled for rhythm in an abortive opening spell in the second, as John Dyson and Trevor Chappell eased along to 56 for 1, chasing 130.

But then, Brearley made his legendary switch to the Kirkstall Lane End, and Willis clicked into his ultimate Berserker mode – eyes glazed over, fury focussed on a distant point way, way beyond the stance of Australia’s rapidly scattered batsmen. The lifter to Chappell, which snapped savagely into his upraised gloves before lobbing to Bob Taylor as the bewildered batsman scanned a full 180 degrees around his crease, was a declaration of war on a previously serene dressing room.

ALSO READ: ‘That was abject, Charles, absolutely pathetic’ – Bob Willis’ best quips

The moment of victory was every bit as iconic – Ray Bright’s middle stump demolished as Willis raised his arms in a robotic fist-pump and stormed for the pavilion before an ecstatic sea of fans could envelop him.

And no less iconic, if a more niche search item on YouTube, was his laconically drawled critique of the media during his post-match interview with the BBC. Turning on a mildly startled Peter West, Willis railed against the need to mine “small-minded quotes from players under pressure for their stories” – his point being, of course, “what on earth do you need to speak to me for?”

It certainly wasn’t an obvious means by which to audition for his second innings, but then Bob Willis was never one to take the conventional route.

But he was right, of course, as he so often was. What on earth could a Willis soundbite possibly have added to the technicolor masterpiece that he and Botham had completed only moments earlier? His instincts served him well, for this was one England victory in which the deeds would do all the talking a team could ever need. Tonight, you can be sure that myriad generations of England cricket fans will be toasting that glory one more time, and this time with extra feeling.



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‘Wouldn’t be surprised if he takes over after Faf’ – Nkwe on Bavuma’s South Africa future

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Temba Bavuma is not among the 12 South Africa players who have assembled in Port Elizabeth to prepare for the third Test against England, but he remains close to the conversation. So close, that assistant coach Enoch Nkwe has indicated that if Bavuma finds form, he could be candidate for the national captaincy in future.

That may seem like a long way away for a player with 39 Tests to his name and only one century, scored more than four years ago, who averaged 19.84 in 2019 and has scored 9 and 17 in his last two domestic first-class innings but Bavuma is no ordinary player. He is South Africa’s only only black African Test batsman and has accepted the pressures of being a flagbearer and leader for millions.

Bavuma has chosen not to engage in the debate at the moment, posting on social media that his silence is “full of answers”. Instead it was Nkwe, himself a black African batsman, who spoke extensively on the expectations and challenges Bavuma faces and the reasons why the South African administration believes he will be back in a big way.

Are you comfortable with where South Africa is in terms of transformation targets and how things are progressing?

“There’s been a different approach, but that will come over time. We’re keeping very close with Temba Bavuma, for example. I strongly believe he’s a good player, and he’s in the process of making sure that — from a mental, emotional and skills point of view — when he gets an opportunity to come back, whether it’s in the next Test match or in a different format, he takes ownership of his position and does 10 times more than what he has done. We’re confident and believe in him. [Mark] Boucher is the same, and the rest of the team. All I’m going to ask is that we are more patient. We’re trying to put a few things in place so that we can shape things in the right direction.”

Do you think the weight expectation on Temba, being the first black African Test batsman in South Africa, has been detrimental to him?

“Knowing Temba, no. There is always going to be pressure in this environment but if you look at it, he has been unlucky. Let’s be honest. There’s been times where he got 95 not out and he was probably one big hit to get over the line and he was unfortunate. There’s been times where he got 70, 80. But also sometimes people tend to forget that the situations he has come in for South Africa have been challenging and he has been able to take the team from that position and put them in a much healthier position. Sometimes he gets out for 60, sometimes he gets out for 50 and if you look at the batting positions over the last couple of years – Nos. 4, 5 and 6 – he has been able to make those massive contributions. They might look small in terms of numbers but his contribution has been very powerful for the team and put them in a winning position. He has had good partnerships with Quinny [Quinton de Kock] and obviously Quinny has been more explosive. If maybe a bit of luck had gone his way, he would have got two or three more hundreds but those things we’ve put behind us.

“I know that having spoken to him recently, he is someone that actually looks forward to getting an opportunity. He is going to do everything in his power to make sure that when the next opportunity comes he is ready for it. He wants to be in this environment and hopefully in the future he performs well enough and he can lead the team because I know having worked with him, he is a strong leader, very smart and he is able to lead a massive group to greater heights.”

Do you see him as a future captain?

“In my mind, yes. I can see that happening. But he does understand that he needs to put in some performances. The future could be in a year’s time, it could be in two years’ time, we don’t know. Having worked with him in the last year-and-a-half, he has got the qualities, there’s no question around that. I wouldn’t be surprised if, after Faf, he takes over. That will be great for South African cricket.”

Was it the right decision to send Temba back to franchise cricket?

“From a coach’s hat and a high-performance point of view, it’s not healthy just to sit around and not play. If you are not playing, you really need to go and find some game time and fortunately, we have some franchise cricket taking place at the moment and we saw that opportunity for him to go there and stay in the game. Some of the challenges we have when we go on tours, is we have a 15-man squad and only 11 can play and the challenge of those individuals to try and get some game time is massive. It’s not only him; it’s a couple of other guys we have released as well.”





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Rishabh Pant ‘under observation’ for concussion

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Rishabh Pant has been diagnosed with concussion, resulting in his not being able to take the field for the second half of the first ODI against Australia in Mumbai. The 22-year old wicketkeeper was struck on the head by a bouncer from Pat Cummins in the 44th over, a ricochet off the top edge which also resulted in his wicket.

“Rishabh Pant has got a concussion after being hit on his helmet while batting,” a BCCI statement said. “KL Rahul is keeping wickets in his absence. Pant is under observation at the moment.”

Pant did not need any immediate treatment on the field after he was hit, and he was able to walk off it on his own steam as well, but it soon became clear that he was indisposed. He did not join India’s training in the break between innings and it was Rahul who was seen practicing his glovework as the Australian openers walked out. Confirmation of the injury arrived when the BCCI put out a statement some time during the first two overs of the chase.

Pant had played a good hand, scoring 28 off 33 balls as India tried to recover from a middle-order malfunction. India had been 134 for 1 in the 28th over but were dragged down to 164 for 5 as Australia’s fast bowlers adapted well to a slow pitch at the Wankhede Stadium.

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Bangladesh to play two Tests, one ODI and three T20Is in Pakistan

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Bangladesh will play two Tests, one ODI and three T20Is in Pakistan – though the matches will be split across three legs. There will be three T20Is played from January 24 to 27, all in Lahore. The first Test will take place in Rawalpindi from February 7 to 11 in the second leg, and Bangladesh will return in April to play a solitary ODI and the second Test, both in Karachi.

The Pakistan Super League, also to be played in Pakistan in its entirety, will be played between the second and third legs of Bangladesh’s tour. After the PSL concludes on March 22, Bangladesh will return to Pakistan to play a solitary ODI, in Karachi on April 3, followed by the second Test match of the series, from April 5-9.

PCB Chairman Ehsan Mani said: “I am pleased that we have amicably achieved a resolution that is in the best interest of this great sport as well as both the proud cricket playing countries. I also want to thank ICC Chairman Shaskank Manohar for the leadership he provided and ensured the sport continues to grow and thrive in the two countries.”

PCB Chief Executive Wasim Khan, who also attended Tuesday’s meeting at the ICC headquarters, said: “It is a win-win outcome for both the boards. I am glad that the uncertainty around the series is now over and we can start planning for the smooth delivery of the matches. Bangladesh will visit Pakistan thrice, which should give them the comfort that Pakistan is as safe and secure as any other cricket playing country.”

This latest update to the status of the series is, the PCB would hope, the final chapter of a saga that has dragged on for weeks now, with the prospect of the tour believed to be all but killed off after the BCB announced on Sunday it was against government advice to stay on for any more than 6-7 days in Pakistan, which would only be conducive to a T20I series.

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