Spectator sport

Only now are we seeing what an extraordinary figure Bob Willis was

14 December 2019

9:00 AM

14 December 2019

9:00 AM

Maybe it’s just an age thing, but the death of Bob Willis has left me — and, I am sure, a whole generation of cricket lovers — feeling more than usually bereft. Since when has the passing of a sports-person triggered quite such an outpouring of genuine emotion? But only now are we seeing quite what an extraordinary figure he was. And it wasn’t just cricket: he loved Bob Dylan, Wagner and wine, as should all right-thinking folk.

He was a huge, gangling figure with arms like windmills and an awkward ungainly action once described as being like a first world war biplane taking off into a headwind. He bowled very fast and usually seemed to be starting his run-up from beyond the boundary. God knows what it was like to face him: pretty scary, I imagine.

It was certainly not much fun for the Australian batsmen on that July morning at Headingley in 1981 when he achieved the impossible, taking 8 for 43 and helping England to win a Test match that they should have lost by a mile. It wasn’t beautiful but it was effective as Willis bowled as though his life depended on it. As indeed it did: he had been told he was going to be dropped when Mike Brearley gave him the new ball.

That performance was probably the best thing that had happened to English sport since the World Cup in 1966. For a few hours the country seemed to stop as everybody rushed to find a TV. That’s why sport is so important: films and plays affect us, but we know they’re made up. Politics changes our lives, but we know politicians aren’t what they seem. Willis was completely authentic (as Ben Stokes was this summer when he defied the Australians to win a Test match on the same ground that should have been unwinnable).

And on that July day Willis found his place in the nation’s affection. He provided the perfect riposte for any young fast bowler with an original style who’s ever been told he’ll never take a wicket bowling like that. ‘Ever seen a clip of Bob Willis bowling, mate?’ He had a rich and fulfilling afterlife as an unmissable pundit on Sky Sports’ The Verdict programme. His doleful, melancholy delivery — ‘This will hurt me more than it hurts you’ — of often scathing judgments on players he felt weren’t pulling their weight, belied the reality of a witty, funny and delightful man.

Whisper it softly, but have we found a new Fergie in Brendan Rodgers? He cut his teeth under Mourinho at Chelsea, he took Swansea up to the Premier League in one season, he did brilliantly at Liverpool — coming within a slip of winning the Premier League — before heading to Celtic and winning everything year after year. Now he’s at Leicester and in hot pursuit of his old team, the all-conquering Liverpool. His secret: he’s tactically astute, he can make good players outstanding, and turn ordinary players into match-winners. He would be a brilliant manager of England if Gareth Southgate hangs up his waistcoat. But would he want the job?

The sporting embarrassment of the season appears to be VAR, which continues each week to surpass itself with monumental incompetence, often at the expense of poor old Watford, which is one of my favourite clubs. They have had four managers so far this season, which is four times more managers than they have had league wins. Never mind, plenty more where they came from. With Watford, we could soon be seeing the first club to have two different managers in the course of a match. ‘Yes, we felt we had to make a change at half-time to stop the rot. We held a series of interviews in the break and we’re confident we’ve chosen the right man to take us forward. In fact he’s signed a contract that ties him to the club for the entire second half.’

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