Remembering Bob Willis and the famous 1981 Headingley Ashes Test

Bob Willis'Picture: PA/PA Wire.
Bob Willis'Picture: PA/PA Wire.
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They called it “The Miracle of Headingley ‘81” with the odds on an England victory against Australia reaching 500-1.

But then Ian Botham scored 149 not out and Bob Willis took 8-43 to lead the hosts to a dramatic 18-run triumph after they had been forced to follow-on in the Leeds Ashes Test.

Now, just weeks after “The Miracle of Headingley ‘19”, when Ben Stokes inspired England to a similarly improbable win against the old enemy, Willis has died at the age of 70.

The former England captain was diagnosed with prostate cancer three years ago and his health deteriorated in the last two months; he had been a notable absentee from the Sky Sports television programme The Verdict during England’s recently concluded tour to New Zealand.

If it was as an acerbic pundit that Willis was chiefly known to younger cricket fans, with a predilection for telling it how it is a la the great Fred Trueman, it was as one of the game’s finest fast bowlers that he is mainly remembered by those fortunate enough to have seen him play.

Willis was only the second Englishman after Trueman to take 300 Test wickets, while his final tally of 325 is still the fourth-best by an Englishman behind James Anderson, Stuart Broad and his great friend Botham.

In all first-class cricket, the Sunderland-born Willis - who played county cricket for Surrey and Warwickshire - captured 899 wickets at an average of 24.99.

A giant at 6ft 6ins with long curly hair, he suffered with injuries and rarely bowled without some sort of pain.

But Willis was a great trier who captured the nation’s hearts in 1981; he’d almost missed the Headingley Test, in fact, due to a bout of flu only to famously force himself down the hill from the Kirkstall Lane end in near-frenzied fashion to deliver the performance of his life.

“People said I was in another world,” he said of that storybook day, “in a cocoon of concentration; the modern cliche would be ‘in the zone’. I didn’t want to be distracted by having to set the field or by celebrating wickets; I just wanted to get back to my mark as fast as I could.

“Mike (Brearley, the England captain) said ‘just bowl as fast as you can’ because the pitch was deteriorating and it was pretty unpleasant batting against a fast bowler on that surface.”

Willis, who played 90 Tests and 64 one-day internationals, had a distinctive long run-up which seemed almost to start from the sightscreen.

Countless schoolboys tried to emulate his approach to the crease which he himself described as “resembling a broken-down biplane”.

Willis - survived by wife Lauren, daughter Katie, brother David and sister Ann - had eclectic interests away from the sport and was a huge fan of musician Bob Dylan.

He even made “Dylan” his third name by deed poll in the 1960s, becoming Robert George Dylan Willis.

A gentle soul behind the stern pundit’s exterior, Willis will be sorely missed.

One tribute from Derek Pringle, the former England all-rounder, summed it up perfectly. “Bob Willis was my first England captain and a legend of England cricket,” he wrote on Twitter. “Headingley 1981 was as much his triumph as Beefy Botham’s. RIP Big Bob.”

- Bob Willis was born in Sunderland but grew up in Surrey, the county where he first made his name as a cricketer.

He went on to play for Warwickshire and England and had a spell with Northern Transvaal.

At 6ft 6in, he was a fast bowler with an unusual long run up. He played 90 Test matches for England.

He took 325 wickets at a cost of 25.2 runs per wicket and was Wisden Cricketer of the Year for 1978.

He later became a commentator, teaming up with Sir Ian Botham.

He remained a broadcaster and writer and was in the all-time England XI by the England and Wales Cricket Board.