“Well, in my time of dyin’ don’t want nobody to mourn.” (Bob Dylan)
Bob Willis: top, far left
Yours truly: bottom row, far right
Well, we shall try not to, Bob, but it will be difficult. Bob Willis, that is, not Bob Dylan, who is, as far as I know, still alive, though sometimes when you listen to him sing, you do wonder. It shouldn’t happen, you know, it really shouldn’t happen, predeceasing your hero. It is a known fact that Bob worshipped the very ground that the old troubadour walked – sometimes floated - on. So much that he had his name changed by deed poll to Robert George Dylan Willis and remained unshaken in his admiration for his idol throughout his life.
I was shaken by the news of his demise. I had heard rumours that he was not in the best of health and, let’s face it, he had looked gaunt and wan – even more so than usual – on the television this summer. Let me swiftly admit to a personal connection here: Bob Willis and I went back a long way. We were exact contemporaries, playing in the same representative schoolboy teams as we made our way into adulthood: Surrey Schools, London Schools, Surrey Young Amateurs, Surrey IIs. Thereafter, our paths diverged. He moved to Warwickshire and had a stellar international career: I moved to Hampshire and had not quite so stellar career. But whenever our paths crossed, he was still the same old Bob – laconic, lugubrious, mordantly witty but ever kindly disposed.
I suppose I got to know him well, the way you do, on a tour overseas. A combined Surrey and Middlesex Under 19 team travelled to Pakistan for three weeks in January 1969. It should have been a memorable trip – and in many ways it was – but it is my belief that we were a little too young and immature to appreciate the amazing cultural and sporting experience that was on offer. Imagine now a schoolboy team playing in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar, boarding a train that took us north to visit the Khyber Pass and peer over the border to the inhospitable mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. We all hit the deck when a tremendous volley of gunfire rent the air; it was only the tribesman loosing off rounds from their Kalashnikovs into the air in welcome. “What happens when all those bullets come down?” asked Bob, who refused to climb to his feet until he judged the danger had passed.
It so happened that Bob’s putative commentating career was very nearly nipped in the bud. During one match, it was thought to be a good idea if one of us helped out with the PA announcements, identifying the English players for the crowd and filling in with little titbits about their playing career. I was batting at the time when the unmistakeable dolorous tones of Bob Willis crackled over the loudspeakers. “And there goes Murtagh,” he announced, “with a little tickle down the leg side….. as the actress said to the bishop!” Having made the safety of the other end, I collapsed in a fit of the giggles. I was also aware of our manager, puce of complexion and purposeful of gait, making his way over to the commentary awning. Bob Willis was relieved of his duties with immediate effect. “Don’t know what all the fuss is about,” he complained later, “None of them speak English anyway and as far as I know there aren’t any bishops in a Muslim country.”
I was the vice-captain of the team and one day it was my turn to lead the side out onto the field. As per usual, I handed the new ball to Bob. He proceeded to mark out his run. “Bloody hell!” somebody remarked, “He’s running from a long way back today.” So long that he hurdled the boundary, charged up the pavilion steps and disappeared into the dressing room toilet, not to be seen again for several hours. I cannot remember the identity of the poor sod who had to go and get the new ball from him.
We were outplayed on that tour. Everything seemed so alien – the heat, the dusty tracks, the army of fizzing leggies, the hostile (well, partisan) crowds, the biased umpires, the debilitating illnesses, the relentless curry (for breakfast, lunch and supper), no beer, no women (strictly segregated and off-limits), very basic amenities and dormitory accommodation….. the list of grievances was long and exhaustive and by God, didn’t we exhaust ourselves moaning about it all. The truth is we were young and naïve and did not open our minds to the culture of the country. More shame on us. Perhaps if we had been a little older…..
Of that touring party, five of us went on to play professional cricket – Bob Willis, Graham Barlow, Lonsdale Skinner, John Rice and me. Would I, or anybody else on that tour, have predicted such a towering Test career for our opening bowler? Probably not. He wasn’t particularly quick as a schoolboy and bowled exclusively in-swingers. Over the next year or two, he gained a yard or two of pace and learned to move the ball the other way, or at least straighten it from his natural in-slant. Mind you, a 16-year old Imran Khan played against us and nobody could recall anything about him that hinted at future greatness either.
In spite of its inauspicious beginnings, Bob’s later career in the commentary box flourished and he delighted in playing the curmudgeonly old man behind the microphone and in front of the camera. For it was all an act. I was always surprised that many people didn’t get Bob. Underneath he cared passionately about the England team and if sometimes they let us down, well, somebody had to tell them. But scratch the surface and you found a man of sensitivity and decency, well read, surprisingly erudite, knowledgeable and thoughtful. He had a kind heart and was the most amiable, and witty, of companions. Oh yes….he took 325 Test wickets as well, at the time second only to the great Dennis Lillee.
“Just give to me my gravestone
With it clearly carved upon,
‘I’m al long time a-commin’
And a long time gone.’” (Bob Dylan)