Friday, August 14

The Spin | County cricket’s life-affirming return is perfect tribute to Bob Willis

“On the day that the 1978 cricket season ended, I managed at once to feel satisfaction, gratitude, regret, depression – and overwhelming fatigue.” So wrote Bob Willis in his Diary of a Cricket Season – as straight-talking on paper as he was in his later role as gimlet-eyed deliverer of withering verdicts on Sky.

It makes an intriguing read as the Bob Willis Trophy – a shortened red-ball county competition named in his honour – prepares to rise from cricket’s Covid-19 wasteland on Saturday. The 18 counties have been split regionally into groups of six, each playing five matches through August and early September, culminating in a five-day final – just the sort of pared-down programme Willis advocated in his laconic punditry. He would, I think, have found the funny side.

The red-ball tournament replaces the cancelled County Championship for this season, with 18 counties playing in three groups from 1 August to 9 September. The two group winners with the most points will contest the final, probably at Lord’s, in late September.

The groups

North: Durham, Derbyshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire.

Central: Gloucestershire, Glamorgan, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Warwickshire, Worcestershire.

South: Essex, Hampshire, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey, Sussex.

Full fixture list on ECB website

Those long, lanky limbs, size 11-and-a-half boots, clouds of wild hair and baggy, woollen jumper all added up to make him one of England’s most recognisable bowlers as he set off on his Wacky Races run-up from what seemed the length of the A3. By 1984, two knee operations and 325 Test wickets under his belt, he had retired – but his love of the game endured.

Willis, who died last December aged 70, spent most of his cricket career at Warwickshire after an unhappy couple of years at Surrey. He was forever grateful to the club for taking a chance on him and supporting him through injury, but became jaded by the relentlessness of the season and dreamed of reform.

Paul Allott, the former Lancashire and England seamer who became a great friend, remembers him on the boundary at Nagpur during England’s tour of India in 1981-82, surrounded by papers scribbled with plans for a new domestic structure. Later, he, his brother David, Michael Atherton and Michael Parkinson formed the Cricket Reform Group, which again attempted to wrestle with the overflowing fixture list.

Diary of a Cricket Season, a slim sepia volume of a summer’s toil from 22 April to 8 September 1978 (ghostwritten by the formidable former Times cricket correspondent Alan Lee) is both a historical document and blueprint for many of Willis’s future bugbears. There he is, poised with his pencil and notebook, as Warwickshire suffer a miserable season in contrast to England, who easily defeat the visiting Pakistan and New Zealand.

The relentless rain that takes out Test matches and lays waste to county cricket; long hours at the wheel, ridiculous journeys – from Leeds to Somerset at the end of a Test, John Player Sunday League games squeezed in the middle of first-class fixtures, injuries and incompetent batting all get a tongue-lashing. He notes the reassuring advice from the chairman of selectors, Alec Bedser, that England should “not to worry too much” about winning the ODIs before the Test matches against Pakistan, and his own prescient thoughts on the talented young David Gower who “must stop wafting at the ball outside off stump”.


England physio Bernard Thomas helps Willis limber up before the first Test match against India at Edgbaston in July 1979.

England physio Bernard Thomas helps Willis limber up before the first Test match against India at Edgbaston in July 1979. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

He pops out at lunchtime during a Championship game against Gloucestershire to open a school fete, gets his portrait painted, appears on a late-night BBC music show, falls out with the Warwickshire opener Dennis Amiss over the Packer Affair, manages to procure a double bed at hotels from the TCCB because of his huge frame and suffers seven successive John Player League losses and cold showers at Old Trafford. He looks around the echoing ground one afternoon as Middlesex and the West Indies fast bowler Wayne Daniel take Warwickshire apart.

“What a tragedy,” he writes, “that on a Saturday in June, with the county champions playing, a ground like Edgbaston is almost empty. I find it quite soul destroying.”

The RGD Willis solution is to go home and put the new Bob Dylan album on the turntable. When that doesn’t work, he turns to the self-hypnosis tapes he always carries with him. It helps, he explains, with the insomnia that has followed him around all his life.

The life-affirming return of county cricket will be the greatest tribute to Willis. Appropriately enough, spectators will be permitted at Warwickshire and Surrey, an extension of last weekend’s trial at the Oval. The excitement in the voice of the BBC’s county correspondent, Kevin Howells, as he reported from south London with spectators present was heartwarming. Who’d have thought that old-fashioned, Thermos flask and knobbly-knees county cricket would get there first.

“As a player there was no better person to turn to in a crisis and as a man there was no one more capable to make you smile and realise the beauty in life,” said Ian Botham, now Durham’s chairman, who proposed the idea of naming the trophy after his great buddy. “He was an ardent advocate for the longest form of the game and, at a time when all of his great virtues have been needed by us all, I can think of no better person to name this tournament after.”

Or in the words of the more sardonic Willis in 1978: “Whatever the realities or deficiencies afflicting its playing strength, every county will start every new season thinking that it can win something. It may take a month to disillusion it, or a week. In some cases a day.”

Perhaps in 2020 it may take a while longer, amid the rediscovery of the joy of trotting down the pavilion steps.

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