Former England captain and fast-bowling great Bob Willis has died aged 70, after a short illness, his family announced on Wednesday. His 325 wickets from 90 matches place him at number four in the list of all-time English wicket-takers in Test cricket, only behind James Anderson (575), Stuart Broad (471) and Ian Botham (383).
Bob Willis made his debut as a gawky 21-year-old, pitchforked into the Test team in Sydney under Ray Illingworth on the 1970-71 Ashes tour. Willis captained England in 18 Tests and 29 one-day internationals before his retirement from all cricket in 1984. He was appointed captain for the 1982 India tour of England after Keith Fletcher was sacked.
Unforgettably, Willis took eight wickets for 43 runs to fire England to an 18-run victory in the third Ashes test against Australia at Headingley in 1981 after Ian Botham’s iconic innings had dragged the hosts back into a game they looked certain to lose. Bob Willis took 80 wickets in 64 One Day Internationals before retiring from all formats of the game in 1984.
Willis moved into commentary soon after his playing career ended and worked alongside former team-mates Botham and Gower. After moving away from live commentary and summariser duties in 2006, Willis continued to work as an expert on Sky Sports programmes such as The Debate and The Verdict.
He also acted in three films—This is Your Life (1991), A Question of Sports (2004) and 20 to 1 (2005). He was frequently firm in his criticism of current players, which was seen by some as being unfair.
“We are heartbroken to lose our beloved Bob, who was an incredible husband, father, brother and grandfather. He made a huge impact on everybody he knew and we will miss him terribly,” a family statement broadcast on Sky Sports said.
“We are forever thankful for everything he has done for the game,” the England and Wales Cricket Board said.
Graham Gooch, a former England cricket captain and team mate of Willis, said the sport had lost an iconic figure. “Bob was a great inspiration to a lot of players, generation after generation,” Gooch said.
“Bob Willis was my first England captain and a legend of England cricket,” wrote the former England allrounder Derek Pringle, on Twitter. “Headingley 1981 was as much his triumph as Beefy Botham’s – RIP Big Bob…”
Former England fast bowler Darren Gough recalled the Headingley test. “Such sad news regarding the legend Bob Willis,” Gough said. “An icon of the game I love, growing up as an 11-year-old watching big Bob running down the hill 8/43 at the home of cricket Headingley.”
Bob Willis is survived by his wife, Lauren, daughter Katie, brother David and sister Ann.