The moment will be forever etched on my mind. It was the summer of 1978 and I, a naive, cricket-obsessed schoolboy from Ulster, was standing near the entrance to the grand pavilion of the Oval in south London.
Suddenly my heart leapt as my hero Bob Willis came striding through the door, an unmistakable figure with his gangly 6 ft 6 in frame, unruly mop of brown hair and fixed facial expression of glazed detachment.
With some nervousness, I thrust my little autograph book towards him.
Giving the briefest of nods, he signed it and strode on.
Bob Willis, aged 70 and former England cricket captain, died yesterday following a diagnosis with prostate cancer three years ago. He is pictured above serving champagne to his teammate Ian Botham after receiving his man of the match award in Edgbaston, Birmingham, in 1981
Bob pictured helping model girl Penny Barnett with a batt outside the London Press Club in March 1979. Behind her is wicket keeper Derek Randall
Bob pictured playing a recorder and wearing a turban in front of a piece of bent rope, or metal, that appears to be behaving like a snake
Willis pictured bowling for England in the 3rd Ashes Test match between England and Australia at Headingley in Leeds, England, in 1981
Former England captain Bob Willis became a Sky sports analyst after retiring from the game
The autograph of fast bowler Bob Willis, who has sadly died at the age of 70, was the first I collected from a cricket star. And it was the one I most treasured.
I had been a fan of his ever since, perched excitedly in front of the TV in our Belfast home when Willis blew away New Zealand in a match in 1978 in an electrifying spell. One England player said: ‘I don’t think I have ever seen a white man bowl faster.’
Willis’s speed culminated in perhaps the most extraordinary moment in English cricket history when, against overwhelming odds, he bowled the national side to victory at Headingley in 1981.
With Australia looking almost certain to win until he took charge, his performance is perhaps the finest piece of bowling ever by an Englishman.
Firing the ball towards the quivering Australians at high velocity, maintaining his concentration as if in a trance, he took eight wickets for 43 runs, completing the triumph with a ferocious yorker to Ray Bright that took his middle stump out of the ground.
Willis talks to the Queen before England played India at Lord’s in the summer of 1982
Bob, right, with David Brown, left, after winning the Sunday League Trophy for Warwickshire at Edgbaston in Birmingham, in September 1980
England cricket legend Bob Willis, pictured in August 2018,died at the age of 70 yesterday
Willis (right) showers champagne from the dressing room balcony at Trent Bridge in 1977
Along with Ian Botham, his great friend whose batting had helped to set up this historic victory, he became a national folk hero. ‘I’ve met 250,000 people who told me that they were at Headingley that day,’ he said, though even now the stadium can only hold 18,000 spectators.
But there was far more to Willis than cricket. He was passionate about opera — Wagner was his favourite classical composer — wine and Bob Dylan.
Bob, pictured throwing a bowling ball in the air at Edgbaston cricket ground, Birmingham, in 1983
During his teenage years, he had added — by deed poll — Dylan to his first names, a reflection of just how far he had fallen under the spell of the great American folk singer. His private life went through rocky patches and made headlines in 1995 when he was revealed to have had a four-year affair with a secretary.
‘I didn’t love her, we fancied each other, I suppose,’ he said and stuck with Juliet, his wife of 25 years and mother of their daughter Katie. But the marriage finally ended and in 2005 and he remarried a PR executive called Lauren Clark.
AmusING, sardonic and generous, he had a wide circle of friends, including such celebrities as Stephen Fry and Elton John.
He carried on playing Test cricket for three years after his Headingley heroics but, plagued by injury, retired in 1984, having played in 90 Tests and taken a then record 325 wickets.
He embarked on a second career as a cricket commentator. His broadcasting style could be a little lugubrious and during one Test match in Lahore he made the mistake of taking a walk round the boundary and was greeted by the Barmy Army of England fans with chants of: ‘Boring Bob, Boring Bob, Boring Bobby Willis!’
England cricket captain Bob Willis, centre, pictured with the selectors in May 1983
Bob was also snapped clutching these bottles of Moet to celebrate being the leading wicket-taker of the 1977 Ashes Test series. He is shown after the 5th Test match between England and Australia at The Oval, London
The standout moment of Willis’ career was the ‘Miracle of Headingley’ in the 1981 Ashes series
But he remained part of Sky’s main commentary team for nearly 20 years before finding his milieu as a trenchant pundit on its post-match analysis show The Debate. He soon gained a reputation as a master of the brutal verdict and withering put-down. On one occasion he laid into the English team for their negative tactics while grinding out a win against New Zealand in 2013.
‘There should be three sets of stocks in the town square in Leeds,’ he said, ‘One for Andy Flower, one for Alastair Cook and one for Jonathan Trott. And a great big barrel of rotten tomatoes to hurl at them.’
What was never in doubt was his profound affection for the game and his love of his country.
Bob Willis bowling for England during the 1st Texaco Trophy One Day International against the West Indies at Old Trafford, Manchester
‘He was England through and through,’ said Sky colleague and former England captain Nasser Hussain. Many England players, such as the current fast bowler Stuart Broad, spoke of his invaluable wisdom and insight.
Born in Sunderland, Willis moved with his family to Surrey when he was six. His father was a BBC sub-editor and his brother David was a useful sportsman, too.
At the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, young Robert proved his talent as a fast bowler, as well as a goalkeeper.
He later recalled: ‘I used to play football with the old boys. They taught me how to drink cider and then vomit it up.’ Though he played a few games as goalkeeper for Corinthian Casuals, he soon made his debut for Surrey in 1969.
So impressive was he that the following year, he was selected for the England tour of Australia, beginning his long Test career.
In 1975, his career was threatened when he had a major operation on both his knees, during which he developed a blood clot.
Yet he always had a formidable determination and emerged stronger from his ordeal. And, as he demonstrated with his uncharacteristic enthusiasm for Bob Dylan, Willis was not a one-dimensional sportsman.
Willis celebrates after getting Australian Graham Yallop out in the sixth Ashes Test in 1981
David Gower (second from left) paid tribute to Willis in an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live
Willis is England’s fourth highest wicket-taker of all time with an impressive haul of 325
Broad found the former player turned pundit anything but an ogre and enjoyed listening to him
A man of natural authority, he was also a deep thinker about the game and a fervent patriot.
The interests of England always came first with him, a fact also highlighted in his refusal to join the infamous World Series circus, which threatened the existence of Test cricket in the late Seventies.
He had a mixed record as England skipper in 1982, partly because he found it difficult to concentrate on leadership as well as bowling, but he was no failure.
In later life he took pleasure in his many interests and, just as with his cricket punditry, he had strong opinions about the grape. ‘Life is too short to drink Italian wine,’ he once pontificated.
And he was not just a connoisseur. Along with Botham, he also made his own respectable plonk, while he was also a good cook.
‘He kept himself to himself round the commentary box and was actually quite introverted and shy,’ recalled Nasser Hussain.
But all of us who saw him in action will treasure our memories, not least that unique moment at Headingley in 1981.