Bob Willis’s Warwickshire career started rather well – 70 days after making his championship debut for the club, against Worcestershire at Edgbaston on July 1, 1972, he breakfasted on champagne and kippers at Trent Bridge in celebration of the team winning the title.
"There is a very active Warwickshire Old County Cricketers Association and we have a great laugh when we get together."
Warwickshire had won the championship for only the third time, thanks heavily to the input of four West Indians. Rohan Kanhai and Alvin Kallicharran contributed a combined 2,431 runs, 37 catches and six wickets, Deryck Murray scored 412 runs and executed 44 dismissals behind the stumps and Lance Gibbs took 50 wickets and 16 catches. The signing of Willis, an emerging fast bowler who had made his England debut in Australia 18 months earlier, from Surrey gave the county almost a full team of internationals.
“It was a very exciting team to play in,” Willis recalls. “I don’t know what rules Warwickshire were bending to have four Test match West Indians in the team. Apart from our all-rounder Norman McVicker at number seven, the other members of the side were England caps so we had ten internationals in the team. So it wasn’t really any great surprise that we won the championship.
“We clinched it before the last match against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge and celebrated long into the night. Then it was kippers and champagne for breakfast next morning – I don’t think the dressing-room attendants at Trent Bridge had ever seen anything quite like it.”
Warwickshire had sealed the title in the previous match, at home to Derbyshire, when 23-year-old Willis took eight for 44 including a hat-trick. The Sunderland-born paceman had settled quickly at Edgbaston, underlining a talent which was immediately apparent when he emerged into the first team at Surrey. On his first-class debut, against Scotland at The Oval in August 1969, Willis harvested match figures of 25-7-50-5. Two weeks later, on his championship debut against Yorkshire at Scarborough, his match figures were 23-6-41-5. His first victim in the championship was Yorkshire opener Barrie Leadbeater who, 15 years later, would be an umpire when Willis played his last championship match for Warwickshire, against Derbyshire at Chesterfield.
An England call soon came, followed by the move to Edgbaston.
“Surrey had two very good spin bowlers – Pat Pocock and Intikhab Alam – and played an all-rounder Stewart Storey so there was only room for two specialist seam-bowlers,” Willis recalled. “Geoff Arnold was the number one so it was a toss-up between Robin Jackman and myself for the other place. Having been away with England in 1970/71 I came back to Surrey and spent half the season in the 2nd XI which I didn’t think was going to help my England career. So I said to Robin ‘you’ve been at the club longer than I have so you will have a benefit before I will, so I think I should seek pastures new.’
“Everybody was looking for quick bowlers and 12 of the then 17 counties approached me but I thought Warwickshire was the best-run club. I’d got to know Bernard Thomas, Warwickshire and England’s physio, very well on tour and he must have given the captain Alan Smith a pretty good reference. Alan wanted me in the side and, as a staunch member of the establishment, said my England prospects would be much better served here than at one of the smaller counties.”
Willis was soon sipping that celebratory champagne but was to have a curious Warwickshire career. It began with the championship triumph but when he retired 12 years later, 325 Test wickets for England under his belt, he had collected only one more winner’s medal for his county, from the John Player League in 1980.
While Willis became England’s foremost fast bowler of his generation, after 1972 the Bears spent much of the rest of that decade and the next struggling.
“It was a big boost for Warwickshire’s members and fans to win the championship having got so close the year before,” he said. “I enjoyed playing with the West indies players, of course, but didn’t think it was doing Warwickshire’s long-term prospects much good at all and so it proved. We had some very talented players, the likes of Neal Abberley, Graham Warner and Alan Gordon, who were basically condemned to playing 2nd XI cricket and whose careers may have blossomed with more opportunity.
“We had a long wait for the next success which came in 1980 when we won the John Player League. We certainly weren’t the most talented side in the country but everyone pulled together and we had a great bunch of young, athletic fielders, the likes of Andy Lloyd, John Claughton and Philip Oliver, which helped us enormously. They fielded brilliantly and we engaged John Snow for part of the season to fill the gap when I was away at Test matches. We got a really good thing going with that side. We were never going to be championship-winners with our resources but it was great to finally win a one-day trophy.”
By 1980, Willis was a linchpin of England’s team. He had played 51 Test matches, including 32 in the last three years, and admittedly found it hard to get motivated for some county games. This led to a chequered relationship with Warwickshire’s supporters.
“Being a fast bowler it was difficult to turn on the power day in and day out,” he said. “We were playing six-Test summers, some without rest days, in those days and you would go straight back into a championship match and I’m sure some Warwickshire members got a bit fed up with me not showing my England form for Warwickshire.
“Playing county cricket in a massive Test ground like Edgbaston you had to make your own atmosphere. If you didn’t have a top quality bowling side, which Warwickshire didn’t after David Brown retired in the mid-70s, you were never going to compete in the championship, so the second halves of some seasons became pretty pedestrian when you knew you couldn’t compete for honours.
“Also, the fixture-list was ridiculous in mid-summer. We would finish a championship match on Tuesday afternoon, often with a Sunday League match wedged in between, then on Wednesday morning you would travel to the Test venue. At three o’clock you’d have a quick net and then off to the hotel for check in and team dinner, then straight into the Test next day.
“Then you might finish the Test match at six o’clock in the evening and drive the length of the country to the next county fixture the next day. It was pretty impossible for everybody but particularly the fast bowlers. I’m sure Stuart Broad and James Anderson are very pleased they don’t have to do that.”
After 13 seasons with Warwickshire, the last five as captain, Willis retired in 1984, his last appearance for the county coming in the Benson & Hedges Cup final defeat to Lancashire at Lord’s. Wisden correspondent Jack Bannister noted:
“It was a matter of some regret that his last appearance for his county was in the Benson & Hedges Cup final – not just because his side lost but because subsequently crowds around the country were denied the opportunity to pay their tribute to such a distinguished cricketer. A combination of Test selection, injuries and illness restricted his appearance for Warwickshire to under half of the possible maximum during his 13-year career at Edgbaston. Nevertheless, his five-year period as club captain, particularly before his appointment to the England captaincy in 1982, was marked by the single-minded approach which characterised so much of his cricket.”
Willis did get some stick from Warwickshire’s fans over the years and much of his county career was spent in a struggling team about as far-removed as can be from the profile, pressure and occasional glory of Test cricket. But, now 69 and still enjoying his long-time cricket role as cricket broadcaster, he reflects very fondly upon his time at Edgbaston.
All these years on, does he still feel an affinity for the club? The answer is emphatic.
“Very much so,” he said. “I had the honour of being made an honorary life-member and I always get a very warm welcome when I go to Edgbaston. It doesn’t matter if the chairman or the chief executive has changed and if ever I am introduced to the crowd I get a very warm reception. I love going back to the ground. There is a very active Warwickshire Old County Cricketers Association and we have a great laugh when we get together.
“It’s tremendous to look back on those years and hopefully we may be able to have a 40th anniversary party for our 1980 John Player League win in 2020…!”