A huge fan of Bob Dylan, the singer, Bob Willis added the name ‘Dylan’ as his middle name. But that does not take away from this bowler’s amazing will to succeed despite the operations to his knees, and the pain that he played his cricket in; ending with 325 Test wickets at a very good average of just over 25.He is currently England's third leading wicket taker, behind Ian Botham and James Anderson.
In addition to the Test arena, Willis played 64 One Day International matches for his country, taking 80 wickets, and was a prolific List-A (one day) cricketer with 421 wickets overall at 20.18.
Willis was born in Sunderland, and grew up in the Surrey village of Stoke d'Abernon near Cobham, having moved there at the age of six. His father was an employee of the BBC, and Willis had an elder brother named David with whom he played cricket in the garden, and an elder sister.Willis' bowling potential was rewarded with selection for Surrey Schools and Surrey Colts, under the directorship of Watcyn Evans, who would become a close friend.
In 1968, Willis accepted an invitation to join Middlesex and Surrey Young Cricketers on tour in Pakistan, and used this opportunity to further hone his skills. Upon his return he made early appearances for Surrey's Second XI against Worcestershire's Seconds but could only claim one wicket. Willis provided a noteworthy performance in the Gillette Cup quarter-final against Middlesex. In a high-scoring match, Surrey made 280 for the loss of five wickets. Middlesex appeared to be coasting to victory when they reached 240–3, but Willis turned the game, and they collapsed and finished on 272–9. Willis took 6–49 in his 12 overs and won the Man of the Match award.
Willis joined England's 1970–71 tour of Australia as a replacement for the injured Alan Ward, and played several warm-up matches for the MCC in December. Willis remained in the team for the fifth Test at Melbourne, and rewarded the selectors with 3/73 in the first innings and 1/42 in the second as the match was drawn. Of the final two matches, Willis took three wickets in the drawn Adelaide Test, and four more in the final match of the series, a victory at Sydney Cricket Ground which gave England a 2-0 series victory. Willis finished his first Test series with 12 wickets at 27.41, and had also taken several "crucial catches".
Willis then travelled to the Caribbean as part of England's winter tour, in what Wisden described as an "automatic selection" however he struggled against the top Test side. In the first Test, on 2ndFebruary 1974, he took only one wicket, followed by three in the second, and one for a hundred runs in the final match. He though struggled against the West Indies throughout his career.
Willis then returned to England, to face India and Pakistan, playing in one Test against each. Against India he took 4/64 – a career best against that team – and made a Test best 24 with the bat. At this point, Willis was suffering from a recurring back injury however, during the 1974-75 Ashes series; he took 17 Test wickets at 30.70, including a best of 5/42 from five tests.
Willis returned to England in January 1975 with a recurring knee injury which had caused him to collapse at a county game earlier that season and underwent several operations to correct it. He had surgery on both knees, and suffered a post-operative blood clot.After coming fit from injury, Willis was brought into the squad for the fourth Test against the West Indies on 22nd July and immediately took three wickets for 71 runs and then a five-wicket haul in the second innings. This both gave him career best figures and took him past 50 Test wickets.
Over the winter of 1976-77, England toured India in a five Test series through December to February, and it proved to be a revival for Willis.Willis took 32 wickets for 15.09 across the entire tour and it stamped Willis as a bowler of genuine pace and in-disputable class.
The 1977 Ashes took place across five Tests in all of which Willis featured. Preceding them were three ODI fixtures, across which Willis took a total of five wickets at 15.80. At Lords, Australia, batting second and looking to take a lead over England's 216 all out, were dismantled by Willis who returned a career-best 7/78.His 27 wickets across the series was a record for an English fast bowler against Australia in England, and his final wicket of the series was his 100th.
Willis made 10 Championship appearances in the 1978 season, taking 37 wickets at 18.27. He was also third in the national averages for the Benson and Hedges Cup that year, with 16 wickets at 6.75, including four wickets for four runs in one innings.
In the winter of 1978-79, Willis travelled to Australia for that season's Ashes series, which England won 5–1 against an Australian team depleted by the rebel Packer tour. Willis finished the series taking 20 wickets at 23.05.
Willis began the 1982 county season with five County Championship fixtures, featuring his first half-century with the bat, a career-best 72, while leading Warwickshire against the touring Indian side. Seeing his astute captaincy the selectors dropped Fletcher and Willis was awarded the captaincy. As a captain, Willis subsequently received mixed assessment and with pressure mounting due to injury and poor performances by the England team, was sacked as captain before the upcoming Test series against the West Indies, and replaced by Gower.
Willis played in the next Test series against the West Indies, taking two wickets in the first two matches but could not generate that spark which he had promised when he burst into the international stage. He announced his retirement from all cricket immediately after England's defeat.
He finished his career with 325 Test wickets, at the time second only to Dennis Lillee, and 899 wickets in all first-class matches. Only Ian Botham has since surpassed his number of Test wickets for England. Willis also retains the world record for most Test wickets without a single 10-wicket haul in a match.
On retirement he moved into the media, and for many years formed a strong partnership with Ian Botham for Sky Sports, and although his laconic style did not suit all, a sharp and humorous individual hid just under the surface. He found himself side-lined from front-line commentary duties in 2006, but he remained part of the team.