England’s Wagnerian captain has died at 70

England’s Wagnerian captain has died at 70


norman lebrecht

December 04, 2019

Great sadness at the death of Bob Willis, the most elegant fast bowler that ever drew breath and England’s cricket captain in the bleak mid-1980s. Less well known was his passion for Wagner: he used to play Ride of the Valkyries before he went out to bowl at Australia.

Bob died today of prostate cancer, aged 70.

Here’s a fond reminscence from Christopher Morley:

So many, musicians have been passionate about cricket, and so many cricketers passionate about music: John Barbirolli; Neville Cardus; Michael Kennedy; Julian Lloyd Webber; and, coming the other way, Donald Bradman (an accomplished pianist putting his hands in danger) and Bob Willis, now sadly gone from us.

Willis loved Bob Dylan — and Wagner. I once sat behind him during a Ring cycle from Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome, and could just about see through his mane of hair.

Test cricket and the Ring cycle have similar characteristics. They both take the long view and enthral us. Willis was an expert at both of them.

This was his greatest match.



  • Paul Joschak says:

    ‘Most elegant’? Weird description! I’d rate Fred Truman and John Snow as smoother in their run-ups and delivery strides. Very sad news though, and makes me feel pretty old!

  • Paul Joschak says:

    That should be “Trueman” – sorry!

  • john kelly says:

    Was at Headingley for that great day. Willis a superb bowler at his considerable best. Hardly “the most elegant fast bowler to draw breath” in fact, the exact reverse, he looked like a demented stork running in. For elegant think Lillee, Holding, even Thomson.

    Bob Willis was a thinking man’s cricketer, like Mike Brearley, no slouch on the culture front either of them. RIP.

  • Rob says:

    Grew up on 80’s cricket when Edmonds used to work in tandem with Emburey. Great stuff!

  • John Rook says:

    Yes, that match was unbelievable. Imagine how OTT the celebrations would be today in the light of such a feat.

    Thank you for all the good times, Bob.

  • Naomi Pearson says:

    Bob Willis was a great fast bowler and, to all accounts, a very lovely man. He will be greatly missed by those who knew him and fondly remembered by generations of cricket fans. But to say he was an elegant bowler, let alone The Most Elegant bowler to draw breath, is a little off the mark. Courtney Walsh, maybe, Sir Richard Hadlee, perhaps, but the way Willis chundered up to the wicket, knock-kneed, chest on, grimacing wildly and with all that crazy hair flying about was – whilst often most effective – hardly elegant!

  • M McAlpine says:

    Very sad to hear of Bob Willis’ early departure from this life. I remember the incredible 8-43 spell at Headingly as if it were yesterday. One of the greatest spells of fast bowling ever. But to call him ‘the most elegant’? I don’t think even Bob would have agreed with that!

  • Lovely to re-live that wonderful day, which I remember. It is individual performances that often stay in the memory more than memorable matches. The fight back by Ben Stokes in the third Ashes test this last summer is also up there with the very best.
    Does anyone recall the match in which a wicket line read “Lillee caught Willey, bowled Dilley?
    RIP Bob Willis and thanks for the memories.

  • John Rook says:

    Most elegant? I’d say Harold Larwood.

  • Robert King says:

    A massive hero of mine during my cricket-mad childhood and teenage years, Bob Willis was indeed one of the all-time greats. Watching those astonishing eight wickets again today brought it all back to me, and more so seeing a team peppered with so many other fine players of the late 70s and early 80s who were also household names. I love the way that, having captured a vital wicket, Willis simply took his sweater from the umpire and headed off to the boundary. No histrionics there. Ironically, he didn’t even win “Man of the Match” from the adjuducator, one Fred Trueman, for that 8 for 43: the award went to Ian Botham, who had taken six wickets in the first innings and also scored a huge century.

    As to discussion of Willis’s elegance or otherwise when bowling, his team-mates apparently ribbed him that his run-up looked like a goose trying to take off: and from that description his nickname, “goose”, was born.

    There’s a fine obituary by Matthew Engel in The Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/dec/04/bob-willis-obituary

    RIP, Bob Willis, who inspired and delighted a generation of cricket fans: we will for ever be grateful to you.

  • christopher storey says:

    Elegance is very subjective : I agree that Michael Holding had it , but the name which for me springs to mind as the most elegant has not so far been mentioned : Brian Statham . RIP Robert George Dylan Willis, one of the great fast bowlers