Well, most people with any affinity for Test cricket remember eight of those wickets, no question. For nothing compared to Headingley for the dent it left in the brains of a certain generation – and if it was Willis’s misfortune that the match will forever be synonymous with Botham’s “village-green slogging”, as Mike Brearley later dubbed it, then no-one who witnessed his role, in the flesh or otherwise, will be in any doubt that the truest quality of that contest came in its savage denouement.
As legend has it, Willis almost failed to make it to the contest at all. He had missed Warwickshire’s county match the previous week due to a bout of flu, and was dropped from the squad in favour of Mike Hendrick – only for that invitation to be intercepted in the post after Willis had explained he’d been saving his energy for the Test match, rather than merely lying low on his sickbed. In spite of his hefty haul of 899 first-class wickets in 308 matches, Willis could be a reluctant county performer – the legacy of his twin knee operations in 1975 and the daily agonies that his gangly frame had to go through to perform at the very highest level.
But even after his Headingley reprieve, Willis had seemed off-colour. He went wicketless in Australia’s first-innings as Australia’s grip on the Ashes tightened, then struggled for rhythm in an abortive opening spell in the second, as John Dyson and Trevor Chappell eased along to 56 for 1, chasing 130.
But then, Brearley made his legendary switch to the Kirkstall Lane End, and Willis clicked into his ultimate Berserker mode – eyes glazed over, fury focussed on a distant point way, way beyond the stance of Australia’s rapidly scattered batsmen. The lifter to Chappell, which snapped savagely into his upraised gloves before lobbing to Bob Taylor as the bewildered batsman scanned a full 180 degrees around his crease, was a declaration of war on a previously serene dressing room.
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The moment of victory was every bit as iconic – Ray Bright’s middle stump demolished as Willis raised his arms in a robotic fist-pump and stormed for the pavilion before an ecstatic sea of fans could envelop him.
And no less iconic, if a more niche search item on YouTube, was his laconically drawled critique of the media during his post-match interview with the BBC. Turning on a mildly startled Peter West, Willis railed against the need to mine “small-minded quotes from players under pressure for their stories” – his point being, of course, “what on earth do you need to speak to me for?”
It certainly wasn’t an obvious means by which to audition for his second innings, but then Bob Willis was never one to take the conventional route.
But he was right, of course, as he so often was. What on earth could a Willis soundbite possibly have added to the technicolor masterpiece that he and Botham had completed only moments earlier? His instincts served him well, for this was one England victory in which the deeds would do all the talking a team could ever need. Tonight, you can be sure that myriad generations of England cricket fans will be toasting that glory one more time, and this time with extra feeling.