Farewell, Bob Willis: English cricket loses a man who embodied the very best of its heart and soul.

325 Test wickets from 90 Tests, a career as a broadcaster and a verified cult hero.

If you are lucky, you get one of those. If you’re Bob Willis, you can achieve all three with great distinction, and without giving one solitary damn. After a short illness, one of the country’s finest fast bowlers and beloved pundits passed away on Wednesday.

His abscence from Sky Sports’ review show, The Verdict, during the recently completed New Zealand tour hinted there was something wrong. Only on Wednesday morning did word start to spread of the unthinkable. He passed away surrounded by his family and leaves wife Lauren, daughter Katie, brother David and sister Ann.

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In many ways, his was a story of triumph over trials. Aged 26, he’d had operations in both knees which, at 6ft 6ins, should have meant the end. He battled on for nine more years, getting himself into the record books where he remains to this day as England’s fourth-highest wicket-taker in Tests.

For a generation, he was one of few hopes against Australia: a fast bowler of the sort of snarl they love over there, bounding in from an angled approach and following it up with a disdainful stare many more would become familiar with when he moved into television.

Bob Willis in pictures

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Bob Willis
Bob Willis
Bob Willis
Bob Willis

Bob Willis in pictures

Bob Willis

1/10 Bob Willis

Bob Willis (l) and David Gower who were members of England's greatest Test Team to mark England's 1000th Test Match pictured during day 3 of the First Specsavers Test Match at Edgbaston on August 3, 2018.

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Bob Willis

2/10 Bob Willis

Willis made his England debut against Australia in 1971.

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Bob Willis

3/10 Bob Willis

Willis built a strong partnership with Ian Botham under the captaincy of Mike Brearley.

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Bob Willis

4/10 Bob Willis

England test cricketers including Willis enjoy a game of table cricket at Lords in London, before flying to Australia for a series in 1978.

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Bob Willis

5/10 Bob Willis

Bob Willis celebrates with his teammates after wicket keeper Bob Taylor dismisses John Dyson of Australia during the Australian 2nd innings of the Third Ashes Test between England and Australia on 21st July 1981at the Headingley. It would be a match and victory that went on to define Willis' career.

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Bob Willis

6/10 Bob Willis

Willis speaks to the media after his third Ashes Test heroics in 1981.

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Bob Willis

7/10 Bob Willis

Willis was known for his jovial side off the pitch.

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Bob Willis

8/10 Bob Willis

Once Willis retired he turned to a career in the media.

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Bob Willis

9/10 Bob Willis

Bob Willis has Ray Bright of Australia caught behind by Alan Knott during the Fifth Ashes Test match at Old Trafford in the famous 1981 Ashes series. England won the match by 103 runs.

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Bob Willis

10/10 Bob Willis

Bob Willis presents Tom Curran with his England cap in Australia in December 2017.

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Bob Willis

1/10 Bob Willis

Bob Willis (l) and David Gower who were members of England's greatest Test Team to mark England's 1000th Test Match pictured during day 3 of the First Specsavers Test Match at Edgbaston on August 3, 2018.

Getty Images

Bob Willis

2/10 Bob Willis

Willis made his England debut against Australia in 1971.

Getty Images

Bob Willis

3/10 Bob Willis

Willis built a strong partnership with Ian Botham under the captaincy of Mike Brearley.

Getty Images

Bob Willis

4/10 Bob Willis

England test cricketers including Willis enjoy a game of table cricket at Lords in London, before flying to Australia for a series in 1978.

Getty Images

Bob Willis

5/10 Bob Willis

Bob Willis celebrates with his teammates after wicket keeper Bob Taylor dismisses John Dyson of Australia during the Australian 2nd innings of the Third Ashes Test between England and Australia on 21st July 1981at the Headingley. It would be a match and victory that went on to define Willis' career.

Getty Images

Bob Willis

6/10 Bob Willis

Willis speaks to the media after his third Ashes Test heroics in 1981.

Getty Images

Bob Willis

7/10 Bob Willis

Willis was known for his jovial side off the pitch.

Getty Images

Bob Willis

8/10 Bob Willis

Once Willis retired he turned to a career in the media.

Getty Images

Bob Willis

9/10 Bob Willis

Bob Willis has Ray Bright of Australia caught behind by Alan Knott during the Fifth Ashes Test match at Old Trafford in the famous 1981 Ashes series. England won the match by 103 runs.

Getty Images

Bob Willis

10/10 Bob Willis

Bob Willis presents Tom Curran with his England cap in Australia in December 2017.

Getty Images

Before this summer, there was only one “That Headingley Test” which ultimately would have been nothing without him. Sure, Ian Botham set them up, but it was Willis’ eight for 43 that knocked Australia down. The bond between those two stars was strong and Botham maintains Willis was the only world-class bowler he shared the field with during his 16 years as an international.

Willis also had the honour of captaining his country in 16 Tests between 1982 and 1984, a period in which he says he marshalled “a moderate England side”. He oversaw seven wins in that time but maybe his best act of leadership came as vice-captain when he ordered Botham to run out Geoffrey Boycott during a Test match in 1978 against New Zealand because the Yorkshireman was scoring too slowly.

The above alone is enough to warrant a glowing eulogy. But it was upon Willis’ move to television that the cult of Bob came to be. From bowling fire to spitting it on a regular basis.

There had been signs of this turn during his playing days. Following those 1981 heroics, he gave an interview on the balcony in which he lamented the press who had given England a shoeing all series. “The standard of journalism in this country has gone down the nick completely. People have to rely on small-minded quotes from players under pressure for their stories. Where they used to write about cricket they don’t seem to be able to do that anymore.”

But in retirement he was always forthcoming with media requests and took to the screen with ease. And if there has been one silver-lining of England’s indifferent form in Test cricket over the last few years, it was Bob and his appointment-to-view bollockings.

“Well, Charles,” he’d begin, that drawl squeezing every last bit of juice from the final syllable like the elongated pumping of a shotgun. The bullets that followed were always on the money even if the target was occasionally unfortunate to be on the receiving end.

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He was never a cheerleader and, more importantly, never a gobshite. He was the type to tell you what he thought without boasting about how he was telling you what he thought. The words came naturally, as did the cynicism, but, heck, maybe you’d lose your loving feeling if you had to run the rule over enough English batting collapses.

My days, though, he dealt out some hall-of-fame lines when he was on a roll.

“There are more happy hookers in this England line-up than there are at Soho,” he raged when India’s Ishant Sharma bounced out half of the batting line-up at Lord’s in 2014. When it was put to him that David Warner was drinking Jagerbombs before taking a swing at Joe Root in Birmingham Walkabout, Willis cut to core of the issue.

“I have never had a Jagerbomb,” he admitted, before questioning the choice of beverage. “Maybe Australian beer is even worse than it used to be.”

Naturally, the players he commented on had their backs put up. But if there was a measure of his charisma it was how he managed to get them onside despite being such an ardent critic.

“Alright, Bob!” would regularly be the retort when a player was presented with criticism from any familiar source – Jos Buttler would often use this on his mother whenever she would bring up his mistakes. And indeed, many would object to the assertion that he was not hamming it up for the cameras.

However, a number of current England players, upon meeting him at a dinner organised by Andrew Strauss, who was director of cricket at the time, left with a greater understanding of Willis and what made him tick, along with deep affection.

Because he loved the game dearly, not just for what it gave to him as a career but what it meant to him in his formative years spent in the garden with his brother pretending to be Colin Cowdrey and Basil D’Oliveira. His friends – and there were lots of them – will now be without one whose joy and company they would always speak of in such glowing terms that you’d forget many of them were brought together by cricket rather than conversation. He had this way of making you feel comfortable even when it was at odds with the modern persona he had cultivated.

Really and truly though, the very best bits of The Verdict were when Willis could not control his joy. Luckily, we got a few of those moments this summer, and perhaps the most heartfelt came when assessing Ben Stokes’ heroics in the Ashes Test at Headingley, 18 years on from his own miracle.

“To say that performance eclipses Headingley ‘81 does stick in my throat a bit. But that’s the fact of the matter.”

That makes Wednesday’s news all the more devastating. A year that has given so much to English cricket will end bidding farewell to a person who embodied the very best of its heart, wit and soul.

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