Bob Willis: 'I was in the zone. I just wanted to bowl fast'

The Brian Viner Interview: In the summer of 1981, he left Australia's batsmen reeling. As another Ashes beckons, he shares his fears for England's current bowling line-up

With the Ashes series almost upon us at last, it seems worth reminding ourselves that English cricket's most iconic sets of bowling figures have all come against our oldest adversaries. Not to put any pressure on the 2009 England attack, but Jim Laker took 19 for 90 at Old Trafford in the 1956 Ashes, and a quarter of a century later almost to the week – Headingley 1981 – Bob Willis demolished Australia's second innings with 8 for 43, clinching one of the most improbable comebacks in Test match history. "The sight of Ray Bright's middle stump going over will probably be the last memory I take to my grave," says Willis, a fit and feisty 60, of the eighth of those strikes.

There was always a striking contrast between Willis's whirlwind bowling delivery and his measured vocal delivery, and the passing years have done nothing to speed up his careful locution. Yet it fosters the erroneous impression that he is a grump, a curmudgeon. In fact he is splendid company, with a ready wit and, better still, a reluctance, unlike some of his fellow commentators, to sit on or anywhere near the fence.

Over lunch at one of his favourite pubs, The Victoria near Richmond Park in south-west London, he explains to me why England cannot, in his view, win the forthcoming Ashes. "I think the Australian batting is too long," he says. "They have proper batting down to 10, virtually, and apart from Cardiff the pitches are going to be flat. That will be England's main problem, trying to get 20 wickets."

But Cardiff, he adds, offers the chance of an early breakthrough. "It's absolutely vital that England go in aggressively at Cardiff. I would grasp the nettle and play two spinners, Swann and Rashid, because the pitch will spin from the word go. The groundsman is talking a good game but I don't see how he can prepare a pitch that doesn't turn. Unless he saturates it and it becomes just a roll of plasticine, I think the pitch will turn alarmingly and I think Nathan Hauritz [Australia's only specialist spinner] is useless. Historically, the Aussies play very well at Lord's [venue for the second Test], so England won't want to go to Lord's one down or the series will disappear very quickly."

By the time Willis starts dispensing his wisdom from the Sky Sports commentary box and in the channel's nightly highlights show, however, it might be too late. "I'm not sure that [Andrew] Strauss will have the guts to play two spinners," he says. "We saw his conservative streak all too clearly in the West Indies." Still, he doesn't think the Australians are any better off on the leadership front. Worse off, in fact. Willis doesn't rate Ricky Ponting as a captain, putting him in the same camp as another old quick who doesn't mince his words. Jeff Thomson this week denounced Ponting's captaincy as "crap".

While Willis takes an appreciative glug of one of his favourite chardonnays (Australian, by the way), I wind back the clock to 1974/75, when Thomson and a rampaging Dennis Lillee destroyed England.

"Tommo in that series remains the fastest bowler I have ever seen," he says. "It was such a shame for the game that he damaged his shoulder, because he was never quite the same bowler again. And I think that if he'd gone on to be one of the all-time greats, a lot of kids would have mimicked his bowling action, with that javelin thrower's approach to the crease. It was a lot less stressful than an orthodox action." Willis chuckles. "But he didn't mind a bit of blood on the wicket. I broke Rick McCosker's jaw in the [1977] Centenary Test, and when he came back out swathed in bandages I foolishly pitched it up to him. I should have bowled it straight at his head again. That was the difference between me and Tommo."

Willis played in six Ashes series, with a commendable win/loss ratio of four to two. His first was the victorious 1970/71 tour, when, as a beanpole of only 21, he was flown out to Brisbane after Alan Ward withdrew with injury. "That was weird, fairytale stuff," he recalls. "Suddenly I was playing with guys – Illingworth, Edrich, Cowdrey, D'Oliveira – that my brother and I used to pretend to be, playing in the back garden."

Raymond Illingworth, the captain on that tour, was one of the two great captains he played under in the Ashes, the other, of course, being the cerebral Mike Brearley. But does he sometimes think that Brearley gets more credit than he deserves for the 8 for 43?

"Yes," he says, without discernible hesitation. "Although they were brilliantly written [Brearley's books] Phoenix from the Ashes and The Art of Captaincy were both slightly over the top. Mike in many ways was a lucky captain. He never captained against the West Indies – he wouldn't have fared any better than anyone else if he had – and he had Beefy [Ian Botham] and me at our prime."

Nonetheless, Brearley played a significant part on that epic day at Headingley, telling Willis to forget his overstepping problems, which were yielding too many no-balls, and simply to concentrate on sheer pace. "Australia reached 56 for 1 if you remember, chasing only 130, but in the cliché these days I was in the zone. I didn't want to be distracted by placing the field, or celebrating wickets, I just wanted to get back to my mark and bowl as fast as I could."

With Willis bowling like a man possessed, Australia collapsed to 75 for 8, but Bright and Lillee offered some spirited resistance. "Dennis got to 17, stepping back and angling the ball over the slips. So I changed my tactics and pitched the ball up. He slotted it wide of mid-on, and Gatt [Mike Gatting], thinking it was a bread roll, dived full length and caught it. England's catching that day was magnificent."

We all know what happened on the pitch, of course, but what about afterwards? "Oh, Brears, Beefy and myself were dragged off to a press conference, and by the time we got back to the dressing-room everyone else had gone. They were going all over the country for Natwest Trophy second-round fixtures the next day. So Beefy and I had a pint together, and that was it. It wasn't until I was driving home and it was the lead story on [the Radio 4 news programme] PM, that the penny dropped as to what we had actually achieved."

It was only the second time in Test history that a team had won after following on, but the boot was almost on the other foot at Trent Bridge in 2005, when England nearly made a horlicks of chasing 129. "Yes, and they might not have got there if Ponting had given Shane Warne the new ball, a ridiculous mistake. But it's amazing what pressure there is on sides chasing those small totals, and the Aussies over the years have been pretty bad at it."

Which was the Aussie batsman whose wicket he most craved? "Greg Chappell. He oozed class. And after him, Allan Border." But it was a quartet of West Indians, he adds, whose wickets he coveted most. "I can't believe that even Bradman was a better batsman than Viv Richards, so it was great to get him, and [Gordon] Greenidge and [Desmond] Haynes at their peak, and [Sir Garry] Sobers early in my career. I got him out for nought in his final Test innings, at Kensington Oval, brilliantly caught by AW Greig at second slip." A perfectly-timed pause. "I think they were 593 for 4 at the time."

Willis's own final Test match was also against West Indies, coincidentally at the scene of his greatest triumph, Headingley, in 1984. There was not, alas, a repeat performance. "My bowling average before that match was under 25, which we always said was the mark of a great bowler, as over-50 was the mark of a great batsman. Unfortunately, Michael Holding sent my average from the magical under-25 to over 25. Mikey hit me all over the ground that day." A wry smile, and a typically unflinching punchline: "He hit me to parts of Leeds that only the Yorkshire Ripper had visited before."

Eight for 43: Willis's great wicket haul

How the paceman propelled England to victory in the second innings of the famous 1981 Headlingley Ashes Test:

T Chappell c Taylor b Willis 8

Gloves a vicious bouncer behind after Willis squares him up.

K Hughes c Botham b Willis 0

Nibbles at one outside off stump.

G Yallop c Gatting b Willis 0

Caught at short leg after another awkward bouncer.

J Dyson c Taylor b Willis 34

Centurion from the first innings gets a jaffa that he snicks behind.

R Marsh c Dilley b Willis 4

Well caught in the deep from a top edge that flies down to fine leg.

G Lawson c Taylor b Willis 1

Drawn into playing at a beauty and edges behind.

DK Lillee c Gatting b Willis 17

Caught off guard with a fuller ball which he balloons up in the air.

RJ Bright b Willis 19

Middle stump sent cart-wheeling by perfect yorker to seal victory.

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