When Bob Willis was a fast bowler a generation ago, he would stare ahead, a cocoon of concentration and menace. Much like now as he delivers his opinions on cricket and cricketers. It shows he means business.
Willis has become a cult figure in the past two years, a pundit of serious, considered and harsh opinions succinctly delivered. Fans, many of whom may not be aware of what a considerable cricketer he was, the taker of 325 Test wickets, have come to love him for his honesty, pithiness and directness. Players, officials and administrators have learned to turn their eyes away, aware that Bob's are focusing on them.
Dropped as an international commentator when the new brigade of former Test players had to be accommodated, he has reinvented himself. He is as close to must-hear as punditry gets. Sky, for whom he plies his trade, know it as well. When Willis was pulled out of the studio to do live commentary on the recent England series in Bangladesh – presumably not all the others were desperate to make the tour – he was still delivering The Verdict each evening for the highlights package.
What has made Willis so viewable is not especially his fluency, though he is usually lucid and to the point. Nor is it simply his brutal candour, which allows no wriggle room for the molly-coddled. It is not in any sense his relaxed, cosy demeanour before the camera. It is that in every syllable Willis utters about the game he obviously cares passionately about it. Having established the persona, the temptation must be that he then has to live up to it at every opportunity.
"My broadcasting career started with the BBC in 1985 and I discovered quickly that you can sit on the fence and try and keep friendly with the guys you were in the dressing room with a year or two before. But it doesn't actually work for me.
"If someone is not performing or the selectors have picked the wrong guy, you have got to say that. It has developed from that. It's a style that doesn't suit many current players because many feel they're walking the plank all the time and they don't want the chair being kicked from underneath them. The secret is to show as much of the action as you can, give bullet points of the day and don't be afraid to hand out stick if it's justified."
Willis cares all right but he has come to despair at the way the game is run in England and fears there will never be root-and-branch change. He advocates a drastic reduction in the number of British professionals from something like 400 to 100 with one top division of six elite teams in the Championship and two divisions below consisting of part-time players.
"It's never going to happen but something like it should," he said. "I've been trying to change things for 30 years. International cricket has always shored up the rest. But when the ECB was formed from the old TCCB, its articles of association were clear, 18 counties, and they're not going to remove that. The truth remains that domestic cricket is run for the benefit of 140,000 county members and not for the good of cricket, cricketers and cricket watchers at large.
"I would stop all overseas players in the Championship. Overseas players, it is said, can improve those around them but I remember Gordon Greenidge and Barry Richards at Hampshire, a great opening partnership, but Hampshire didn't produce any other batsman who played for England except Paul Terry, who won two caps, which defeats the argument. But generally it's evolution versus revolution and it's not evolving too well. We're always followers."
Seven years ago, Willis was a co-founder of the Cricket Reform Group, now disbanded because some of its aims were met. It is instructive to reflect what it said about the county game: "The programme is ramshackle; players argue that they play too much." There is much more. Plus ça change.
"When the job of managing director of England cricket came up I thought seriously of applying for it but then I had a reality check and realised you don't really have any power to do anything," he says.
Willis, like most outside observers, thinks the ECB were totally outflanked by the development of Twenty20. It was the Indian board who established the all-singing, all-dancing Indian Premier League when England ought to have done something. Not that he is a huge fan of IPL and its standards.
"There is almost no place for fast-medium bowling. It's just slow bowlers standing there and off two paces bowling unbelievable garbage and saying it's up to you to put pace on the ball. You have to remember that some of the four overseas players aren't the best, you may have two top-class Indian players, the rest are rubbish. The standard of play is low and with 10 teams it will get worse. It's amazing they have the final they want, between Sachin Tendulkar and M S Dhoni."
Willis is quietly optimistic about the England team and talked up their chances against Australia next winter. "They should retain the Ashes against that Australian bowling attack, it's appalling. I do hope England are a bit more adventurous because they're going to have to be."
He is impressed by the coach, Andy Flower. "He is honest and, unlike his predecessors, Peter Moores and Duncan Fletcher, he gives a tremendous interview, thinks about his answers and is far more honest."
Willis thinks Kevin Pietersen should bat at No 3 in the Test team. "The best player should be capable of going in second ball and seeing off the new ball or going in at 140 for 1 and destroying the attack."
Willis returns to screens today when the dreaded Clydesdale Bank40 begins. If the players of Worcestershire and Sussex do not perform, they might want to hide behind their sofas.
Sky Sports' live cricket coverage this summer includes a record number of domestic fixtures featuring every county at least three timesReuse content