Passion of the legend running in from the Rebellion End

The Interview - Bob Willis: The Reform Group will not light the touchpaper and retire. Stephen Brenkley meets an old bowler pacing out his long run one more time
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So far, the number of revolutionaries amounts to five. Coups d'état have probably been successfully sprung with fewer people, but then they did not have the vexatious problem of dragging from the sand the heads of the men who run English cricket, while at the same time separating their hands from the cheque book.

Compared to this task, Bob Willis probably recognises that eating Australian batsmen for breakfast, as he once did, is straightforward. Willis is one of the quintet of men who suddenly announced last week that they had established the Cricket Reform Group (CRG), with the intention of reforming the English game.

Effectively, they mean depriving the counties of their power and therefore their easy money - the £1.3m they each receive annually from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) - and making England the best team in the world. They are adamant that the latter will not happen without the former. Willis will not be fobbed off easily, and the measured, firm tone of his voice suggests he will bring the same intensity to this campaign that he did to bowling fast and that he does to his pertinently lugubrious commentating on cricket for BSkyB.

He and his elder brother David, who runs the National Sporting Club and is still heavily involved with club cricket, provided the impetus for the revolution and recruited Michael Atherton, another former England captain turned pundit-commentator; Michael Parkinson, chat-show host and sports writer who was bashing cricket administrators in print for fun when Willis was still in short flannels; and Nigel Wray, the millionaire businessman and benefactor of Saracens rugby union club, who is also passionate about cricket.

The CRG broke cover a couple of days after Lord MacLaurin, the former chairman of the ECB, went on radio to say that cricket would soon be down there with croquet as a spectator sport if it did not watch out and sack a sizeable part of its workforce. MacLaurin might have chosen deliberately to be dramatic (has he seen croquet lately?) but it was the moment for Willis and company to strike.

The CRG had quickly to find a name and write a letter for distribution to the press. A day later, England won at The Oval to square the series with South Africa, and all did not seem so bad with the world once more. But then, that is part of the long-term malaise, as Willis observed.

"The fact is that the game is supporting between 430 and 450 first-class cricketers and we don't think that the money is being correctly used, having 20 professionals at 18 counties and the England team, as it has been since the Fifties and probably since the Second World War, just bouncing along a graph of tiny little peaks and huge troughs." Ah, but how those peaks uplift us. How many people will have seen the magnificent exhibition at The Oval and be sustained through a long, dark winter?

The next move for the CRG is to get properly organised. As a revolutionary movement they might have a handful of generals, but they have so far produced just one A4 sheet of their aims. They are not exactly putting tanks on the Nursery Ground at Lord's.

According to Willis the Elder, they will now hammer out a manifesto and start recruiting followers. If this has rather a muddled air (of hearts being in the right place but organisation all over the place, like many of the revolutions of which it is easy to be fond but difficult to take seriously), the Willis boys promise action aplenty.

When you have 325 Test wickets, a lot of passion and a bit of clout, you deserve to be heard, and the ECB responded to the CRG within three days. Tim Lamb, the chief executive, and David Morgan, the chairman, want a meeting. Maybe they intend to play the old trick of heading them off at the pass. The opposition will not be easily fooled.

"Michael Atherton and I have been talking about the lack of progress of the England team for a number of years, during his tenancy as captain and beyond," Bob said. "But the whole problem is a lot larger than the England cricket team. We are really talking about dragging the game kicking and screaming into a new century."

David said they hatched the revolution over several months after he and Bob found it was easy to stand at the bar chuntering on. They sought out some like-minded individuals ("We wrote in May asking them to come, and slightly to our surprise and pleasure they said yes"). Talks have also taken place with MacLaurin, Richard Bevan, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association and Rod Bransgrove, the progressive chairman of Hampshire. The CRG's plot is light on detail; Willis is proposing the establishment of an eight-man board to run cricket, consisting of four executives and four high-powered businessmen seconded to provide their expertise (presupposing that businessmen have any more idea how to run professional sport than mere mortals.)

The CRG's main argument appears to be about the way the game is structured, in favour of the 18 first-class counties and therefore advancing a culture of mediocrity.

They have put forward four main points. The first is removing the First Class Forum, who make the big decisions at present. Secondly, they want the number of full-time professional teams reduced (to six, based at the Test grounds, with the other 12 going part-time). They want the county game underpinned by a much bigger, properly financed Premier League club system; and they seek to give amateurs the chance to progress by the forging of much closer links between the professional and recreational games. Until such changes take place - especially the emasculation of the FCF - we can all forget about England being the best team in the world.

That much is probably self-evident, even at the ECB, but it is difficult to see how the counties will vote to put themselves out of business and admit that they have been wrong all these years.

Willis's passion shines through his famously monotonous voice. He has not been slow these past few years to criticise England performances and the professional game at large. Part of this is probably a carefully designed commentary style, but most of it is because he cares and is not afraid to put noses out of joint.

One of the startling aspects of his involvement with this campaign is that he never cared much for county cricket when he was a player. He played 90 times for England bowling like the wind, 136 for Warwickshire rarely mustering a breeze. "I have always been fairly straightforward. My priority as a cricketer was as an England player, because when I was fit I was selected for England throughout most of my career.

"As people like Imran Khan will tell you, it's not possible to bowl fast seven days a week, so I will take that criticism on the chin. I turned down £15,000 a year from World Series Cricket and £60,000 to captain the South African Breweries rebel team in 1981-82. My priority was looking down on my sweater and seeing a lion and three crowns and representing England."

It is an entrancing stance, and his critics should understand that it allows him to make many of the points he does with such downbeat force on television. Yet he is working for an organisation (Sky) who are helping to support, through paying for TV rights, the very group (the ECB) that Willis seeks to usurp.

"On the potential conflict of interests, Michael and I went into this very carefully, and are sensitive to the fact that BSkyB and Channel 4 are partners of the ECB. The view of our employers would be that these are private views we are expressing, and do not necessarily reflect those of BSkyB or Channel 4." And his brother added that the easiest thing for them to do would have been nothing, since they both had very comfortable roles.

Bob said: "This is the only country in the world that has this ring-fenced professional cricket set-up. The First Class Forum have all the power and all the money in our summer sport. In every other country, amateur cricketers play a grade or league-club system from which their area first-class teams are selected. That does not happen here, has never happened here, and under the current system cannot happen here.

"We think that is fundamentally flawed logic, and that the recreational game should be a springboard to first-class cricket as part of a pyramid to excellence at national level. But the middle part of the pyramid is taking far too great a percentage of the money.

"We've been quoted as as saying we want to lose counties, but we're not in the business of closing down. The fact is there are between 430 and 450 professional cricketers in this country. People from the counties have only one train of thought."

The ECB seem willing to engage in discussion and debate. They should know that Willis is coming off his long run, from the Rebellion End.

Biography: Robert George Dylan Willis, MBE

Born: 30 May 1949 in Sunderland.

Played for: Surrey, Warwickshire, Northern Transvaal (SA), England.

As a player: Tests: 90 matches; 325 wickets at 25.20 (best 8-43); 840 runs at 11.50; 39 catches. One-day internationals: 64 matches; 80 wickets at 24.60 (best 4-11); 83 runs at 10.37; 22 catches. First-class: 308 matches; 899 wickets at 24.99; 2,690 runs at 14.30; 134 catches.

Leadership qualities: captained Warwickshire and then England (1982), leading them to victory against India and Pakistan but losing the Ashes to Australia. Named Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1978.

Now: a commentator for Sky Sports.

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