How we met: Bob Willis and Martin Tyler

Andrew Longmore
Sunday 08 February 1998 00:02 GMT

The cricketer Bob Willis, 48, played 90 tests for England, including 18 as captain, and took 325 wickets, the most famous of them when beating Australia in 'Botham's Test' of 1981. After retiring in 1984 he turned to broadcasting, first for the BBC and more recently for Sky. He lives with his wife and daughter in London. Martin Tyler, 52 (far right), is Sky's senior football commentator. His first 'goal' came just two minutes into his first commentary (Southampton v Sheffield Wednesday, 28 December, 1974). He has covered every World Cup since then, and commentated on his 100th England international last May. He lives in Surrey with his wife and two children

MARTIN TYLER: Our friendship developed from our days at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford. It is hard to recall when we first met, but it is safe to say that a mutual love of sport was at the heart of it.

Bob is several years younger than me, so when I was in the First XI, he must have been in a colts team, probably the first and last time I was ever ahead of him. We lived in the same area of Surrey, which helped, and I had a car, so I often took him to games. Later, Bob would be invited to play in charity cricket matches and I would sometimes get a game if the side was short. I was introduced as "Bob Willis's driver" which wasn't far off the truth. Only once did he bowl at me seriously. We only needed a few runs to win, but I never laid a bat on the ball.

So we had forged a common bond which stood the test of me going to university (at East Anglia). It is incredible now I look back on it, but Bob used to come up to my flat in Norwich when I was a student, watch me play football in the afternoon and then come to a party in the evening and doss on my floor. This was a future captain of England, but I think for him it was a chance to spread his wings a bit. He had quite a fiery relationship with his father, Ted, who was a journalist with the BBC and a driven man. He was so proud of Bob.

Later, Bob and I shared a flat together in Streatham when he was a young professional playing for Surrey. We were the true Odd Couple; Bob was deep, laconic, sensitive and had that slow, deep, voice. Our telephone number in the flat was 0047 and I can remember ringing up and Bob answering with that drawl of his - "0-0-4-7". His side of the flat was meticulously tidy; mine was invariably like a bombsite. I have a great sense of detail about my work - I'm a Virgo and a perfectionist - but everything else is chaos. Bob would come home and find 20 footballs in the bath because it was my turn to look after the team's training kit.

The strange thing, something I reflect on now but probably didn't realise at the time, was that I was supposed to be the intellectual one, with a BA and an MA, while Bob had left school and gone pretty well straight into the Surrey youth system. Yet he was the highbrow one - he loved Mahler and Bob Dylan (he even added Dylan to his christian names, so he became Robert George Dylan Willis), while I was a real pop-music fan, still am - and the difference reflected our characters at the time. He was the deep thinker, I was the superficial one.

I remember us sitting in the living room watching England play the first Test of the 1970-71 tour on television. Just a few weeks later, Alan Ward, the Derbyshire fast bowler, was injured and Bob was called into the England side. He was only 21, and there he was on my television screen playing for England. I've still got some of the letters he wrote to me from Australia. Unprintable, I'm afraid.

I suppose that was when our relationship changed. When Bob came back he was no longer just another talented young bowler wanting to make a living from county cricket. There were times, especially when he was fighting to leave Surrey (which was very much frowned on by the establishment back then), when the depth of his emotions extended to depression and it was best to leave him alone. Bob has a great wit, very dry; but, from quite a young age there was an unusual intensity about him, a drive to succeed.

After he moved to Warwickshire and his England career really took off, we only met occasionally. My own career was developing too, so we went different ways until Bob came to Sky. In a sense, it didn't really matter. It's very much a spiritual relationship; we've shared so much it wouldn't take more than 30 seconds to take up where we left off. That's the joy of the friendships you make at school. He's lived out my dreams as a professional sportsman, but we've both been lucky enough to get from our dreams to reality and, on top of that, we've managed to share the journey as well.

BOB WILLIS: Martin was older than me and was in senior cricket at RGS Guildford, either the First XI or the Second XI, while I was in the Under- 14s or Under-15s. But the teams travelled to away matches together and you got to know the other people involved in cricket. He had the grand status of prefect, and you didn't really have friendships with boys older than yourself, so it was more playing for the Old Boys, once we'd left school, that brought us together. We also both played for Corinthian-Casuals before I went off to Australia and left him to pay all the rent on the flat.

I don't know what Martin's recollections of school are, but I don't look back to those days with any particular pleasure, and I've never been back. Martin was a more conscientious student than I was; I was labelled a bit of a rebel. He had a more even temperament, very middle-of-the-road - particularly with his music - whereas things that bothered me would engulf me for days, weeks, even terms. The headmaster wouldn't let me do French A level and I protested about it for a whole year. Martin was more skilful at more subjects than I was and he was emotionally very stable, which, I suppose, made us a good combination.

The deal on the flat was pretty straightforward: he had the wheels, I tried to keep the place tidy. We tossed a coin to see who got the room with the heater. He won, but he had to sleep in the kitchen. He didn't seem to mind going to sleep surrounded by dirty dishes. What cooking was done, I did, I think. That was never one of Martin's strong points.

I am not someone who makes friends easily. I tend to sift people too thoroughly before counting them as a friend. That's just part of me. But once there in the inner sanctum, they are there for life. I value Martin's dependability, particularly during a very traumatic time when I wanted to leave Surrey in 1971. The high of being picked for England and winning the Ashes was followed by six months of languishing in the second XI at Surrey. The terms I was offered by Surrey were derisory. Warwickshire offered me three times as much, but it meant a spell out of the game and leaving my friends: I didn't know one solitary soul in the Midlands. All that needed talking through, and Martin was a good listener and a reliable sounding-board. He was a great Surrey supporter, so wanted me to stay, but he said I had to choose whichever was the best opportunity for furthering my England career, because he knew how important that was to me. Well- respected players like Kenny Barrington and Micky Stewart asked Martin to try and persuade me to stay, so they must have known how important his opinion was to me.

When I was picked for England out of the blue, the press immediately arrived on our doorstep; Martin had to warn me what they would want, because at the time coverage in the Surrey Comet was about the limit of my press experience. Martin knew they would be after a silly photo, not just an ordinary portrait, and his advice - to make the best of a bad job - often stood me in good stead at post-match England press conferences.

If Martin put me on a pedestal when I was an established international and he was a jobbing journo, I was never really aware of it. He was just an old friend. Now, the boot is on the other foot. I've come into his world, and found out that it's not all suitcases full of travel- ler's cheques and drinking G&Ts. You can still be at the ground doing links three hours after everyone else has gone home.

What impressed me when Martin was just starting out in journalism - and what impresses me even more now that I have become poacher-turned-gamekeeper at Sky - is how conscientious he is about his work. He's such a perfectionist. Before he got married, he was absolutely obsessive about football and he wanted both his writing and, later, his commentary to be absolutely word-perfect. Martin will be at the ground earlier than anyone else to find the player he doesn't recognise, he will watch the reserves train just in case any of them graduate to the first team. And that has rubbed off on me. You cannot just go into the commentary box and spout off the top of your head, you have to do your homework. Martin has set a great example in that.

What's important about friendship is that you can take the micky out of your friends and, more importantly, take the micky out of yourself. It doesn't mean that you're constantly on the phone asking about this and that. Friends are about picking up where you left off the last time, or knowing that if you've got a problem you'll get a receptive ear. I know I can do that with Martin.

Martin Tyler will commentate on England v Chile, Wed at 7pm on Sky Sports 2. Bob Willis will commentate on the revised third Test between England and West Indies in Trinidad from Fri, 2pm on Sky Sports 2.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in