Bob Willis wrote this reflection in April 2019, eight months before his death aged 70.
I guess you never know how you are going to react to being told you have cancer. It is not something you ever want to find out, but now I know.
It was April 2016 and I was seated, as an apparently healthy 66-year-old, opposite a doctor in a hospital in west London when he gave me the results of a biopsy on my prostate. There is a scale of one to 10, with the worst scenario being upwards. I was a nine, and there was worse to come. The cancer was not confined to the prostate but had spread.
I recall being reasonably stoic upon hearing the news, although it did feel something akin to sustaining a huge blow to the solar plexus. I was more stunned for the next two or three hours until I started to come to terms with what I had been told. It takes a while to sink in and then you start working out the best way to proceed. Nor did I feel much in the way of self-pity, although you inevitably ask yourself why it is you whose number has come up.
I have, by and large, looked after myself. While always an enthusiastic drinker — of wine and beer, not the hard stuff — I have not been prone to too many other vices and I have kept myself in reasonable shape, always taking plenty of vigorous exercise. My diet has been decent. Going back to my days as a cricketer I have, for many decades, had a personal rule that I eat nothing but fruit until lunchtime. These days I am a 24/7 vegetarian and have found that regime unexpectedly agreeable.
But here I was, being given the kind of news everybody dreads, trying to work out how to soften the blow for those I care about the most. You wonder, inevitably, if it could have been spotted or investigated sooner. But there is no point trying to turn the clock back, and being over-emotional is not my style. If anything, I surprised myself with my relatively phlegmatic response.
Perhaps it helps that my life has been one of relatively abrupt twists and turns, with events rarely turning out as I expected. I certainly never grew up thinking I would make it as a high-profile athlete in international sport, as there was precious little indication in my childhood or teenage years that my dreams would swiftly become reality.
By the time I left school at 18, after a less than blissful time at grammar school, I was shaping up to be a half-decent bowler with hopes of a county contract, while also being a non-League football goalkeeper. At 21, having only recently broken into the Surrey team, I got a call telling me to get on a flight to Australia to join the England team, the flight leaving in 36 hours. A few months later I had featured in four Ashes Tests in a winning team.
Having played for and captained England over a 14-year period — much longer than I ever thought possible — I never envisaged such a lengthy career in broadcasting, 30 years spent with Sky.
So when I was given my diagnosis, on that spring day, it was another tale of the unexpected to be reckoned with.
When something like this happens, you do take stock and reflect upon all the things that have happened: adding Dylan to my name as an unconventional teenager, in homage to my musical idol; roaring down the hill at Headingley in 1981, in something of a trance, to knock over the Australians; the sleepless nights while captaining England (I have always tended towards insomnia); the fantastic friendships and lifelong bonds anyone lucky enough to play professional team sports establishes.
In my case, I wonder if I allowed myself to enjoy it all enough. And then a second life as a former cricketer, for which I am also grateful, commentating on and analysing the game I love while visiting fascinating places and meeting a huge array of people.
I was first employed by the Beeb in 1985, the year after my body gave up on me as a cricketer. Like most players-turned-commentators, I wasn’t given much formal training; you’re just put in the seat next to the lead person and off you go. In my case it was Richie Benaud, the master. In his very understated way he was tremendously helpful.
I began, like a lot of people who have just left the dressing room, by making excuses for friends when they fouled up or played a bad shot. Richie told me I had to be a bit more critical and not just put a superficial gloss on things.
As it happened, I never wanted to go back into the dressing room after a day’s play to socialise with the likes of David Gower, Allan Lamb or Ian Botham when they were still playing, friendly though I was with them. So by the time I joined Sky four years later my style had evolved. Being plain-speaking came naturally, but it was a conscious thing in that I thought I had to do something different to stay in the job. I resolved to be fairly blunt. I didn’t want to be like Fred Trueman asking what was ‘going off out there’, or banging on about what it was like back in my day.
I wanted to tell it how it is and talk as if I was in the pub with a mate: ‘Why on earth have they picked him?’ What I was determined to avoid was falling in with a lot of what you heard, and still hear, on football, as in the ‘He’ll be disappointed with that’ approach. I will say that something is not good enough, or is unprofessional.
Contrary to some perceptions, I am also keen to hand out praise when I believe it is merited, and I hope that, by the same token, this carries more weight.
Perhaps it can come across as personal, although it isn’t intended that way. For example, I felt obliged, when watching Keaton Jennings play for England, to ask why he could not learn to avoid getting out in the same way all the time. Maybe I should not have called him a ‘robotic stick insect’, but that was the image that came into my head.
When James Vince, clearly a naturally talented player, was batting for England in Tests, he would hit three glorious cover drives before getting caught at second slip — so frustrating for the watching fan, and you had to point it out.
I am also aware we are all human and make mistakes. When Andrew Strauss and Paul Farbrace asked me to meet the England team in 2015, I will admit to a little trepidation, because I have never sought favour with the team of the day. I had given a few fearful stick, people like Adam Lyth and Adil Rashid, but I found myself welcomed and cordially received. I gave them a lot of respect for that.
Trevor Bayliss had told them they would all end up being poacher-turned-gamekeeper one day, that I was just doing my job and they ought to do theirs.
It had become part of Strauss’s philosophy to bridge the schism between the commentary box and dressing room by hearing from the likes of myself, Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain. He had been in the commentary box and knew what we had to offer, although we cannot get involved in coaching in any formal way. Anyway, to my surprise, nobody looked to punch me on the nose.