Not a day goes by when I don’t think of Bob Willis, someone so central not just to my career, but to my whole life. I think of Bob the cricketer, the fellow commentator and pundit, the wine lover, music fan and enthusiast for so many of the finer things in life.
Most of all, however, I think of Bob the man, and the enduring friendship that was to be a constant through almost all my adult years.
One memory that stands out is when I first properly met him, just prior to my Test debut in 1977 at Trent Bridge as a 21-year-old. Never one to be overcome with nerves, I was nonetheless slightly anxious.
I was walking out to our net session the day before when I felt this big hand on my shoulder. ‘Just relax and enjoy it. You are going to be fine,’ Bob told me.
As the day, and the match, progressed he went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. Him being a senior player, it left quite an impression.
Almost exactly 40 years later, I was delighted to see Bob had been named by the ICC in the all-time England Test team, as voted by the fans to mark the 1,000th match being played. Bob was one of the very finest bowlers and that rarity, a genuine English quick. He used his height well and had real pace. If there was any bounce in the wicket, he would extract it. I used to stand in the slips to him and quickly recognised I needed to position myself two extra steps back.
We would play 60 Tests together and take 476 wickets between us. I loved opening the bowling with Bob. The fact he played at a high level for so long was testament to what a fighter he was, and not just in the sense you knew he was always up for the battle.
Bob was a bit wary of his own body and, because of the pounding his knees took, he often had to play through pain. His batting was brave, too. It gave hours of amusement watching him, and whenever he got to 20 it felt like a hundred. It was not elegant, but lacked nothing in determination.
Of course, to me he was much more than a bowling partner, and often he served as a mentor and big-brother figure. If I had a problem, on or off the field, we could sit down with a bottle of wine and talk it through. I did not lack self-confidence, whereas Bob was maybe a bit the other way, so we were good for each other. I trusted him, he was always there.
He was relatively shy, and did not suffer fools. He also had a great sense of curiosity, and was always up for organising things or doing something new. On one tour of Pakistan, he decided not to take the team bus to the ground but rode as a pillion passenger on one of the police motorbikes. There he was, looming over the driver, a good yard taller. When he got to the ground, his hair was like a giant cobweb and the police rider was grinning from ear to ear.
That was another thing about Bob: he was great with people and had no airs and graces. Although he could count lots of famous friends from the world of cricket and way beyond, he was always interested in people and their lives, whatever they did.
I recall us driving up north at the time of the miners’ strike and being held at a roadblock. We had to wait for an extra half-hour while Bob talked to everyone because he wanted to find out what was going on. In our playing days, we had our regular watering holes to relax in round the country. Wherever we were in the world, if Bob Dylan was playing within a 300-mile radius, I would get dragged along.
When we worked on television together, there were rounds of golf at Wentworth or Sunningdale followed by very long lunches.
He knew his stuff about a lot of subjects, and had a proper knowledge of wine. The thing he knew more about than anything, though, was cricket. Not just the technical side — he was also well ahead of his time with his ideas about how it should be run. He would write these papers and get me to read them to see what I thought about his vision for four-day cricket, different divisions or other matters. It was a great shame the authorities did not listen to him enough.
He was unique as a commentator and pundit. The Verdict became his niche, and built a large cult following. Players would watch it, and doubtless some would be hoping it was not their number coming up that night. It was born out of his passion for the game.
Of course, the abiding memory most people will have of Bob is Headingley 1981. He was under huge pressure, playing for his England career. When Mike Brearley told him to let it rip as he ran in down the hill, it became a masterclass of delivering the highest-quality performance at a time the team needed it most.
His eight for 43 was one of the most extraordinary things I was lucky enough to witness close up.
So I think about Bob a lot, never more so than when I am in a hut in my garden. It contains a few bottles of wine, among which I know would be a few of his favourites, like a South Australian Riesling or a New Zealand Chardonnay. I will crack one open sometimes, and it will be one of those many occasions when I wonder, ‘What would Bob think about this?’