1981 August 3, 2005

The hero who almost didn't play

Bob Willis, one of the heroes of Headingley 1981, wasn't even in the original squad picked for the Test

Bob Willis: left out of the squad © Getty Images

The exploits of Ian Botham at Headingley in 1981 are the stuff of legend, but Bob Willis's last-day performance, grabbing 8 for 43 as Australia were bowled out for 111 would, in almost any other match, have made him the hero. What is less well known, however, is that Willis was not even in the original squad picked for the Test.

At the end of the second Test at Lord's, Ian Botham had been sacked as captain and replaced with his predecessor, Mike Brearley. Three days later the selectors - Alec Bedser, Brian Close, Charles Elliott, John Edrich and Brearley - met at Lord's. Once it had been agreed that Botham would be retained, Willis's fitness was the next subject up for discussion.

By 1981 Willis was increasingly fragile. He had broken down before the first Test in the Caribbean the previous winter, and although he had returned for the first two Tests of the summer, taking 8 for 183, he had contracted a chest infection and was expected to sit out Warwickshire's county match at The Oval that weekend and, according to Bernard Thomas, the England physiotherapist, would not be fit to resume training until the following Tuesday, 48 hours before the start of the Leeds Test.

Brearley was concerned. In Australia in 1978-79 Willis had come down with a similar ailment and had been out of sorts for the remainder of the tour. There were also doubts about his general fitness and stamina anyway in what was a six-match series.

An attempt to speak to Willis proved fruitless, although Thomas was contacted who suggested that training could be brought forward 24 hours to Monday. With doubts remaining, the decision was made to leave him out of the 12-man squad in the hope he would be fit for the fourth Test at Edgbaston. Bedser was given the unenviable task of breaking the news.

The next day, Willis, who was watching Warwickshire at The Oval, was contacted by Bedser and was shocked to be told that he had been dropped. Even though Brearley had been adamant he did not want a half-fit bowler in the side, Willis was not going to take the news lying down. "Although it took me some while to convince Alec that I had little doubt about my fitness for the game," he recalled, "I effectively talked my way back into the team."

Willis and England physio Bernard Thomas © Getty Images
Bedser eventually spoke to Brearley at tea-time and the captain agreed that Willis could be reinstated as long as he played in the next day's 40-over match and also turned out for the second XI on the Tuesday. He also said that Willis had to bowl 12 overs flat out in the nets in between.

"Mike Hendrick's invitation to play was intercepted before it could reach him," Willis explained. "My name was among those read out to the waiting world on the midday news the following day."

Even then, Willis almost missed out. Although he came through the three tasks set by Brearley without a hitch and joined the other 11 at Headingley on the day before the Test, Brearley was still leaning towards playing a spinner, John Emburey, at the expense of one of the seamers. "Bob, who probably imagined that Chris Old would be left out if Emburey played, opted - uncertainly - for four seamers," Brearley reflected. "Finally, I too came down, with equal tentativeness, on the same side. The selectors inclined the other way, but let me have the side I preferred."

In Australia's first innings Willis bowled well but without luck, finishing with 0 for 72 from 30 overs. In the second innings, with Australia needing 130, Ian Botham and Graham Dilley were given the new ball, although the wayward Dilley was replaced by Willis after two overs. Willis huffed up the hill into the wind for five wicketless overs before suggesting to Brearley that he switch ends. Brearley consulted with Bob Taylor and Botham and agreed. The rest is history.

Original England squad Graham Gooch, Geoff Boycott, Mike Brearley, David Gower, Mike Gatting, Peter Willey, Ian Botham, John Emburey, Bob Taylor, Graham Dilley, Chris Old, Mike Hendrick.

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Phoenix From The Ashes - Mike Brearley (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982)
Lasting The Pace - Bob Willis (Willow, 1985)
Wisden Cricket Monthly - Various
The Cricketer - Various

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo