Saved for the best
Some say you should never meet your heroes. In general I would not agree but might make an exception if the said hero was met by way of introduction from Derek Pringle. It was at Southampton, the old Northlands ground, 11 years ago that I first properly came across my favourite cricketer of all time by a remarkable confluence of circumstances.
I had recently been installed as the cricket correspondent of the Daily Mail and a few of us were down there. Play had been washed out and I was in the deserted old pavilion with Pringle when in walked Peter Willey. "Hey Will, this bloke says you were his childhood idol," boomed Pring, recalling a recent conversation between us. I went a shade of crimson, for it was true. Not being the demonstrative type, the now umpire smiled archly and I issued an awkward semi-denial. On every occasion I have come across him since I have always been rather sheepish.
The reason I regarded Willey with such awe stems from the fact that my grandfather Herbert Saxby, who first gave me the love of cricket, was a vice-president of Northamptonshire. This is less grand than it sounds as there were plenty of them, in the manner of some grand American corporation. He first took me to the County Ground at the age of nine. I was soon hooked and summer holidays would involve at least one week staying with him when Northants had a run of home matches, including those at Wellingborough School. It was my proud boast that I was the junior member who lived farthest from Wantage Road, and by a long way, as I hailed from the Wirral.
At the time Northants had a strong North-East connection, a somewhat worthier association than the recent one involving South Africa, and Peter was part of the influx of Geordies brought in to boost the Cinderella county. When I first started going, in 1973, the bowling was strong but the batting weak, although there were glimmers of hope in the emerging Geoff Cook and the incomparable Wayne Larkins.
I now discover that I first saw Will (if I may be so familiar to call him that) on June 2, when he ran himself out after briefly smacking Leicestershire around in the Benson & Hedges Cup. I had never seen such a strong and handsome man so upset as he walked in past us, and this made an impression. He had made his first-team debut long before, as a 16-year-old marked down for great things with his early sight of the ball and punishing back-foot strokeplay.
In line with his county's rising fortunes his breakthrough season came in 1976, when he was picked to take on the frightening West Indies pace attack, acquitting himself honourably with 36 and 45 in the first of two Tests and then being Man of the Match in the Gillette Cup final victory over the hot favourites Lancashire, one of life's best days.
But it was not enough to gain selection for the winter tours and he was to slide into a crisis of confidence, introspection and injuries, through which I shared his pain.
By 1979 he was restored and given his one consistent period of England selection, coinciding with two series against West Indies, against whose terrors he would not shrivel. The selectors recognised that nobody showed more courage against the Caribbean bombardment. Neither friend nor foe, not even Beefy, messed with Willey and his blacksmith's forearms.
It is an eternal grouse of his supporters that he was not given an extended chance to pluck some of the lower-hanging fruit that was around at the time. Of his 26 Tests 15 were against the best team of the era and half his one-day internationals too. Almost everything else was against Australia but his two Test hundreds came against opposition who seemed personally reserved for him, one at The Oval, the other in Antigua. On being dropped he apparently once told a friend of my grandfather: "Wait till the world champions turn up, then I'll get back in."
Marshall, Holding, Roberts - he faced them all in their pomp and became a serviceable offspinner when his knees stopped him bowling medium pace. What also defined my hero and fascinated me was his quirky batting stance. He started to open it early in his career and slowly it came round, like the shadow of a sundial, until he was facing the umpire full in the face. Purists were horrified and more technically minded commentators cautioned youngsters with a sort of "don't try this at home" tone.
But it never put me off, not with my own purchase of the early Slazenger V12 that he used, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. I even forgave him for moving to Leicestershire later in his career.
As a no-nonsense umpire he has been as uncompromising as he was as a player and for me an excellent source of occasional quotes and strong opinions. There have not been enough appearances for him at international level in this role either as with the advent of neutral umpires he chose not to opt for that friendless existence of travelling the world almost alone. Any system that gives Daryl Harper more Tests than Peter Willey must have something wrong with it.
Few things have made me reflect more on the passage of time than first seeing his son David now turn out in the maroon of Northamptonshire. But then we can all have our memories.
Mike Dickson, formerly cricket correspondent of the Daily Mail, is now a tennis and sports writer for the newspaper. This article was first published in the Wisden Cricketer