Rob Steen: Did this man play cricket’s most defiant innings?

In a County Championship match at Grace Road in 1971, Glamorgan were teetering on a decidedly unprincely 11 for 8 when Don Shepherd joined Peter Walker. Aware that the lowest first-class total was 12, legend has it Walker said to his new partner: “Well, Don, shall we stick around and get a few runs, or get out and make history?” They chose the first, raising the final tally to 24.

Posterity does not record what words of wisdom Peter Willey imparted to Bob Willis as England’s unredoutable No.11 joined him at the crease at The Oval nine summers later to face the strident music of the West Indies pace orchestra with the scoreboard reading 92 for 9, the lead 197 and the best part of four hours remaining.

Suffice to say they too decided to stick around, only for a great deal longer and to rather more profitable effect than Shepherd and Walker, their adhesiveness enough to turn Mr Araldite green with envy. In defying Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner and Colin Croft, they doubled the score and saved the match, raising the bar for resistance fighters the world over.

That Willey celebrates his 62nd birthday this week offers an excuse to commemorate that unlikely alliance, but there’s another. In Cape Town last month, Australia’s Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon joined forces at 20 for 9 and added 25; the ‘Two Ws’ had been the only previous final pair to double the score in a Test.

In all, Willey and Willis added 117 beneath those glowering gasholders in 1980 without being parted. The product of their devoted labours amounted to 55.98% of the final tally – just shading Siddle and Lyon, whose stand accounted for 55.31% of the collective aggregate.

Given that he stacked up 26 seasons and more than 1,000 matches as a professional for Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Eastern Province, collecting 35,000-plus runs, 1100-plus wickets, 54 hundreds, 26 Tests, 26 ODIs and two centuries for Queen and country, then donned a white jacket and made himself one of the best umpires in the game, Willey’s life in cricket has been immensely fruitful.

He has also lent his name to both the most assonant scorebook entry in the history of flannelled tomfoolery (Lillee c Willey b Dilley) and quite possibly the most risqué one-liner in six decades of Test Match Special (Brian Johnston’s inimitably Carry On-esque “The batsman’s Holding, the bowler’s Willey”). It is the richly-earned reputation as the hard man’s hard man, nonetheless, which will endure far longer.

Strong of mind, opinion and forearm (legend has it that he was the only member of an England dressing room ever to make Ian Botham think twice about playing a prank or throwing his beefiness around), few English players of the past half-century have commanded more respect from his peers. David Gower admired his “bluff and forthright” manner; Geoff Boycott saw his directness as “the best reason” for employing him; Graham Gooch counted him as a good friend, a soul brother to whom the easy option was never an option.

Botham himself regarded Willey with something approaching awe. “I had a lot of respect for him because he was tough, he fought fire with fire and would not be intimidated. If you wanted a good and hard true pro, then Peter Willey was your man. He had his moans now and again but when it came to the crunch he was the player you wanted next to you.”

All of which may go some way to explaining why, when the going got toughest, the call went out for ‘Will’. And why, conversely, he had to wait until his 19th Test before having an excuse to crack open the bubbly: in half his one-dayers and more than half his Tests (15) the opposition were the rampant West Indies sides of 1976-86. Both his Test tons came against them, the other being in Antigua in early 1981, and three of his five half-centuries; between August 1976 and May 1986 only Gooch and Gower managed more runs for England against Holding, Marshall, Garner and Co than Willey’s 757.

But let’s scroll back to The Oval, scene of the fourth Test of the 1980 Wisden Trophy rubber. One down after losing a nip-and-tuck opener at Trent Bridge by two wickets and then drawing the next two after accepting every drop of assistance the perennial clouds had to offer, England were feeling pretty pleased with themselves late on the fourth afternoon of another sodden contest. Graham Dilley (4 for 57) had polished off the West Indies for 265, the lead was 105, and defeat for once unthinkable. The upbeat mood was soon dashed as Croft and Holding struck twice apiece to leave Botham’s team in disarray: 20 for 4 at stumps.

Relegated to No.8 by Emburey’s fruitless turn as nightwatchman, by the time Willey took guard, 35 minutes before lunch on the final day, the scoreboard read 67 for 6. Twenty-five runs later Willis was padding in: the tourists – even with Croft and Garner injured – could scent an improbable series-clinching victory. Who better than John Arlott, waxing lyrical in Wisden Cricket Monthly, to describe what followed?

“If Willis had been caught at slip off Marshall at 111 West Indies still could probably have won with relative ease. They had no further chance. Willey batted coolly and well, taking care to guard Willis from Holding….Willey, batting with eminently sound judgment, steady in defence, positive in his attacking strokes, dealt impressively with Holding.”

In all, Willey stood firm for four minutes shy of four hours, punctuating resolute defence with 16 boundaries. Willis, incredibly, remained unbowed too: the 171 minutes and 114 balls he withstood for his own heroic unbeaten 24 were both career highs. Twenty minutes after stumps were drawn, Willey received the gentlemen (and otherwise) of the press while standing in the bath covered in suds. It was no time for modesty.

The tone, typically, was bone-dry. “I read in the papers every morning where they say ‘he can’t bat’ and ‘he can’t bowl’ etcetera,” said Willey. “It was very satisfying – one of the easiest hundreds I’ve ever made, as a matter of fact…perhaps they’ll keep me in for another Test match.”

As unlikely centuries go, Willey’s exquisitely rounded, unbeaten 100 occupies exalted territory. So much so, in fact, that becoming just the sixth England No.8 to make such hay was no more than an incidental detail (intriguingly, the previous man to do so, Ray Illingworth, had shared, with Ken Higgs, arguably the most transformative last-wicket stand in first-class annals, dragging Leicestershire from 45 for 9 to 273 against Northants).

In Tests, only Asif Iqbal has reached three figures from a more parlous collective plight – and on the same ground to boot. In 1967, Pakistan plunged to 53 for 7 in their second innings before the impish all-rounder’s ebullient 146 hauled them to 255 all out; 13 years later, Willey was at the other end when England’s seventh wicket fell at 73; unlike Asif, he kept defeat at bay.

Better yet, he stands proud and alone in one irresistible respect: in any Test innings where the ninth wicket has fallen with the total yet to attain 100, nobody else has ever scored a century. Nobody. Bloody-minded isn’t the half of it. Forget Superman – here was the real Man of Steel.

Happy birthday, ‘Will’.

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