As Bob Willis, giant among England fast bowlers, lay dying in December 2019, his wife Lauren raised her phone to his ear and played his favourite song, by his favourite artist. Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street‘ may never have been put to more poignant use. ‘He died at the last beat,’ she says.
Dylan, who turns 80 on Monday, had long featured in the life of Willis, who added ‘Dylan’ to his name as a teenager, and once came close to meeting his hero, only to shy away, just in case he proved a letdown.
But in the final seconds before prostate cancer claimed Willis’s life at the age of 70, the Bobs came together. Thanks to an unexpected twist, they are not done yet.
Lauren Clark, the widow of late cricketer Bob Willis, has set up a fund in her bid to battle prostate cancer
Clark, who visited Adelaide, Australia, to lay some of his ashes under a stone in a vinyard, wants to use his name to spread awareness
Willis died from the disease in 2019 but was treated too late after initially seeing a doctor for a urinary tract infection
Driven by a desire to turn her sadness and anger at her husband’s death into a force for good, Lauren – who goes by her maiden name, Clark – has set up the Bob Willis Fund, aimed at improving treatment of a disease that kills one man in the UK every 45 minutes. And Dylan has agreed to be the fund’s honorary patron.
Clark takes up the story. ‘Unbeknown to us, Tim Rice, a friend and survivor of prostate cancer, wrote to Bob Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen. He started with: ‘Dear Jeff, my name is Tim Rice, co-author of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, ‘Evita’ and ‘The Lion King’…’
Musical legend Bob Dylan (left) has joined the cause as honorary patron
‘He went on to explain how amazing Bob was as a cricketer and a man, how he loved Bob Dylan, how Dylan had helped him during difficult times as England captain, and how he’d changed his name aged 16. Then he asked him if he’d be honorary patron.’
How many times can a world-famous singer-songwriter be asked to fill such roles? Astonishingly, Dylan said yes.
Clark says: ‘Tim rang me and said: “How are you?” I said: “Pretty crap”. And he said: “Well, I’m going to cheer you up”. Then he told me. It was like, “wow!”
What would Willis have made of it all? ‘I hope he’d be delighted and amazed,’ she says. ‘But there’s an element of me that thinks he might be a bit embarrassed and annoyed.’
For her next trick, Clark hopes to persuade Dylan and Rosen – who says he has watched cricket on TV at home in New York – to Lord’s.
But one step at a time. She is still grieving the loss of a man she knew for nearly 30 years, and married in 2014.
‘He was my best friend,’ she says. ‘When the celebrant at the funeral asked me to describe Bob in three words, I said “shy, funny and determined”. But Bob’s brother, David, said “Shush, Lauren” – because he was writing a speech for the ceremony and they were the three words he’d chosen too.’
Dylan agreed to be an honorary patron when Tim Clark reached out on behalf of Clark
Clark misses Willis terribly after losing her ‘best friend’, who was ‘shy, funny and determined’
We’re sitting on a bench in one of Willis’s favourite spots in Barnes, south west London, just down the road from Olympic Studios, his cinema of choice. The bench has inspired in Clark, who lives a few minutes along the Thames in Mortlake, a proprietorial attachment. She turns up with a bottle of water and a cloth, wipes away bird droppings, and tuts at the stains left by food and drink.
The inscription is big and bold, and ends with the phrase used for the title of the book about Willis and his life, published last August: ‘A Cricketer and a Gentleman.’ Each chapter is named after a Dylan song.
The response was astonishing. On the day it hit the shelves, it rose to No 2 on Amazon – ‘and they’ve got 10 million books’, says Clark. ‘It was very special. We’re giving the proceeds to Prostate Cancer UK, so that has encouraged people to buy it as well.
‘It’s a love letter to Bob, but I didn’t really know he was loved. I remember going to Australia for the Ashes in 2017-18, and he was really feted there. They’re so into cricket, aren’t they – much more than here. We went to Adelaide and Melbourne, and had the best tickets for every day of the Test. He never got anything like that in the UK. Occasional offers from MCC, but he didn’t push himself.’
A book about the life of Bob Willis was a hit seller on Amazon, and proceeds will be donated to Prostate Cancer UK
Now, Clark is giving him a helping hand. When England play Pakistan in the third one-day international on July 13, Edgbaston will be painted ‘Blue for Bob’ – just as Australia’s SCG routinely goes pink for Jane McGrath, and Lord’s red for Ruth Strauss, who were both taken early by cancer.
The hope is that Edgbaston, where Willis called home following his move from Surrey to Warwickshire in 1972 until his retirement in 1984, will host an annual fundraiser. And Clark would love the ground to turn blue for a Test match – Willis’s favourite format.
‘Prostate cancer is the No 1 diagnosed cancer in the UK now, ahead of breast cancer, but I feel a lot of people don’t know what a prostate is,’ she says. ‘They certainly don’t think it’s something that can kill you.
‘Government puts £75m towards research a year, which is not enough. And there’s no national screening programme for this, because the PSA [prostate-specific antigen] test, which is the only way of diagnosing it at the moment, is unreliable. But it’s not unreliable for all men, and I don’t want to put them off having the test.’
There will be a fundraiser at Edgbaston for Prostate Cancer UK in memory of Willis
This is where the anger comes in. Willis initially visited the doctor because of a urinary tract infection, but the cancer was not diagnosed until nearly four months later – mainly because the PSA reading was misleadingly low.
‘I rang him, and he said: “I’ve got prostate cancer”. He didn’t want to talk about it at that point, but we went pescatarian that day. You try to do things that can help.
‘We went to see a urologist, who said: “It’s not life-threatening, but it will be in three to five years without treatment”. I’m angry about loads of things. He had all the treatments thrown at him, and he lived for three years and eight months.
‘Bob was let down by the PSA test. It might not have saved his life, but four months’ earlier treatment would have helped. They just don’t know enough about this. They don’t know what they’re dealing with.’
Clark was 13 when Willis first entered her orbit. It was the summer of ’81, and he had just taken eight for 43 to complete the Ashes miracle at Headingley – even if it was Ian Botham who first grabbed her attention.
Willis captained England during a stellar career in cricket and took 325 Test wickets
A decade later, while working in sports publishing, she embarked on a relationship with the married Willis. It made the front pages. They broke up, then reunited in 2005. In 2014, they married.
‘I’ve known him, or about him, for a big part of my life, but I certainly didn’t think in 1981 that I would end up marrying him,’ she says.
‘He was shy, which didn’t come across on TV, did it? He didn’t say much, but when he did, people listened. He was sort of romantic, but not in a flowers kind of way. He was funny, very funny. We laughed a lot. And he was needy.
‘He was bored easily if I wasn’t there. If I went to work, I’d have to find a film for him to watch. He’d run to the front door – he was a bit like a puppy, to be honest. We just had this most amazing relationship.’
Willis took 325 Test wickets and captained his country, but he had passions besides cricket and Dylan – principally wine, Wagner and Manchester City. ‘He took me to a Wagner opera, Parsifal,’ says Clark, a Spurs fan. ‘It lasted five and a half hours. It was appalling.’
An avid supporter of Man City and a lover of wine, Willis’ world extended far beyond cricket
What of the on-screen curmudgeon? ‘He did want the England team to do well, but I always loved it when they didn’t because, like everyone on Twitter, I couldn’t wait for ‘The Verdict’ or ‘The Debate’ on Sky. I used to wind him up a bit beforehand, have a moan, and he’d copy it on air.’
Then Lauren’s world fell apart. Soon after Bob’s death, she visited friends in Australia, and lay some of his ashes to rest under a stone in a vineyard in Adelaide – one of his favourite cities. Not long after returning home, Britain entered its first Covid lockdown, leaving Clark to grieve alone.
‘It was that awful word “household”, because back then you weren’t even allowed to be in a bubble. I’ve never lived on my own before. It was just awful. I think I’m institutionalised by it now, but it’s not easy. And it doesn’t get any easier.
‘I’m now really obsessed with grief, and how people don’t understand it. You don’t understand it until you’ve been through it. That’s not people’s fault. They just say the wrong things, or they say time’s a great healer. No it isn’t: it’s just a longer time since I haven’t seen him.
Clark has opened up on her grief and how the Covid-19 lockdown compounded her struggles
‘I have a therapist, and I did a lot of art, which turned into the design of county cricket’s Bob Willis Trophy. I used to paint Bob in Cubism form while listening to ‘Desert Island Discs’. That got me through a lot. Then, at four o’clock, I’d start drinking. Not Italian wine – only the ones he likes: Australian Riesling or American chardonnay.’
Clark misses him terribly – even the ‘annoying’ stuff. ‘He used to put darks in with my whites in the washing machine. He wasn’t practical. Everything to do with what a man might stereotypically be good at, he’d say: ‘Let’s get a man in.’ Or I’d do it. I’d change the lightbulb and he’d do the cooking. He was very domesticated.’
And he never complained about his fate. ‘He’d be doing the Ashes on Sky, and he might have had a blood transfusion that morning. Nobody knew. He was really brave and determined. He just said yes to anything – every horrible treatment.’
She wants part of her husband’s legacy to be a symbol driving awareness towards battling prostate cancer
Part of Clark’s motivation is that more men learn to confront prostate cancer. On June 20, Father’s Day, Lancashire will lay on 300 PSA tests at the T20 match against Nottinghamshire at Emirates Old Trafford. The venture will be run by the Barry Kilby Prostate Cancer Awareness Charity – Kilby, former chairman of Burnley FC, is a sufferer himself – and was arranged by Lancashire’s director of cricket Paul Allott, one of Willis’s best friends.
‘The first part of Bob’s life was growing up and being a cricketer,’ says Clark. ‘Then the second part was pretty much the broadcaster. I want the third part to be a legacy to prostate cancer, to make it worthwhile that he died in some way.
‘Yes, I’m driven by the fact that Bob died, and I’m not just accepting it. I don’t want him to be dead, obviously, but it’s a way of keeping his name alive. And I do feel a responsibility to use his name to raise awareness, and hopefully save a few lives.’
To donate to the Bob Willis fund, visit www.bobwillisfund.org