'When I became an umpire, I didn't realise how complicated this game was'

Peter Willey talks about suiting up against '80s West Indies, why it's great to umpire in England, and talking to the press from his bath

Interview by Scott Oliver |

"If you go out with no fear, you've got half a chance" Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

People keep asking me: "Are you the Willey from 'The bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey'?" "Yes, I am."

I had a really bad knee injury when I was 21. I had an operation in June or July, and when I came round the surgeon said I might never play again. I went up to see the secretary, Ken Turner, and he said: "If you're not fit, we'll get rid of you." So I thought, "Bollocks to the lot of you." And that's perhaps why I turned out like I did. I might have been a nice bloke before then.

I wasn't guaranteed to play Test cricket. The South African Breweries had offered me X amount of pounds for six weeks cricket, and you jump at it.

I opened up my stance in 1976, just a little bit, and scored a hell of a lot more runs. Then, almost without me noticing it, I got further and further round. We played New Zealand at Lord's and I saw myself on a video and thought, "Christ, I can't go and bat at Lord's like that!" But it worked for me. With all the West Indian quick bowlers, it made it easier to play off your chest, or your hip. I scored more runs standing like that than the correct way.

I tell you what does piss me off - people keep getting Geoff Miller and myself mixed up. Last year I was at Morrison's in Canterbury: "Geoff, can you sign this for me please?" I said, "No, I'm Peter from Northampton. That's Geoff from Derby." But I always said, if you could put his bowling with my batting, you'd have a pretty good cricketer.

Northants' first Lord's final, beating Lancashire, was marvellous. I remember the club saying they weren't going to give us any complementary tickets, so I said: "Okay, we're not going to play in the game".

David's a bit more flamboyant than I was. You try to rein him in a bit when he's batting but he's just a free spirit. I've given him some advice - he takes some in, passes on some, but eventually he comes back and says, "Well, perhaps you were right, Dad".

There have only been three Tests where a team following on has won, and I've been involved in two of them.

Greigy probably picked me because I was perceived as a tough customer. Probably it was good in one way, because I got picked, but I got 15 Tests [out of 26] against West Indies.

I moved to Seaham Harbour when I was eight. My dad took me to their nets, I played my first game for their third team when I was 11, and I got in the first team when I was 15. At the time, Northants had a scout up there called Dougie Ferguson. He sent me down to Northampton for a trial. I stopped at Edgbaston for a trial on the way back as well. I had a choice between the two, and came to Northamptonshire. I just thought they were a bit more of a friendly club at the time. I left school at 15 and a half.

It would have been nice to have played for Durham.

At Old Trafford in 1998, I remember no one being sure how many overs were lost with a change of innings - whether it was the one in progress plus two, or that over and one more. I asked the third umpire and he hadn't got any idea, so I said to Angus Fraser, "For god's sake, just bat it out, because we could have a bit of a cock-up here." There could have been phone calls to the ICC and everything.

I do remember running out on the last morning at Headingley, and for the first time ever, with the atmosphere, I had goose pimples on my arms. That Test, and the next one at Edgbaston, were the only two I was involved in that England won. Out of 26.

"If I hadn't played a stupid shot at Headingley, Botham wouldn't have got in - then it could have been 'Willey's Ashes'"

Beefy and me were good mates. We understood each other. He didn't mess about with me and I didn't bother him.

I never practised my "out" signal. My first first-class game was at Cambridge University and I had five lbws before lunch. Ray Julien was at square leg spitting blood because I was 5-0 up. I gave a couple of them out right-handed because I had a sore shoulder, and it didn't feel right. I didn't get the same satisfaction.

If it pitches outside leg stump and it's going to hit the stumps, the batsman should be out.

After the game at The Oval [in 1980] I did my press conference from the bath. I was due to travel down to Southampton for the semi-final of the Gillette Cup to play the very next day, and the press came downstairs. So I said, "I'm not getting out of the bath. You can have a chat now if you want." Times have changed.

The fourth day [Kolkata 2001], Australia took the new ball and we thought, "We're going to have a day off here", but Laxman and Dravid batted all day. I don't think I had an appeal from my end, if I'm honest.

If I hadn't played a stupid shot at Headingley, Botham wouldn't have got in - then it could have been "Willey's Ashes".

Whether it's me or not, I don't know, but my games have been pretty quiet. I've had the respect of the players. I've respected them. Having played, you can see things building up. You can have a quiet word and stop things before it gets stupid.

If we go out in poor light and somebody gets hurt through trying to keep 30,000 people happy, it's a bit unfortunate on the bloke whose career might be finished. It's all right sitting in the stands and grumbling, but they haven't got to face a bloke bowling 90mph.

I was at Old Trafford on standby in 1976 for the Test against West Indies, in case anyone wasn't fit. Thank goodness they were fit.

I enjoyed captaining Leicestershire. The most difficult thing was working the bowling out in one-day cricket. I used to get Laurie Potter or someone else to do it.

I scored the first Test hundred at the Antigua Rec. They had the prisoners rolling the pitch.

I was quite lucky: I never really suffered with nerves. Slight apprehension before big games, maybe, but deep down you've got to believe you're good enough.

After the injury in 1971, I got fit and bowled seam for another couple of years, and then the knees went again. So that's when I started to bowl offspin. When I was a kid, my dad said: "Practise everything: offspin, legspin, seam; you never know when it might come in handy."

West Indies' Reon King and Franklyn Rose with Willey at Old Trafford in 2000

West Indies' Reon King and Franklyn Rose with Willey at Old Trafford in 2000 © PA Photos

It was a lot easier to bowl spin in my day. Now you come on and they just smack you - reverse-sweeping you for six and those sorts of things. You can pitch a ball in one place and they can hit you to any part of the ground. When I was bowling, they hit you where you expected to be hit.

Boycott's a bloke you either love or you hate. There's no in between. I roomed with him in the West Indies and he lent me a bat - he never got it back. When you get to know him, he's all right. He tells it how it is. Even his Mum tells it how it is. She was a hell of a player.

There's just something that clicks in your brain. Having played so many games, you think: "That's going to hit the stumps."

One of my early Tests, India played Australia in Delhi on a shocking pitch. I had a nightmare. It's very difficult when the ball's going at all angles. The pitch looked like a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Before the Test match at The Oval [in 1976], we had a practice on the Wednesday and the nets were terrible. I had a bat against three or four spinners and just had a slog. The selectors were 100 yards away, watching, and thought, "Well, there's no point taking him to India because he can't play spin bowlers." It might have been a good thing - it might have been too early for me, really, if I'm honest. In those days, you used to listen to the radio at 12 o'clock on a Sunday to find out if you were selected. If your surname begins with "W", you're a long way down the list.

I didn't get an offer from Packer. I wasn't that good. I'd have been tempted, though, because the money we got for playing county cricket wasn't very good.

I wasn't frightened, and I ducked the bouncer quite well. Andy Roberts came to Leicester a few years later and said that if anybody left bouncers well, they didn't bother bowling them. If you go out with no fear, you've got half a chance.

When Bob [Willis] came in, just after lunch [at The Oval in 1980], I think I was 13 not out. We were only 150 [197] on. God knows how we survived. Bob was a real No 11. If there'd been a No. 12, he'd have been one. He said, "I'll take so-and-so…" - either Garner or Marshall - "…and you can have the rest." Gordon Greenidge dropped him in the slips, and I think that was the only chance either of us gave. But I didn't realise I was getting close to a hundred; I was just thinking about the time.

"If it pitches outside leg stump and it's going to hit the stumps, the batsman should be out"

We've got a marvellous game in England. You get the odd one who questions your decisions, but we stamp on them straightaway. The county game is run very well, and the players respect the umpires 99.9% of the time. It's lovely to umpire in.

I'd scored 1700-odd runs and taken 50-odd wickets, but Northants only offered me a one-year contract. They said that was all they offered people who'd had a benefit. I said my piece in the dressing room. I thought, "No, I've spent 17 years here, I'm worth more than that." So I told them I wasn't accepting that, and that was it - I moved to Leicester.

It's an underlying psychological thing: players would rather be given out by former professional players than by what you might call "amateur" umpires. But those blokes have done well, because it's been twice as hard for them to reach this level than any ex-professional cricketer.

The over Holding bowled to Boycott in Barbados was quick. I was batting at seven, and I started putting my thigh pad and box on.

When I was young they said, "Go into the bar - you don't have to have a drink - and listen." You learnt so much from listening to other cricketers. Even when I was retired, listening to Malcolm Marshall talk about coaching West Indies, you were still learning about the game.

When I became an umpire, I didn't realise how complicated this game was. When you're playing, you bowl, you bat, and you don't realise what's going on. And it's getting more complicated, with television replays, different competitions, and everything.

The hardest decisions to give out are bat-pad. Years ago, when we had the horsehair leather, the sound was very different. The ball hitting the pad now sounds similar to it hitting the bat.

We needed five runs for a bonus point in one game, the ninth wicket had just fallen, and Les Taylor was due in. But we couldn't find him. I went in the physio's room and Aggers was giving him ultrasound treatment, so I had to declare.

Michael Holding was a lovely fast bowler to face. He was quick but nice to face. You could see the ball. Colin Croft had an unusual action and was pretty nasty to face.

The Holy Grail for umpires is dealing with mistakes. You've just got to forget about it as quick as you can.

Perhaps I've been very sad, but I'm 64 and all I've thought about is cricket, really.

Scott Oliver tweets here