- Born 19 July 1950 Belfast
- Educated Everton Secondary School, Belfast
- Occupation Engineer
- Debut 25 July 1981 v Scotland at Castle Avenue
- Cap Number 542
- Style Right hand bat; right arm medium pace.
- Teams Woodvale
Robert Wills was almost a self made player. Unlike other Woodvale cricketers of his era such as Stephen Warke, he had no family background in the game. Furthermore, Everton Secondary School might boast Woodvale legend Alfie Redpath on its staff, but it was not known for its cricket, and the young Robert received little formal coaching there. Thus he was not able to slip seamlessly through Schools' XIs at club and representative level to find his niche in senior cricket.
Instead he worked his way up "through the ranks" of Woodvale cricket, being, indeed first seen as a possibly valuable bowler of medium pace swingers, until he finally found his niche as an upper order batsman in the First XI. Thus his rise from Third XI to the Seconds came because of a good bowling performance in the Minor Cup victory of 1973. However once in the Seconds his batting improved, his First's place, finally gained in 1977, being ensured by a well received innings in the Junior Cup Final the previous season. Thereafter he did not look back.
It has been suggested that, as a self confessed late developer as a batsman, he had flaws in his technique. He was, it was claimed, prone to play across the line of the ball. So, it might be argues was a certain IVA Richards! Robert was also accused of leaving too much daylight between bad and pad when he went for his shots. Be that as it may, the ball tended to find the middle of his bat with what bowlers saw as a monotonous regularity, and, equally at home on front or back foot, his timing was always sweet, and his stroke play powerful.
His Guinness Cup debut came in August 1977, when, as a late replacement, he came into the Ulster Town side against South Leinster, at Cherryvale, to make a crucial contribution. Simon Corlett had bowled the visitors out for 184, but four Town wickets had fallen cheaply, when Robert came to the wicket. His 42, second top score, before he was stumped by Des Byrne off Ronnie McDowell, was a key reason for the hosts scrambling home by one wicket. Thereafter, Robert became one of the most consistent batsmen at this level. In all he scored 905 runs at 36.20. His highest score, 72*, came against North Leinster in Phoenix Park in 1981. The hosts had reached 168-6 in their allotted overs, largely thanks to a half century from Irish wicket keeper/batsman Gerry Murphy. Town lost two early wickets but then Robert joined Chris Harte in a 3rd wicket stand of 69, and was undefeated at the end, having seen his team home by 7 wickets.
He was, until his loss of form in 1985, one of the most consistent batsmen in the competition. Thus on 12 July 1978, in an away fixture with North West, always a difficult game for any side, he topscored with 58, before being caught by Colin Clarke off Ray Moan. The Sion off spinner took 4-56 but Robert's knock enabled the visitors to reach 198-6 and to go on to win by 57 runs. This match was followed by one with the formidable North Leinster line up at Ormeau. The early Town batting looked in trouble but then Robert found a good partner in Simon Corlett. Together they added 87 for the 4th wicket. The paceman hit a typically belligerent 44, while Robert went on to 64, before being caught by Alan Hughes off Mike Halliday. The hosts totalled 190-7, with Hughes and Halliday sharing the wickets. North Leinster were dismissed for 177, with Corlett rounding off a fine all round match by taking 3-41. That 87 run partnership had been the match winner.
Two other notable innings came in 1983. At Eglinton, North West were bowled out for 115 with Corlett and Robin Haire doing the damage. Any hopes that the hosts had of pulling off a sensational victory were ended by Robert who stroked his way to an elegant 64*. He recorded the same score against Munster at The Green later in the season. The southerners found the powerful home attack too much and were dismissed for 109. However no Town batsman other than Robert looked comfortable in the reply. He dominated the scoring, the next highest innings being Ian Johnston's 18. Robert also played a crucial innings against South Leinster at Merrion's Anglesea Road ground the following year. The visitors totalled 218-7 in face of some keen bowling. They owed much to Robert's 59, ended by a catch by wicket keeper Bailey off Alan Lewis. In reply South Leinster owed even more to Jack Short. The scores finished level, with the hosts having their last pair at the crease. The Irish opening bat had made 98 before being run out.
That innings was to prove Robert's last interprovincial fifty. For most of the following season he suffered a horrific loss of form, forfeiting his place in the Irish side. He was to have one more worthwhile representative innings of note. This was in 1986 against South Leinster, the tournament now no longer under Guinness sponsorship. Chasing a fair South Leinster score of 204, Town struggled against the Rathmines paceman Ernie Jones (5-38). Robert topscored with 41, but his was not enough to prevent defeat by 42 runs.
For Ireland he scored 863 runs at 25.38 in his 25 matches, between 1981 and 1985, including one century and five fifties. His first season was an outstanding one. As had been the case with the Guinness Cup, he came into the side as replacement, Short being injured. John Prior was also on debut, hitting the third ball he received for 6! Batting fourth wicket down, Robert made a stylish 48, before being caught behind. He put on 92 for the 4th wicket with Ivan Anderson, who was, himself, dismissed for 99, only the second such score achieved for Ireland at the time, Short's innings in the epic win over Sussex at Pagham four years earlier having been the first. Ireland totalled 331-9 declared in reply to the visitors' 210, but too much time was lost to rain for there to be a definite result.
Robert held his place for the English tour, top scoring with 64 in a drawn two day match at Lord's. He was caught behind by Australian Tim Zoeherer, who was to play 10 Tests making 19 dismissals, off former Gloucestershire left arm spinner Phil Thorn. Thorn got him again for 26 in the abortive second innings run chase. After making two 30s in the victory over Wales at Pontradulais, Robert was in the side to play Surrey at The Oval. Ireland were overwhelmed within two days, but Robert again showed his class. He made a staunch 58 in the first innings of 190, putting on 95 for the third wicket with Chris Harte. He was eventually out, caught by New Zealand's future captain Geoff Haworth off slow left armer Giles Cheatle. Unfortunately, he was unable to retain his form in the second innings. Fast bowler Hugh Wilson, a very tall speed merchant, talked of as an England possible at the time, yorking him for the first of his five ducks for Ireland.
Robert was again to show good form against county opposition two years later. Worcestershire came to play two one dayers against Ireland at Rathmines in June. In the first game, veteran Basil D'Oliviera and future New Zealand off spinner Dipak Patel reduced Ireland to 155-9 in their 45 overs. Robert made 59, more than double the next highest score. He was eventually stumped by keeper David Humphries standing up to Steve Perryman, sometime Lisburn professional, a medium pacer who played for both Warwickshire and Worcestershire. The County won with some ease as they did the following day, when Robert was run out for 22.
He was again in the runs on the tour later in the summer. In a remarkable match with Gloucestershire at Bristol, when Ireland fell only 7 runs short, he made 62 in the first innings, Unfortunately, he failed in the second, getting out to medium pacer Phil Bainbridge for 4, when even a modest score might have tipped the scales. Another thirty against Wales was followed by his highest innings for Ireland v MCC at Roehampton. This was a remarkable innings in difficult conditions. MCC made 220-3 declared, then, taking advantage of an uncovered wet wicket, the Cambridge Blue AJ Pollock bowled Ireland out for a paltry 49. That they did better in the follow on was almost entirely due to Robert. He made exactly 100, the next highest score being Garfield Harrison's 32. They rescued Ireland from a humiliating 19-4 to put on 91 for the 4th wicket. Robert also added 56 for the 7th wicket with Paul Jackson. This was Robert's first century in senior cricket, though he had previously reached three figures for Woodvale Thirds. The ICU yearbook noted that, "He batted 211 minutes and faced 193 balls, in an innings of great courage and concentration."
His last innings of any note for Ireland came the following season. MCC were again the opponents, this time at Ormeau. The visitors led off with 236, to which Ireland replies with 312-7 declared. This owed much to a Woodvale second wicket stand between Robert and Stephen Warke. Robert finished with 65, Warke making Ireland's third 99. The lead was enough to set up a 9 wicket victory. A certain Lisburn left armer had a hand in the win, with match figures of 10-64!
Robert was now to enter on a disastrous run of from, which culminated in his losing his place in the national side. After the MCC match, his next four innings brought him 28 runs at 7.00, with a best of 17 v Scotland in 1984. He was dropped just before the Australian match in 1985.
Robert Thomas Wills was never to be seen again in "Irish colours." However, the "self made batsman" from Ballygomartin Road had done enough to ensure that he would have a lasting place as one of the better batsmen to have pulled on an Irish jersey.
Edward Liddle, November 2009