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Fiery Fred

Fiery Fred

A fast bowler at full tilt is the most thrilling sight in cricket. Generally it may be a batsman’s game, but just like in Roman times when the Christians were thrown to the lions, there is fascination in the contest between the man who hurls a piece of leather on a trajectory that is quite capable of maiming its target, at a man with nothing more than a piece of willow with which to defend his castle.

The quick men fascinate me, and I have enjoyed writing about many of them. Some of those whose stories I have told, like Sylvester Clarke, John Snow and Alan Ward, I have had the pleasure of watching live. For others, like Frank Tyson, Tom Richardson and my personal favourite, Harold Larwood, I have had to rely on the writings of others with, in the case of Larwood and Tyson, assistance from old black and white footage.

In a slightly different category comes Frederick Sewards Trueman. Without a doubt one of the greatest of all opening bowlers Trueman is a man who I saw play several times in the twilight of his career. I have also seen all the famous footage of the stirring deeds of the younger, faster tearaway bowler that he originally was.

The former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson once described Trueman as the “Greatest Living Yorkshireman”, an assessment with which the man who wanted John Arlott to give the 1971 biography that eventually emerged as “Fred: A Portrait of a Fast Bowler” the title “The Story of t’ Greatest Bloody Fast Bowler Who Ever Drew Breath” would doubtless have agreed. It is not without irony that, politically, blue was very much the colour for Trueman, but fellow Yorkshireman Wilson clearly admired him, and by all accounts wanted the newly retired Trueman to be knighted in the late 1960s, and did his best to bring that about only for Lord’s to block the decision. Certainly that is what Trueman himself always believed to be the case.

In the past I have fought shy of writing about Trueman, the problem being the sheer weight of material available, and the twin difficulties of keeping any piece to a reasonable size, not to mention identifying what is myth and what is reality. There are no less than four autobiographies; Fast Fury, The Freddie Trueman Story, Ball of Fire and As it Was, published in 1961, 1965, 1976 and 2004 respectively. In addition to the Arlott biography fellow Test Match Special commentator Don Mosey published a life of the great bowler in 1991, and Chris Waters’ posthumous account published in 2011 was the most recent, I hesitate to say last. In addition there have been many, many thousands of other words written about Trueman. The problem of just where to start has, in the past, been the disincentive to my beginning to prepare a feature about Trueman.

But some things have to be done, and this one cannot be put off any longer particularly as, having written about Bill Bowes in the past, I cannot realistically maintain that I have left Trueman out on account of his being from the wrong side of the Pennines.

So to start with I will throw in a few statistics, and given that right to the end of his life Trueman himself could reel them off I will make no apology for doing so. There were 2,304 First Class wickets at 18.29 over 20 years – amongst fast bowlers only Brian Statham bears comparison. In the Test arena there were 307 scalps at 21.57, in just 67 matches. In the period that stretched between Trueman’s debut (in 1952 against India), and his final appearance (in 1965 against New Zealand) England played more than 120 Tests, and Trueman was always fit – had he not been omitted so often for what amounted to non-cricketing reasons he would probably have set records that, for pace bowlers, would still stand to this day.

Trueman was only 18 when he was called straight into Yorkshire’s first team to play Cambridge University in 1949, and he never tired of recounting that the 1950 Wisden described the debutant as a spin bowler. Three editions later he was one of the Almanack’s “Five Cricketers of the Year” after his famous exploits against India in his first Test series. At Headingley in the opening match he reduced the tourists to 0-4 in their second innings, and at Old Trafford took 8-31 in less than nine overs to secure what were, at the time, the best ever Test figures for an out and out pace bowler. The Wisden article compared his bowling that day to Larwood at his very best. The writer continued on the theme;Like Larwood he is stocky and strong in the back and very lively with the opening new ball of the innings. He has the speed too ….before noting, finally and presciently, that like the Notts Express he was a forthright, outspoken young man with a determination to succeed.

Fellow Yorkshireman Michael Parkinson explained what the batsman saw; The walk back to his mark, the bandy-legged, broad-beamed swagger, the arrogant display of wide shoulders and muscular forearms was a crude declaration of a formidable physical presence. When he turned you would not have been surprised had he pawed the ground. As it was, after the first few accelerating strides, he glided rather than ran to the wicket and with his final, fulminating stride, left arm thrown high, the perfectly side-on stretch of his body described the arc of a bow.

As the years rolled on Trueman gained in guile and craft, and whilst Anno Domini took from him a little of his pace and power the fire in his belly never diminished, and Parkinson’s description of the famous action remained as accurate at the end of the Trueman career as it had been at the beginning.

There was general surprise that, after his success against India, Trueman did not meet the 1953 Australians until the final Test when, with four first innings wickets before Jim Laker and Tony Lock spun England to victory later in the match, he played his part in England regaining the Ashes for the first time since Jardine’s Bodyline tour, twenty years previously. He went to West Indies in 1953/54 but had a torrid time, taking just nine expensive wickets in the three Tests in which he played. His reputation as the enfant terrible of English cricket was confirmed in the Caribbean, and he missed 23 out of the next 26 Tests England played.

That Trueman may not have been on his best behaviour throughout that tour of the West Indies must have been the case, and he was of course young and immature and had just, after a poor upbringing and post-war austerity followed by National Service, found himself on every cricket mad 22 year old’s dream holiday. His natural enthusiam and exuberance coupled with his a lack of diplomacy skills meant he ruffled many feathers, but he was often wrongly accused. The “Pass the salt Gunga Din” remark that he is supposed to have made at a function on this tour is a complete fiction, the more remarkable because no one has ever claimed to have actually heard it said. On another occasion he was widely criticised for a display of petulance on the field when the ball was thrown to the ground in disgust after a clear slip catch was not given. The culprit was Tom Graveney, but despite Long Tom always accepting that the story stuck to Trueman.

It was 1957, five years too late, before Trueman became an automatic selection for England, and from then on almost to the very end he was a model of consistency. There were some magnificent performances along the way the best, probably, being the third Ashes Test of the 1961 series. In their first innings Australia, one up in the series, got to tea on the opening day at a comfortable 183-2. In the course of six overs Trueman then took 5-16 to hustle Australia towards an all out total of 237. If that was impressive work with the old ball his second innings performance was more remarkable still. At 99-2 Australia were 37 in front with Neil Harvey and Norman O’Neill both looking well set. This time the five-fer took only four overs, and cost but a single run. In the match he had 11-88, not quite his best performance, but this was the Test above all others that came to be known as Trueman’s Match.

The best figures came when Trueman was 32, leading England’s attack in the best series the 1960s produced, that in 1963 against Frank Worrell’s West Indians. The men in the maroon caps won the Wisden Trophy 3-1, and it took two superb performances from Trueman to prevent a clean sweep. The Lord’s draw is famous because Colin Cowdrey went out to bat at the end with a broken arm to help England hang on, but without Trueman’s 6-100 and 5-52 the match would have been gone long before that nerve-jangling denouement. In the next Test England levelled the rubber. In a series in which four West Indian batsmen averaged more than 40, and Conrad Hunte came in just short of 60, the tourists were dismissed for 186 and 91, 5-75 and 7-44 being Trueman’s contribution to a game that turned into something of a rout.

In the debit column it is often said that Trueman overdid his use of the bouncer, and that he never came to terms with the fact that in his final years what had once “pinned t’batter t’sidescreen” had become a source of cheap runs for most batsmen of any quality. In 1964, his final Ashes summer, he was dropped after a performance in the third Test that Waters described as largely responsible for the loss of the Ashes in the only match that produced a result. The bare facts are that England opened up with a modest 268 before reducing Australia to 178-7. Peter Burge was the last specialist batsman standing. He went on to a match winning 160 courtesy, to quote the report in Wisden of a generous supply of medium paced long hops from Trueman.

I have read enough about Trueman’s role at Headingley in 1964 to know that Waters’ description of it as one of the worst games of his career must be accurate. But I also suspect that once again it is also a case of Fred getting more of the blame than was fair. When Australia were stood at 178-7 the England spinners, Norman Gifford and Fred Titmus, were in control. It was skipper Dexter who chose to break their stranglehold and take the new ball. Fred’s first over cost him a single, and his next three 25, before Dexter took him back out of the attack. Noting that the bowler believed Burge to be vulnerable to the bouncer, and that Dexter refused him cover on the leg-side boundary Waters concludes that Trueman’s tactic was brainless.

Dexter was one of the most astute and forward thinking captains of his time and I don’t believe for one moment that he simply threw the ball to his main strike bowler and told him to do as he pleased. Burge was on 38 at the time so well set. The last three Australian batsman were genuine tailenders. The last thing Dexter and England wanted was for Burge to be able to marshall the tail and his then partner, the at that time relatively unknown Neil Hawke, did not appear to be unduly troubled by Titmus and Gifford. Trueman was always likely to remove lower order batsmen and, given that Burge was likely to be looking for runs if Trueman was bowling, buying his wicket by trying to tempt him into a hook strikes me as a not unreasonable thing to try.

I also struggle with the idea that Trueman believed Burge to be “vulnerable” to the bouncer. He was a noted hooker and it seems more likely to me that the plan was of the “rope a dope” variety. If that was the idea it was no Ian Botham v Andrew Hilditch contest and backfired badly, but my expectation is that bowler and captain knew exactly what they were doing, even if they couldn’t agree on whether Trueman should have one or two fielders in position for the miscue. Tellingly in his 1966 autobiography Dexter took the blame for taking the new ball too soon. He was not in any way critical of Trueman, although his 1995 biographer, Alan Lee, was – the apparent contradiction is not explained. As for Trueman his only complaint about Dexter was that he didn’t get the field he wanted, and he was able to point to the fact that, albeit far too late, he did eventually dismiss Burge in just the manner he planned. Amongst contemporary observers the absence of any censure of Trueman from EM Wellings in his book on the series seems significant. Wellings was one of the most respected cricket writers of his time, and his often trenchant views were always set out in forthright terms.

But the important opinions were those of the selectors and their decision in the wake of Headingley ’64 might have been an ignominious exit from the international stage for Trueman, made more painful by his being left stranded on 298 Test wickets. Fortunately for him however none of the three pace bowlers drafted in for the fourth Test tore up any trees so he was back at the Oval where, in the course of his last Test five-for, he passed the 300 landmark. He pushed that on to 307 in the course of the first two Tests against New Zealand the following summer, after which he was left out for the last time. The number 307 is of no great significance in the 21st century, but throughout the 1960s and 1970s it was one of the game’s iconic statistical landmarks, right up there with 99.94.

Pausing briefly to look at the other disciplines in the game Trueman the batsman definitely underachieved. Brian Close said of him Fred was a much better batsman than most people gave him credit for. If he had not been so important as a bowler he might well have made a lot more runs. He possessed a decent range of strokes. Trueman’s big advantage was that he could play forward safe in the knowledge that no one was going to bounce him, but his problem was that he enjoyed batting too much, the cross-batted slog often being resorted to too early. In addition Yorkshire’s strength overall meant that occasions when a dogged hour or so’s resistance was needed from him were few and far between. He never got past 39 in a Test, but he did score three First Class centuries, and wasn’t far away from the “Double” of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in an English season on more than one occasion. He was also a fine fielder, holding many catches close in on the leg side and, on those occasions when his side was on the defensive, no one took liberties when Trueman was fielding in the deep, as he had an excellent arm.

Trueman the man is more difficult to define than Trueman the cricketer. Inevitably there were two sides to him. There was the rumbustuous and garrulous Trueman who the public saw, and then the more private man who the world at large only occasionally caught a glimpse of.

One of the great myths about Trueman was that he was a drinker and womaniser. It didn’t help that when it suited him to do so this was an image he was happy to cultivate, but the reality was that he was no sort of a drinker, and that when he did imbibe he preferred a glass of wine to supping pints. When out with his teammates Trueman was always noisy, but that was just because he liked to talk – he had no need of alcohol to loosen his tongue, but everyone wanted to buy him a drink, and his image wouldn’t let him say no, so the pints were lined up for him, and drunk by his grateful teammates.

When the team were seen out without their great fast bowler it was assumed he was out elsewhere entertaining some lady friend or other. In truth he was probably having an early night, tired out after bowling thirty overs, but again it suited him to let his reputation go before him, so even though on occasion he had problems when word got back to the first Mrs Trueman of dalliances that had never actually taken place, there were few public denials.

Bearing a grudge was something Trueman was proficient at, and the Yorkshire County Club were certainly the subject of one. As late as a year before his death he reeled off to Waters a string of long held grievances; the denial of a second benefit, being the only county to fail to send him a congratulatory telegram when he broke the Test wicket-taking record, being voted off the committee in the internecine strife of the 1980s as well as more trivial matters such as not being given complimentary tickets for Test matches at Headingley, or the opportunity to park his car at the ground. In a similar way he never forgave the BBC for the manner in which they dispensed with the services of himself and Trevor Bailey after the best part of a quarter of a century on Test Match Special.

But if Trueman could nurse a grievance he was also capable of burying the hatchet. His falling out with Boycott in the 1980s was a bitter one which no one who knew either man believed for one moment would ever be resolved, yet when Boycott was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002 Trueman contacted his old adversary almost immediately and the old friendship from when they played together in the common cause was restored once more.

And there were occasions when Trueman did not, despite provocation, take umbrage at all. In the silly spat between Imran Khan on the one hand, and Ian Botham and Alan Lamb on the other, that ended up before a libel jury in the High Court in London in 1996 the situation was such that if Botham and Lamb had been libelled (the jury decided that they hadn’t been) then, having been also been mentioned by Imran, so had Trueman – but as Fred told Imran’s third biographer he had better things to do than sit on my arse waiting for some court to deal with a dispute he felt best settled over a pint.

In much the same way Trueman once got a real tongue-lashing, albeit not a personal one, from the Australian Bill Alley when the latter first came to Headingley with Somerset in 1957. Yorkshire, as they generally did, won the match by an innings and were never in trouble, although Alley showed much courage and skill in top scoring in both Somerset innings. Following the opening day’s play Trueman was first at the bar to buy Alley a drink. The incident caused much mirth to Trueman’s teammates too – as he left for the bar he expressed concern over the extent of Alley’s swearing.

A great contrast in Trueman’s personality was between the aggressive and often boorish opening bowler and the man who bent over backwards to help disadvantaged children and animals, as well as friends or family in difficulty. His support of children’s charities stemmed from an occasion during his playing days when a bandwagon developed amongst confectionary manufacturers to gift sweets to Trueman. Eventually there were so many that Trueman took a large consignment to a home for disabled children. He was moved to tears by what he saw and heard there and from then on worked tirelessly to help those children who would never have the chance to lead the life he had. He was just as fond of animals, grieving deeply when any of his own pets died and supporting a number of organisations. When he finally did receive an OBE in 1989 it was for his services to charity as well as to cricket. In that same year he had shown his quality of loyalty by organising a dinner for the benefit of Brian Statham, who had fallen on hard times. This was no small event either – there were 100 tables at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel and a substantial five figure sum was raised. That his caustic personality held back recognition for Trueman is well illustrated by the fact that his former bowling partner had received a CBE 23 years before Fred was recognised.

Fred Trueman was the biggest personality in the game during his playing career and it is hardly surprising therefore that he had plenty of work in the media after his retirement. He was best known for his role as summariser on BBC Radio’s Test Match Special which, as noted, so upset him when he lost it. Trueman had much knowledge of and respect for the history of the game, and for many years did a fine job on the radio. But the sad truth is he did become a caricature of himself, overdoing his role as the curmudgeon, comparing almost every player unfavourably with those of his own era, and seemingly championing every member of a very ordinary Yorkshire squad for places in the England Test side. It is a shame he ended his days in the public eye giving the impression he did not understand the game, because the reality is that he did, and very well indeed. Trueman did not lead sides very often, but he skippered Yorkshire against Bill Lawry’s Australians in 1968. Counties did not often down the tourists, and Yorkshire had failed to do so in 28 attempts stretching back to 1902. They did so at Bramall Lane under Trueman though, and how, an innings and 69 runs being the margin of victory.

Despite the loss of his Test Match Special contract in 1999, and his writing one with the Sunday People at around the same time, Trueman was always in demand for one thing or another, and his pace of life barely slowed. Then in May 2006 he consulted his doctor about a persistent cough. It came as a terrible to shock that he had lung cancer, and so aggressive was the disease that despite chemotherapy the great fast bowler passed away less than two months later. He was 75.

Any essay about Freddie Trueman should have a grandstand finish, and the closing paragraphs of this feature has caused me almost as much thought as the remainder put together. All of his contemporaries had an opinion about Fred and the stories about him seem never ending, and quotes and soundbites from the man himself are littered throughout the literature of the game.

But, eventually I decided to start with a quote from his old friend, biographer and Test Match Special colleague John Arlott; Truculent, gregarious, histrionic – his appeals often seemed to be a dramatic end in themselves. He was voluble and violently anecdotal, sincerely, but at times exaggeratedly Yorkshire. He had the capacity to fill a stage, to charm or to infuriate.

And my favourite Trueman quip is his reply to a question from an ordinary Sydneysider concerning Fred’s thoughts on the subject of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; What do I think of your bridge? It was built in Yorkshire by a firm called Dorman Long ……….. and it isn’t paid for yet!


Great write up about freddie ..

Oh I do have a blog about him…can I post it on your thread …

Comment by ibiza | 12:00am GMT 1 February 2014

Interesting hearing Bill Lawry being interviewed in a lunch break during the recent ashes recall Trueman and Statham and that the latter was distinctly quicker. Wonder what Fred would have thought about that.

Comment by the big bambino | 12:00am GMT 2 February 2014

Fantastic read. He’s the only (ex) cricketer I’ve ever asked for an autograph, and of course, he said no! I still have to read the recent biographies, will seek them out.

Comment by stumpski | 12:00am GMT 7 February 2014

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