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Fred Trueman – England’s greatest-ever fast bowler and a colourful character

Fred Trueman – England's greatest-ever fast bowler and a colourful character

Fred Trueman in his delivery stride © Getty Images

Fred Trueman, born February 6, 1931, was arguably the greatest fast bowler and undeniably the most colourful character produced by England. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at his fascinating career.

When Fred Trueman burst into the international scene breathing fire and scorching Indian batsmen with his pace in 1952, reducing them to 0 for four and then picking up eight for 31, he walked right into the English imagination.

The country had hoped, prayed and hankered for a bowler of searing pace who could do unto the Australian batsmen what Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller had done unto their own. And when this earthy Yorkshire youth ran in to bowl, he emerged as an answer to their ardent prayers.

The image of the fast bowler

Not only was Trueman fast, he was soon entrapped in an image that quickly moulded his personality. He was seen as blunt, honest and destructive as a bowler, theatrical on the field, a creature of impulse and emotion, almost beyond his own control, known for his boyish brashness even when well into manhood, with a penchant for wisecracks that mixed sharpest witticism with crude four-letter profanity, and at constant odds with authority. The real Fred Trueman was soon submerged under these layers of popular appeal and he played his projected role with all the eagerness of a larger than life hero.

There rose around him the huge collection of Trumaniana – tales of his atrocious adventures, many true and many more extrapolated products of imagination. It is impossible to sift through his life and judge the veracity of all that is attributed to him. Much of it worked in his favour, lending credence to his huge appeal as the most popular British sportsperson of his era. Often it had adverse effect on his career when he was accused of misdeeds he was not remotely responsible for. But, all these were essential ingredients of the legend of Fred Trueman, the greatest fast bowler produced by England.

There soon emerged Frank Tyson with his terrific pace that even outshone Trueman for a few years. There was Brian Statham with his whippet-like build and energy, whose career overlapped with Trueman to produce a fast bowling combination of rare quality. But, no one really seized the fantasy of the fans like this dark-haired, pale faced, heavy shouldered Yorkshireman.

Trueman charged in along a run-up more than a pitch length, at least twenty two measured paces and then three or four walking steps for launching the attack. When the batsman seemed unsure, he added a few steps to go nearer the sight-screen. The actual approach, though, was of thirteen fully utilised strides. In his later years, when he was less concerned with the fiery image of the fast bowler, he often bowled from thirteen paces.

When at his fastest, he moved up in a curve, swerving out round the umpire. He stalked back to his mark with bowed arms, threatening gait and turned to charge like a Spanish fighting bull. The acceleration was gradual and, hair flopping, he sprinted the last few steps. His body swung round so completely that the batsman saw his left shoulder-blade, for a short while the left foot – large as a policeman’s according to rustic analogy – hovered in the air before thudding on the ground with violence. The left arm pointed high, head steady, eyes glaring. From this cocked action, the right arm slashed down, the ball was fired down the pitch and his body followed it with unbridled eagerness.

He hit the ground firmly with the ball. His natural outswing, a deadly weapon which often moved late from the middle stump, gave him innumerable edges. The in-swing was rarer, but potent. And on a green wicket he could move the ball off the seam. He had a crushing yorker, and bowled his bouncers a bit too frequently throughout his career. And while he was proud of the wickets he took with his slower ball, the batsmen tended to remember the faster ones – those that hastened even quicker than his constant frantic pace.

After the ball was bowled commenced the reaction routine. Trueman scowled at the batsman’s face. If there was an edge that eluded fielders, there was a mix of disgust and resentment against the hands of fate. If the batsman was beaten, two hands went heavenwards, and fists were often clenched in agony. And if nothing happened, he would rock on his heels, utter a brisk word to the batsman or the close in fielders, toss his hair and walk back, hoisting his trousers, rolling the right sleeve which was unfurled by every delivery of his long, long career.

After the game, he would hold his session over beer, where each dismissal would be explained with colour and imagination, and no one could book him for being overly modest. That one was an in-swinging yorker, the other one a late out-swinger, the third one deceived by a slower one. A cheeky young Richard Hutton, son of Trueman’s first Test captain Len Hutton and a teammate of his last Yorkshire years, once asked him, “Did you ever bowl a plain straight ball?” Trueman replied quick as a flash, “Aye, I did – and it went straight through like a stream of piss and flattened all three.”

From tearaway to master

Even after his heroics against India in 1952, when he played the Tests after being granted leave from RAF and rued dismissing the opposition early and being robbed of two honest days of leave, he was not a regular in the side till 1957.

Len Hutton, with his astute cricketing acumen, was of the opinion that Trueman would definitely become the greatest fast bowler of England, but he needed half a decade to mature into the finely tuned weapon he promised to be. The presence of enormously talented alternatives in the form of Statham and Tyson, and his own raw immaturity on the field and off it, brought this prophecy to its startlingly accurate fruition.

The searing pace had Polly Umrigar backing away to square leg – far enough for Tony Lock from backward short-leg to remark, “I say Polly would you mind going back, I can’t see the bowler if you stand there.” But, the same raw pace was not as effective against the Australian batsmen more adept at playing fast bowling. And on his first tour to West Indies plenty of things went wrong.

Trueman, later a darling of the crowds, became the marked villain when he broke a bone in the hand of the 45-year old cult figure George Headley with a bumper. And later, when he knocked down popular leg-spinner Wilfred ‘Fergie’ Ferguson with a short ball, he was barracked everywhere. Songs were written about Fred Trueman – the bumper man. The earthy Yorkshire lad also cracked some well-meaning but rather crude jokes in social dinners which did not go down too well. Len Hutton, the first professional captain to lead England on tour, was full of zeal to succeed and played the role of the disciplinarian a bit too strictly. He even made Trueman and Lock apologise for some childish prank actually carried out by Denis Compton and Godfrey Evans. In summary it was a bad tour for the fast man, and on the Caribbean wickets made for batting, he did not get too much success. It would be five years before he went on a tour again.

Trueman did not play for England again until 1955, and only became a regular in the Test side after the third Test against the West Indies in 1957, when he bowled 65 overs and took nine for 143 on an easy pitch at  Trent Bridge.

The half decade that followed after that saw him at the peak of his powers, forging a magnificent partnership with Brian Statham.

Fred Trueman – England's greatest-ever fast bowler and a colourful character

This 1963 picture shows a shirtless Brian Statham with Ted Dexter (left) and Fred Trueman (behind) © Getty Images

When he toured West Indies again, in 1959-60, he had left his ugly experiences behind. He enjoyed immense popularity in the islands and his 21 wickets was a record for an English fast bowler in the Caribbean. England also triumphed for the first time in a series in West Indies.

Against Australia at Headingley in 1961, faced with a dusty pitch, he cut down his pace to bowl cutters. In an inspired display of intelligent and skilful bowling, he finished Australia’s second innings with a spell of six wickets for one run – winning the match for England. Amazingly, with his first marriage on the verge of breaking down, he had slept the previous night in his car in a Leeds car park. He ended the match with figures of eleven for 88.

In Australia in 1962-63, Trueman took eight wickets in England’s victory in the second Test at Melbourne. After the tour, however, The  People, to which Trueman contributed a column, revealed that he had been docked £50 of his £150 good conduct bonus, as a result of a report by the curiously chosen manager, the Duke of Norfolk.

As people in positions of authority had already found out – from Brian Sellars, the autocratic chairman of Yorkshire, to Freddie Brown, the manager of MCC‘s tour of Australia in 1958-59 – it was the peer’s turn to discover that Trueman would not buckle under tyranny. When the Duke could not justify the reasons for the fine, Trueman vowed never to play for England again, and it took Willie Watson’s patient influence to make him put on the English sweater against West Indies in 1963.

During that great summer, fired by his rivalry with the West Indian fast bowlers Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, Trueman took 34 Test wickets. The highlight was the thriller at Lord’s where Colin Cowdrey walked out with arm in plaster cast as David Allen negotiated the last two balls of Wes Hall to hold out for a draw. Trueman bowled 70 overs in the match for 11 wickets. He varied his pace skilfully and occasionally produced a ball of lightning pace. At Edgbaston, he bowled England to victory with twelve for 119, rattling the stumps of Garry Sobers with a delivery that pitched wide outside his off stump and hit middle.

During the heydays, Trueman regularly bowled more than thousand overs for Yorkshire, and the county put behind the dark days of the early to mid1950s to emerge on the  top of the championship tables with amazing regularity. Trueman had no fitness regime. To keep himself fit for bowling, he just bowled and bowled.

By 1964, however, Trueman’s powers seemed to be on the wane. In the third Test at Headingley, England had Australia on the defensive at seven for 178, but Trueman, called back to finish off the tail, bowled a series of medium-paced long-hops for Peter Burge to hook and pull with delight. Australia reached 389, and England lost.

Dropped from the next Test, Trueman was recalled for the final game at the Oval, and after some rather listless bowling, he got two wickets in two balls before getting Neil Hawke caught by Cowdrey at slip to become the first bowler in history to reach 300 wickets.

The following year he played a couple of Tests against New Zealand, before he moved away from the Test scene.

His final analysis read 307 Test victims at 21.57 apiece, with a fascinating strike rate of one wicket every 49.43 balls. It has to be added that he ended up playing only 67 of the 118 Tests played by England during his Test playing span. According to him, four letter words cost him another hundred or so wickets.

The humourist

He continued to play for Yorkshire till he was 37, bowling with all his experience, and sometimes producing bursts of the old speed. In a First-Class career lasting from 1949 to 1969, an extraordinarily long span for a fast bowler, he claimed 2,304 wickets at only 18.29 apiece.

Trueman was more than just a fast bowler. He was a fantastic close-in fielder, specialising in leg slip, often taking acrobatic catches. His favourite trick was to creep closer and closer to the batsman and catch him as the ball was played with a dead bat virtually inside the crease. He was also an entertaining lower order batsman with a decent defence and exciting agricultural scythes. His highest innings of 39 in Test cricket contained three sixes over widish-midwicket off the News Zealand spinner AM Moir. He mentioned in his memoirs that like any fast bowler, he was a frustrated batsman and his three First-Class centuries gave him as much joy as any of his bowling feats.

Fred Trueman – England's greatest-ever fast bowler and a colourful character

Fred Trueman stands with his memorabilia collection prior to The Fiery Fred Collection Auction being held at the Grovesnor Hotel, London, in February 2001 © Getty Images

Trueman was also characterised by his immortal one-liners. Whenever teams played Yorkshire, they were treated to a mandatory ‘Fred Session’ during which Trueman regaled them with anecdotes that were fresh to them, although heard often enough by his own team mates. And as an after dinner speaker, he was always sought after, if somewhat crude at times for refined sensibilities.

Trueman did not need a rapt audience to deliver his witticisms. There were plenty of them on the field. Never happy when snicked past fielders, he turned on the offending batsmen with remarks that stung. “You’ve got more edges than a broken piss pot,” heard one and another was asked with some curiosity, “Where did thee learn your cricket, at Edgbaston?”

And although he never held a grudge against fielders who grassed chances off his bowling, his acerbic humour scalded them quite often. Raman Subba Row profusely apologising for a catch that went through his legs in slips offered, “Sorry Fred, should have kept my legs together,” was answered with, “Not you son, your mother should ’ave.” And when Reverend David Sheppard, touring Australia after a long break, dropped a number of catches, he was advised, “Kid yourself it’s Sunday, Rev, and keep your hands together.”

A lot of the remarks were meant just for good humour. When the MCC team was presented to the Bishop of Perth, Trueman turned to Sheppard and asked, “I suppose he’s your senior pro.” And once exhausted and asked by Peter May to bowl yet another because “England expects”, he shot back, “England always expects, doesn’t she? No wonder she’s called the Mother Country.”

Often the lightning wit was laced with ribaldry. When someone in Aden pointed out a local Sikh saying, “He has 196 wives,” Trueman shot back, “Does he know that with another four he can have a new ball?”

Sometimes these remarks got him into trouble. Some were attributed to him unjustly and incorrectly. However, it is little wonder that after retirement he became a stand-up comedian, then a public speaker, gradually a television personality and a regular member of Test Match Special. What is largely unknown about him is that Trueman was an expert at speed reading and had a remarkable knowledge of cricket’s history. With his gift for the anecdote, many felt he was at his best when rain stopped play.

Fred Trueman passed away in July 2006. His irresistible take on life can be captured in the concluding paragraph of John Arlott’s excellent biography Fred – portrait of a fast bowler.

Fred Trueman – England's greatest-ever fast bowler and a colourful character

The Funeral cortege of Fred Trueman makes its way to Bolton Abbey Priory Church in North Yorkshire for his funeral on July 6, 2006 in Bolton Abbey, England. Trueman died on July 1, 2006 at the age of 75 after being diagnosed with lung cancer © Getty Images

“Asked if he had a title for this book, he rolled it off his tongue, pat as if rehearsed – ‘T’ Definitive Volume of t’Finest Bloody Fast Bowler that Ever Drew Breath’ – and where is the batsman who would have dared to challenge that description when Fred was in his pomp?”

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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