Alfred Percy ‘Tich’ Freeman © Getty Images
Alfred Percy ‘Tich’ Freeman © Getty Images

‘Tich’ Freeman, born May 17, 1888, was an ace Kent leg-spinner, and perhaps the greatest bowler in the history of County Championship. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of a colossus whose stats blow the mind away.

The records

Few players have curriculum vitae to match Alfred Percy ‘Tich’ Freeman’s.  A haul of 66 wickets from 12 Tests at 25.86 and a strike rate of 56.5 are excellent, but they fail to reflect his greatness to the extent they should have. Even then, to put things into perspective, of all spinners who have bowled after World War I and have captured 50 or more wickets, Freeman’s strike rate is the fourth, after Walter Robins, Stuart MacGill and Muttiah Muralitharan.

Freeman was one of the giants of First-Class cricket, though. The numbers are mind-boggling:

- In a phenomenal run from 1928 to 1935, he took over 200 wickets in eight consecutive seasons (he had taken 180 and 181 wickets in the two seasons preceding that). In these eight seasons he took 2,090 wickets at 17.86. All these were achieved after he had turned 40!

- Freeman was the leading wicket-taker in the County Championship for all eight seasons.

- In the first six of these seasons, he took 250 or more wickets in every season. His tally over these six seasons read 1,673 wickets at 16.74. Once again, these were achieved after 40. All other First-Class cricketers have managed six more between them.

- Not only is Freeman the only player to take 300 First-Class wickets in a season (304 wickets at 18.05 in 1928), he also appears at the second (298 at 15.26 in 1933), fifth (276 at 15.60 in 1931), and sixth (275 at 16.84 in 1930) spots.

- Freeman took 3,776 First-Class wickets from 592 matches at 18.42, which puts him second on the all-time list. The only one to have taken more was Wilfred Rhodes, who took 4,204 from 1,110 matches.

- Freeman remains the only bowler to take 10 wickets in an innings thrice — 10 for 131 against Lancashire at Maidstone in 1929, 10 for 53 against Essex at Southend in 1930, and 10 for 79 against Lancashire at Old Trafford in 1931.

- Freeman also remains the only bowler to take 17 wickets in a match twice — 9 for 11 and 8 for 56 against Sussex at Hove in 1922, and 8 for 31 and 9 for 61 against Warwickshire at Folkestone in 1932.

- Freeman has taken the most five-fors in First-Class history: his tally of 386 five-wicket hauls (at 1.534 matches per 5WI) is miles ahead of Rhodes’ 287 (from 1,110 matches at 3.868 matches per 5WI).

- Freeman has also taken the most 10-fors in First-Class history: he had taken 10 wickets in a match 140 times (4.229 matches per 10WM), which is significantly more than Charlie Parker’s 91 (from 635 matches at 6.978 matches per 10WM).

- 1,835 of his 3,776 wickets (48.3%) were taken without any assistance from a fielder.

- Between 1930 and 1933 he took 951 wickets in the County Championship — which was over 55% of the wickets taken by Kent.

- He took 200 or more wickets against as many as nine counties: Essex (269), Northamptonshire (253), Sussex (244), Gloucestershire (241), Leicestershire (231), Hampshire (226), Middlesex (220), Warwickshire (212), and Somerset (208). Additionally, he took 188 against Worcestershire, 178 against Derbyshire, 174 against Lancashire, 153 against Nottinghamshire, 153 against Yorkshire, 142 against Surrey, missing out the 100-mark only against Glamorgan, against whom he took 71.

The man and his career

Freeman was called ‘Tich’ because of his frame (he was only 5’2″ tall). The lack in height was made up for by the sturdy physique and strong, thick fingers. Due to his short fingers and small palm he was forced to use his middle-finger along with his thumb and forefinger (instead of the conventional forefinger, ring-finger, and palm) to bowl his leg-breaks.

His height also meant that he had to bowl a very low trajectory, often dropping the ball shorter than what the batsman anticipated; this meant that any batsman without good footwork or a sound technique had a chance again him. His slow floaters often succeeded in deceiving batsmen and induced false strokes out of them. In addition, his control was legendary, his sense of length and direction impeccable.

Unlike most leg-spinners, Freeman’s leg-breaks did not leave the batsmen. Pitching them on leg or leg-middle, he made them play each and every delivery. Though he did not use the googly too often, he bowled an indecipherable top-spin that ran in viciously off the pitch that was largely responsible for the high percentage of bowled and leg-before decisions he got throughout his career.

He had a short, economic run-up, which was probably one of the reasons behind his incredible stamina. Such was his stamina that he often opened bowling and bowled through an innings unchanged. However, the greatest reason behind his bowling on endlessly irrespective of outcome till the age of 48 was the fact that he loved bowling. And it showed.

Early days

Freeman played club cricket for Upper Tooting from 1909 to 1911 and for Tonbridge in 1912. He also turned up.

It wasn’t until 1914 that he made his First-Class debut for Kent. He took 1 for 88 and 2 for 109 in his first match against Oxford University, and it wasn’t until his third match that he had an impact on the county circuit.

Playing against Warwickshire at Edgbaston, Freeman wrecked the hosts with a spell of 10-2-25-7 at their den, helping Kent to a nine-wicket victory. He bowled beautifully that season, and with the trio of Colin Blythe, Frank Woolley, and Freeman in their line-up, the Kent bowling attack was formidable in 1914, especially on turning wickets.

Freeman returns after war

However, the First World War broke out next year, and Freeman’s career, just like that of many others, was severely affected. Freeman did not play any First-Class cricket from the age of 26 till 31. Test cricket seemed a very, very distant possibility.

The Kent attack had been weakened as well. Woolley was already in his thirties, and had to put in a substantial effort to his batting; on the other hand Blythe had unfortunately passed away in the war; this meant that Freeman had to bear the responsibility of virtually leading the Kent attack with an experience of just eight First-Class matches.

On his return — against Essex at Leyton — Freeman was hit severely in the first innings: he took 1 for 96 from 16 overs. The second innings did not get any better — he went wicketless after conceding 56 runs in 17 overs.

It was the Surrey match at Blackheath that turned things around. He did not get a chance to bowl in the first innings, but he demolished the opposition with 6 for 43 in the second. He followed this with 13 for 127 against Hampshire at Bournemouth, and 10 for 124 against Sussex at Hove, and finished the season with 60 wickets at 20.15. Kent became the runners-up that season, behind only Yorkshire.

The launch

Freeman took 101 wickets at 17.54 in 1920, and broke the 150-wicket barrier in 1921 when he took 166 wickets at 18.59. This included 6 ten-fors, the most destructive among which was the 13 for 67 against Northamptonshire at Northampton, where he bowled them out for 81 and 133. He toured Australia (and New Zealand) with MCC, but though he did well in New Zealand, the Aussies managed to read him quite well.

Then came 1922 — the first truly ‘great’ year of Freeman’s illustrious career. At the ripe age of 35 he took 10 for 121 against Essex and 10 for 76 against Gloucestershire, both at Tonbridge, in successive matches. But those were just the appetisers, though.

More destruction followed. In three matches out of four, Freeman took 12 for 71 against Sussex, 11 for 215 against Yorkshire, and 12 for 155 against Surrey.

He was not done. Bowling at Hove on August 30, 1922, Freeman took 9 for 11 (including a spell of 9 for 7) to bowl out Sussex for 47, following it with 8 for 56. Freeman finished the season with 194 wickets at 14.63. His feats made him a Wisden Cricketer that year.

1923 and 1924 passed in a blur, when Freeman took 157 wickets at 16.82 and 167 wickets at 15.07 respectively. Freeman had now managed a sub-20 average in five consecutive seasons, in four of which he had crossed the 150-wicket mark. So, when England toured Australia next winter, Freeman had to be included — despite the age of 36.

Test debut

Freeman began the tour on a promising note, taking 9 for 70 in the match to bowl out Western Australia for 138 and 69. Another six-for against a strong Australian XI (virtually a Test-strength side) earned him his Test cap — at the age of 36.

It was not the best of starts. Playing in the first Test at SCG, Freeman picked up Warren Bardsley and Victor Richardson in the first innings and Arthur Richardson, Bill Ponsford, and Jack Gregory in the second (both Richardsons and Ponsford were making their debut along with Freeman), but finished with figures of 5 for 258, and Australia won the Test comfortably.

Freeman had his moment of glory, though: with England requiring 605 for a victory, Freeman walked out to join Kent teammate Woolley with the score on 276 for 8. The two added 128 for the ninth wicket, and after Woolley got out for 123, Freeman remained not out on 50 — his only Test half-century.

He was dropped for the next Test at MCG, but got another chance in the one that followed at Adelaide Oval; however, he failed again, picking up 3 for 201 from the Test, and England lost again. Freeman’s horror series ended there: he picked up 8 wickets at 57.37, and Australia won the series 4-1. His tour averages, 40 wickets at 30.22, were significantly better.

Homecoming

Rather unfairly, Freeman was shelved by the national selectors for close to two years after his failure Down Under. He was back to his comfort zone, though, tormenting batsmen at the county circuit on a consistent basis. He picked up 146 scalps at 17.42 in 1925, 180 at 20.77 in 1926, and 181 at 18.39 in 1927. He took 50 five-fors and 14 ten-fors, and normalcy was restored.

He had to be recalled for the tour of South Africa that winter. He did not do too badly, either. He took 4 for 58 and 3 for 66 to pull off an 87-run victory in the second Test at Johannesburg after England trailed by 117. He played the remaining three Tests thereafter, and finished with 14 wickets from 4 Tests at 28.50, though South Africa clawed back from two down to square the series 2-2.

The golden years

Freeman’s golden years, 1928 to 1935, followed this series. He was easily the best bowler in England during this period, rediscovering himself at the age of 40. His exploits during this phase have been described at lengths earlier. He took 22 wickets from 3 Tests against West Indies’ first ever series (including 5 for 54 and 5 for 39 at Old Trafford, a Test that gave him his first two five-fors and first 10-for) in 1928. He picked up a world-record 304 wickets that season — a record that still remains untouched. Kent came second in the Championship again — second to Lancashire.

South Africa visited England the next season, and immediately Freeman was back in business, after sitting out for the first two Tests, which were both drawn. Freeman picked up 7 for 115 and 3 for 92 in the third Test at Headingley, which England won by 5 wickets. In the next Test, he routed South Africa with 7 for 71 and 5 for 100 at Old Trafford, and England won by an innings to clinch the series.

The dead rubber at The Oval was drawn, with Herbert Sutcliffe scoring twin tons. Freeman toiled on a flat pitch, and finished with 0 for 169 from 49 overs in South Africa’s only innings. Even then, after taking 22 wickets from the only 2 Tests that England won and topping the bowling charts with an average of 24.86, Freeman never played another Test.

His merciless rampage at domestic level continued, though. Season after season he toiled along, and the batsmen succumbed in front of him helplessly as the records kept tumbling. After remaining at the top for eight years (with no one in proximity), the glorious career finally ended in 1936 — at the age of 48.

The final season

Even in his last season — at that age — Freeman was a force to reckon with. From three consecutive matches he took 8 for 132 against Gloucestershire, 9 for 52 against Derbyshire, and 11 for 145 against Warwickshire. Kent won all three matches convincingly.

He eventually finished the season with 110 wickets at 25.41 — a more than decent return — ending a magnificent career in every sense of the word. He got two benefits from Kent, but was shown the door rather unceremoniously — just a year after his amazing run over a period of eight years.

He still played on as a professional for Walsall in the Birmingham and District League.

Doug Wright, the leg-break bowler who played 34 Tests for England, told of Freeman: “I always held him to be one of the finest leg-break bowlers I ever saw. The more I bowled, the more I realised how great ‘Tich’ was”. Walter Robins, another English leg-spinner who played 19 Tests, put his tribute with the words “Against other than the greatest of batsmen, he was the most effective bowler I ever saw. We will never see his like again as a consistent wicket-taker.”

RL Arrowsmith, the eminent cricket historian, called him “the greatest wicket-taker County Cricket has ever known”. Dudley Moore mentioned his ‘sustained effort and humility’, and added “he may not have wanted to be one of the game’s characters but he was”.

Later years

Freeman was given an honorary life-membership by MCC in 1949. He opened a retail sports chain with the Kent wicketkeeper Jack Hubble, and spent the rest of his life in a retirement cottage that he named Dunbowlin (a pun on the words ‘done bowling’).

His domestic life, unfortunately, was apparently not the most peaceful, for his wife was not the most accommodating of individuals. It is unfortunate that perhaps the greatest bowler in the history of County Championship seldom found solace at home.

He passed away on January 28, 1965.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)