Fred Trueman died on July 1, 2006, aged 75. The first cricketer to take 300 Test wickets, he finished with 307 scalps from 67 matches. He was remembered by Michael Parkinson in the 2007 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
In the late 1960s, I sat down with Fred Trueman to discuss working together on a book about his life. It soon became apparent we had different views on how this might be achieved.
Fred thought the odd session with a tape recorder, a few jokes and a kick up the backside for the panjandrums of cricket would suffice. I thought differently. I saw him as a true working-class hero. Still do.
Fred didn’t set out to change the world and would have dismissed any suggestion he was a revolutionary as nonsense. But there is little doubt that what his critics would term his boorish behaviour towards authority during the 1950s was part of the kindling for a drastic change in British society in the years that followed.
Certainly people of my background and generation saw Fred not simply as a great cricketer but as an emblematic figure; outspoken, bloody-minded, Jack-as-good-as-his-master.
We sometimes forget how class-ridden Britain was forty and more years ago and how cricket represented the status quo. The game was run by a private members’ club. It was Gentlemen and Players, with the England team picked by the President of MCC and the cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. Or so Fred believed. And he wasn’t the only one.
But radical changes were afoot. The Butler Education Act had given bright working-class children the right to free education. A new generation began to question the old order. Fred – bolshie, outspoken and anti-authoritarian from the start – was a figurehead.
I saw Fred in this context and wanted it to be a part of the book. Fred didn’t, so our joint venture withered. In the end, John Arlott wrote it: Fred, Portrait of a Fast Bowler, a fitting testament written with a rare combination of insight and love. Shortly after publication, I called John to congratulate him. I told him of my failure to write the book and Fred’s reluctance to be unduly introspective about his own life. I asked him how he had managed to persuade him.
“Oh, I didn’t speak to him,” said John.
“Why?” I asked.
“Didn’t need to,” said John. “You see, I had seen him bowl.”
The hack, elegantly and gently put in his place by the poet.
Out of our failed collaboration came the anecdote, repeated in many of the obituaries, about how Fred suggested his own grandiloquent title for his biography. It happened when I said we must think of a snappy title, one which would best sum up his life. Fred said “Fred: T’Best Fast Bowler That Ever Drew Breath.” I said, sarcastically: “Too short.” He came back: “Fred, T’Definitive Volume on T’Best Fast Bowler That Ever Drew Breath.”
The title is now part of the Trueman mythology. It has been suggested it was intended to be self-mocking. I have to tell you I was there, and he was only half-joking.
I first met Fred Trueman early in his career when he was on leave from National Service and farmed out by Yorkshire into the leagues. My opening partner at the time was HD Bird, long before he found immortality as umpire, rain-maker and best-selling author. Trueman already possessed a daunting reputation as a fast bowler. He was quick and wayward, and must have licked his chops at the sight of two such pale and trembling victims.
He hit Dickie under the heart midway through the first over, and a terrible moaning ensued. We gathered around the victim – in those days the opposition ministered to a stricken opponent – to check which parts might be damaged or missing. As we did so, I looked back to see the bowler squatting at the end of his follow-through, thoughtfully chewing a blade of grass. When eventually we had restored Dickie, I walked back past Fred.
“How’s thi’ mate?” he asked.
“He’s on his hind legs, Mr Trueman. He’ll live,” I said, with a fawning jocularity.
“That’s all right then,” said Fred, and then, almost as an afterthought, added: “But think on, you’re next.”
When I reminded Fred of this story he said he must have apologised to Dickie because he always said sorry to people he hit but didn’t bear a grudge against. This peculiar point of principle was substantiated by Trevor Bailey when recalling being felled by a Trueman bouncer at Leyton. Fred had been dropped by the England selectors and took his anger out on the Essex team.
The previous batsman had lost most of his teeth trying to hook a Trueman bouncer and, as Bailey took guard, was on his way to hospital. Trueman, on the rampage, bowled short to Bailey who ducked and was hit on the head. As he lay on the ground assessing the damage, Trueman approached. He said: “Sorry, Trev, old son, there are many more I’d rather hit than thee.”
Such anecdotes – and there are a thousand more where that came from – substantiate the image of Trueman as the plain-spoken, belligerent yet curiously honourable assassin of cricket. The gunslinger with a conscience, Fred as Wyatt Earp. Lethal yet chivalrous. Except when confronted by the enemy, and then he was simply lethal.
In Fred’s case the enemy was the Establishment and all who wore its colours, such as a stripy cap or fancy cravat. Famously, faced with such an opponent, Trueman allegedly sent his middle stump flying, followed by the observation: “It was hardly worth dressing up for, was it?”
You find yourself dwelling on the vaudeville persona of Fred Trueman at the expense of any proper analysis of what made him one of the greatest fast bowlers. In fact, the intertwining of the two, the combination of athlete and comedian, was what made him the most charismatic cricketer of his time. If Fred Trueman played today, Fred Flintoff would be a minor celebrity.
His first Test series established him as a fast bowler of rare venom. The Indians had seen nothing like him, and, when one or two of their batsmen sought refuge alongside the square-leg umpire, the legend was born…
Polly Umrigar, constantly stopping Trueman in his run-up to adjust the sightscreen. Umpire Chester, losing patience: “Mr Umrigar, where ideally would you like the sight-screen?”
Umrigar: “Ideally, Mr Chester, between me and that mad devil Trueman.”
In the end no one knew which bits of the narrative of his life were fact or fiction. Norman O’Neill told the story of sitting with Fred in the lounge of a Bombay hotel and saying to him: “Fred, I believe those two Indians at the next table are talking about you.” To which Fred replied: “Aye, Norman, they talk about me all over t’world.”
I once asked Fred how many of the stories told about him were true, and he said not many. On the other hand, he said he seemed to attract bizarre situations. He told me the story of touring India for the Bengal Cricket Association’s silver jubilee celebrations. On a long and interminable rail journey, the train made an unscheduled stop in the middle of nowhere. Fred alighted and was greeted by the stationmaster. Fred asked for the whereabouts of a toilet, which seemed to fill the stationmaster with great excitement. He asked Fred to follow him, and led him to a room where he drew back a red velvet curtain to reveal a Victorian chamber pot on a plinth. What is more, the pot had the legend “F. S. Trueman” painted on it.
How it came to be there, what became of such an important piece of cricket memorabilia, how it was known that the Great Man would visit and, moreover, be in need of a pee, are important questions. Fred could offer no enlightenment except to say: “How could I possibly make it up?” Nor could he have imagined that one day he’d be father-in-law to Raquel Welch’s son: Fred’s daughter married the film star’s offspring. It was an intriguing, but unsuccessful, intermingling of cultures. “My run-up lasted longer,” said Fred.
Trueman loved the adulation, fed it assiduously. Always a serious cricketer, he was also a gifted comedian and communicator. Yet the paradox of Fred Trueman was that the instinctive and charismatic entertainer on the field of play could be insecure and awkward off it. Sometimes he found it difficult to be a public figure, unable to understand that the blokey image he projected on the field might persuade his fans he was a laugh-a-minute in his private moments.
It is also important to remember that the cricket superstars of his day had no bodyguards, posh houses or cars with tinted windows to escape interference. What he developed was the ability George Best had (when sober) to be at the centre of attention and yet detached from it. Again, like Best, I suspect that for all he liked to be considered gregarious, Fred Trueman was, by nature, a loner.
Looking back over the 50 years I knew and observed him – trying to catch the flavour of the man, endeavouring to explain what I saw – I find myself prefacing every memory, good or bad, with the sight of him in full flow when he provided the most thrilling and beautiful spectacle not just in cricket, but in any sport I’ve ever seen.
When I use the word “beautiful”, bear in mind I am talking about a man with a barrel chest, big backside and the kind of legs normally used to support billiard tables. It was a formidable physical presence, but far from graceful. When he turned at the start of his run-up, 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 arc of his body described the powerful bend of a bow. It was the action not simply of a great bowler but an artist with a proper reverence for the aesthetic possibilities of the loveliest of games. Technically speaking, his action defined Fred’s belief that cricket is a side-on game. As a philosophical proposition, it offered a clue as to why the game attracts more poets, philosophers, writers and dreamers than any other.
For all that he projected the image of the fiery, confrontational Yorkshire fast bowler, he was a purist when it came to cricket. In conversation, the nearest he came to embracing poetry was when he described Hutton’s technical perfection or the elegance of Tom Graveney’s strokeplay.
I saw him in his hurtling youth destroy the Indians at Headingley. Sixteen years later, I saw his swansong at Bramall Lane when he captained Yorkshire to an innings victory over Australia. On that day, on the clay that shaped him, he came off his long run for the last time. The next time I saw that sublime action was in a nightclub, an image projected on to a screen through which he burst to meet his audience. He was making his debut as a standup comic. I could have done without that. So could Fred.
At about the same time he appeared as a front man for a television show called Indoor League, featuring pub games. For years, television executives have debated the host’s first word in a programme. Should it be “Hello”? Or is “Hi” more friendly? Maybe it’s “Welcome”, a cosy partnership of the two? Fred walked on and said “Ayup”, which didn’t catch on but suited him to the marrow.
He found joy and satisfaction in his retirement on Test Match Special. He was a perceptive and demanding observer, but ripe for parody in his oft-explained view that the game was going to the dogs. He also invited scorn because of his support for Mrs Thatcher, whose virtues were rarely discussed in the coalfields of his youth. He failed to understand the discrepancy between the rebellious lad and the conforming adult, and the consequent dismay of those who had once imagined marching behind his broad shoulders. But then he never saw himself as anything other than a fast bowler and entertainer. The jibes hurt because he was a sensitive man with a long memory for insult, real or imagined.
He had reason to be disgruntled with Yorkshire when, after 20 years of service, he was handed a silver cruet as a departing gift. The cruet cost £220 but, because the committee had set a limit of £100, he was asked to pay the difference. What really upset him was when he arrived home, he found they hadn’t bothered to inscribe the gift.
Sometimes we are careless with our heroes.
But his most heartfelt gripe was that he missed more than 30 Test matches because the selectors – dominated at the time by MCC – were set against him. He had a point. Particularly when you consider he was not chosen for the 1954/55 tour of Australia after a domestic season when he took 134 wickets at 16.
Fred mellowed in old age, but only in the sense that he was prepared to forgive and forget on a selective basis. Making it up with Geoffrey Boycott after both men fell out during one of Yorkshire’s civil wars was well-met. But on other deeper disputes he was implacable. He left the room and never returned. After he died, we expected a memorial service. It was not to be, and on his express orders. His final instructions were: “When I’m gone I don’t want any of these two-faced bastards who I didn’t get on with standing up and saying nice things about me.”
He did not go gentle into that good night. He died as he had lived, chin up, bristling, glaring down the wicket at the enemy. A most singular man.
Michael Parkinson, among many better-documented achievements, was formerly Barnsley’s opening batsman.