July 07, 2006

Fred Trueman – end of a cricketing terror

By H Natarajan

In many ways, Fred Trueman was the cricket equivalent of Muhammad Ali. Ali was dubbed the “Louisville Lip” for his legendary loquaciousness; Trueman’s lip service to opponents and team-mates alike has few equals. Ali taunted opponents in wicked verse; Trueman baited opponents with his own brand of plebeian prose. Both men told their opponents what exactly they were going to do with them and went on to do exactly that. They were highly cocky about their talents. Humility was not in their lexicon. They believed they were the greatest in their fields. And there was no disputing that fact.

Indeed, Ali called himself “The Greatest” which was also the title of his book which he co-authored with Richard Durham. When asked what he would like the title of the biography he wrote, Trueman suggested to John Arlott that it should be called "The Finest Fast Bowler Who Ever Drew Breath”! Arlott was a better wordsmith and simply called it “Fred - Portrait Of A Fast Bowler.”

Trueman was a character – all fire and brimstone. His sense of humour and repartee were brilliant – that is, if you were not at the receiving end! He did not suffer kindly fielding lapses off his bowling. Raman Subba Row, the suave and classy Surrey left-hander, was one such victim. Standing at first slip, Raman let an edge off Trueman go between his legs. At the end of the over, Raman, ever the gentleman, went up to Trueman and apologized: “I should have kept my legs together, Fred.”

Trueman shot back in his inimitable manner: “So should your mother!”

He did not spare even Rev David Sheppard. The reverend was going through a bad patch when he missed a catch off Trueman. After one such miss, Trueman said, "Kid yourself it's Sunday, Rev., and keep your hands together!"

Trueman often found himself at loggerheads with authority. Though his Test career spanned 13 years, he played in just 67 Tests and made only six overseas tours – two each to the West Indies, Australia and New Zealand - as he found himself sidelined for non-cricketing reasons. But as Len Hutton says in his autobiography: “Many of the tales (surrounding Trueman) are apocryphal, the invention of a wag somewhere down the line. An example was the, ‘Hey, Gunga Din, pass t’salt,’ alleged to have been made to an Indian diplomat at a reception.”

Trueman himself said, “I've lost count of the number of times I have been accused of drinking a couple of pints too many. I am a gin and tonic man and I rarely drink beer, but that does not seem to stop the gossip. I have been seen dead drunk in places I have never visited, seen escorting women I have never met and playing on grounds I had never heard of."
The Yorkshireman was the first bowler to break the 300-wicket barrier in Tests, but had disciplinary actions not robbed him of the many Tests and tours, he may well have got past the 400-wicket mark in Tests.

Where does Trueman figure among the all-time greats? If one has to venture into a statistical comparison, his strike rate of 49.44 is the fourth best in Tests behind Waqar Younis (43.50), Malcolm Marshall (46.77) and Allan Donald (47.03) while his parsimonious average of 21.58 puts him behind Marshall (20.95), Curtly Ambrose (20.99) and Glenn McGrath (21.56). Of course, Trueman himself detested such comparisons saying that his career was in the days of uncovered wickets unlike the men who are ahead of him in the wicket tally.

At 5’, 10”, Trueman was not tall for a genuine quick bowler, but he was as strong as a Spanish fighter bull with broad shoulders and legs that resembled a tree trunk. The sight of Trueman at full tilt is one of the most enduring and magnificent images of cricket. He had a longish, angular run-up, from which he bounded, jet black hair flapping, that culminated in one of the most rhythmic and explosive actions. The combination of physical and verbal intimidation made up a deadly alchemy for the batsmen. His combination with Lancastrian Brian Statham is still regarded as one of the deadly fast bowling partnerships in Test history.

Trueman’s precocious talents were evident in his very first Test. At the receiving end was Vijay Hazare’s 1952 Indian team. The visiting team was reduced to zero for four, with Trueman taking 3 for 0.

I remember sitting with Madhav Mantri one evening at his house and talking about that match. What amazed me most was when Mantri said: “I crossed (Vijay) Manjrekar on my way back to the pavilion and his pale face is still vivid in my memory. I don’t know what had transpired inside the dressing room, but I have never seen Vijay so disturbed. He looked at me and muttered in Marathi: “Mala bakra banaola” (I am made a sacrificial goat). What Manjrekar meant was the captain (Vijay Hazare) avoided the intense pressure of going in at zero for three by asking him to bat ahead. It was an act of self-protection that should have never happened.”

It seemed incredible that India’s best and most experienced batsmen – Manjrekar scored 133 and Hazare got 89 in the first innings - were avoiding a rookie making his debut. Such was the terror unleashed by Trueman that he bowled Manjrekar to have India reeling at zero for four.
At Old Trafford, India were dismissed for 58 and 82 inside a day, Trueman taking 8 for 31 in 8.4 overs in the first innings, which Wisden said “was a spell of bowling only to be compared with Larwood at his very best.” India’s misery was graphically explained by captain Hutton in his memoirs: “… one of the bowlers said it was the first time he had bowled at stumps without a batsman in his range of vision. There was a tendency to retreat in the direction of square leg, and one batsman ran in, hardly took time to take guard, and ran out again. I never saw anything like it at Test level, but it was a heartening fact that England had a fast bowler to demoralize opponents.” Trueman finished with 29 wickets from four Tests in that series at a frugal average of 13.31.

But even the best of batsmen found Trueman really hot on his day. At Headingly against Australia in 1961, he bowled cutters to take 5 for 0 in 24 balls and finished the match with of 11 for 88.

He could skittle a side when he was in the zone. Testimony to that is that nine of his 17 five-for hauls came at under 50 runs apiece. His speed, accuracy and movement were so devastating that 103 of his 307 dismissals were bowled. Where does that figure in the annals of Test cricket? Only two bowlers have recorded more bowled, Muttiah Muralitharan with 144 and Shane Warne with 111. But those figure pales in comparison to Trueman, as both Murali and Warne’s overall tally is more than twice of Trueman at 635 and 685 wickets respectively.

Fittingly, it was against the old enemy, he got his 300th Test wicket. And it had a typical Truemanesque ring to it. Captain Ted Dexter apparently wanted to replace him, but Trueman snatched the ball and thundered to his mark. Trueman escaped another rap by covering himself with glory – having Neil Hawke caught by Colin Cowdrey to reach a memorable milestone.
As fine raconteur and a man who believed in calling a spade a bloody shovel, he made a mark as newspaper columnist and a BBC Test Match Special commentator. He was also a much sought-after after dinner speakers.

He could joke about even the most serious of things. After the short-lived marriage of his daughter Rebecca to actress Raquel Welch’s son Damon, he joked that his run-up lasted longer than his daughter’s marriage. In another grim situation, after he had hit his England team mate Godfrey Evans with a beamer and broke three of his ribs, Trueman apologized in his own special way: "Sorry about your ribs Godders. Really, I meant to skull you. Anyway, why didn't you put your bloody bat there?"

Trueman was a master of psychological warfare. He was notorious for getting into the opponent’s dressing room before the game and telling batsmen how he planned to get them! And in the middle, he subjected batsmen – especially those struggling against him – to stinging criticism. He once asked a batsman who kept nicking him if he had learned that stroke at ‘Edge-baston’! On another occasion, a batsman who had twice unintentionally deflected him between pad and leg stump, made an on-side push and scored four to third man off the outside. Trueman finished his follow through, stood hands on hips and said in a tone of loathing and contempt, "You got more bloody edges than a broken piss-pot."

Trueman was a glutton for hard work. His first-class career spanned two full decades in which he took 2304 wickets at a measly average of 18.29 and an economy rate of 2.53. Unlike most fast bowlers, he fielded close in and was quite accomplished manning the leg trap.

July 1, 2006 was a sad day for England. It was on this day that Wimbledon saw the last of a great champion in Andre Agassi. It was on this day they saw their captain David Beckham walking off the ground with an injury, their star player Wayne Rooney red carded and finally saw their heart break when their team lost on penalties in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, and it was also on this very sad Saturday that the one of the greatest fast bowlers ever, Fred Sewards Trueman, left for the Elysian Fields.

One thing for sure, there will never be a dull moment in heaven with FST around! Adieu, Fred, and thanks for the memories.