Fred Trueman was named Pipeman of the Year 1974
© PA Photos


T'greatest that ever was

Fiery, difficult, outspoken, Fred Trueman belongs to a lost era. Fifty years on from his final Test, we look back at what he left behind

Tanya Aldred  |  

It is mid-June, 1965. Britain is changing - the Beatles' MBEs have been announced, British Rail is taking up the 24-hour clock. At Lord's, New Zealand's cricketers, miserable in a damp and cold English summer, are struggling - against Rumsey, against Snow, against Titmus, against Barber and Trueman.

But, and this is an open secret, Trueman - the Cocked Trigger, Fiery Fred - just isn't scary any more. The thick black mop is still Brylcreemed heavily over to the side, the long cotton sleeves still tumble down the broad forearms, the shire-horse backside still drives the generous chest - but the legs are gone. The Guardian goes so far as to describe him as an "honest plodder". The effort of bowling more than 700 overs a season for eight years, over 1000 in four of them, is showing at last.

England win with 15 minutes to spare and the teams prepare for Headingley. But not Fred. This is his final Test. "T'finest fast bowler that ever drew breath" is put out to pasture by his country at last.

He carried on for a few more years of course, running in for Yorkshire, those Widow Twankey feet tumbling into that easy, beautiful side-on action, cricketing brain as sharp as ever, but the bowling days got harder and, for the spectators who cared, more doleful. He walked quietly away at the end of the 1968 season, re-emerging for a few unsuccessful one-day games with Derbyshire in 1972 and then barrowed into a life of celebrity and broadcasting.

Of all the great players to have stormed out of the Headingley pavilion in high dudgeon, only one has a stand named after him: FS Trueman

When he died in July 2006, aged 75, very quickly after a diagnosis of lung cancer, Wisden called him "probably the greatest fast bowler England has produced". His Test figures still dazzle: 307 wickets in 67 Tests at the miserly average of 21.57. He was the extremely proud founding member of the 300 Test wickets club, which he celebrated with a few pats on the back and an evening visit to the Black and White Minstrel Show at the Victoria Palace. Of the 26 bowlers who have since joined him, only Allan Donald, Malcolm Marshall, Waqar Younis and Dale Steyn have a better strike rate, only Curtly Ambrose and Marshall a lower average, and only eight players took 300 in fewer Tests. Had he not both misbehaved and been misunderstood the haul would surely have topped 400. For Yorkshire his wicket tally was an incredible 1745 and in 21 seasons of first-class cricket in England he took 100 wickets in a season 12 times.

No, not bad for a boy from a mining family, squeezed out during a snowstorm in the outside toilet close to the pit yard and, apocryphally at least, so big he had to sleep in a drawer pulled from the sideboard. The fourth of Dick and Ethel Trueman's seven children, Fred's upbringing was loving but poor, and very hard. Scotch Springs, where he was born, is now a wasteland. Maltby Main Colliery, where his father and brother both worked, finally shut last year.

Hold the pose: Trueman at Lord's against West Indies in 1963, a match in which he took 11 wickets

Hold the pose: Trueman at Lord's against West Indies in 1963, a match in which he took 11 wickets © PA Photos

It will be 50 years this summer since that final outing in an England shirt. During the meandering of those five decades, the affectionate if dog-eared place cricket held in the national consciousness has faded. Top players are millionaires screened on pay-to-view television, while local cricket clubs struggle to find enough people to field a team. This waning love affair has affected all counties, even Yorkshire, with whom Trueman won the Championship seven times outright. They are reigning champions this year, but only for the second time since 1968, and in the intervening period have contended with brutal internecine warfare and near bankruptcy that threatened to destroy the club.

But of all the great players to have stormed out of the Headingley pavilion in high dudgeon, only one has a stand named after him: FS Trueman.

Evening creeps forward as the train pulls up at Leeds station. The taxi driver, tired, on his last job of the day, points out cranes and the skeins of a new hotel in the busy city centre, and says the place is buzzing. Yet as he turns up Cardigan Road and a flamed sunset yawns into the open sky, things aren't so changed. It is mid-March, and the still bare trees stand proud in their spring nakedness and the long stone walls lean along the pavements just as they did when big Fred dragged his cricket bag and boots towards the ground.

"I remember Yorkshire had a lady physio and she said God only gave out one perfect physique and she gave it to Fred Trueman" James Greenfield, former sports editor of Yorkshire Post

The Yorkshire County Cricket Supporters' Association (YCCSA) are meeting at Headingley tonight, three weeks before the start of the season, to listen to Matthew Wood, the ex-Yorkshire opening batsman now working for the Professional Cricketers' Association. Most of those here are pushing 60, smart in their knotted scarves and club ties, and there is real affection for Wood and excitement about the summer to come. And there is something else, the reason I've come: all of these people here, who have loved Yorkshire cricket for most of their lives, remember technicolour Trueman, visceral and raw, not the black and white baggy-trousered bowler running in on Pathé newsreels or the professional Yorkshireman later found on Test Match Special.

To play for Yorkshire in the 1950s and '60s was to be part of a tightly knit band of brothers all born within the county boundary. The players had a shared heritage and though divided until 1963 as amateurs and professionals, had grown up with the same dream.

The Trueman Show: Fred with television presenter Jimmy Savile in 1973

The Trueman Show: Fred with television presenter Jimmy Savile in 1973 © Getty Images

In 1965, Yorkshire cricket stretched and curled its way across the whole county. The club still played at seven scattered grounds: Bradford, Harrogate, Hull, Middlesbrough, Scarborough and Sheffield, as well as Headingley. To become a member you had to join a waiting list and be formally proposed and seconded. Numbers were in excess of 12,000 (this year they are down to 5500 with no waiting list, and Yorkshire will play the vast majority of their games in Leeds, with a scattering in Scarborough, and one T20 in Chesterfield).

So walking out onto the turf with ten other men wearing the famous white rose cap puts you at the very heart of the county. And Trueman, fast, caustic, charismatic, charming, was the most adored.

Alan Kaye, the YCCSA secretary, was a young boy when he watched Trueman bowl down the Headingley slope ("a proper hill then"). He was one of the many bursting with pride as Trueman cartwheeled in.

"He represented a class. Yorkshire people regarded themselves as looked down upon by southerners, not necessarily on the cricket field, where they could hold their own, but in life. He had real Yorkshire characteristics - he was reliable, very talented and not necessarily given a chance to succeed in life. Fred had a similar appeal to Johnny Wardle, who was also a great crowd-pleaser because he didn't give a damn.

A 21st century Trueman? Well he would have played havoc with ECB protocol

"You have to remember that in those days cricketers were very revered. As a small boy I would have been terrified of approaching them. I remember asking Len Hutton for his autograph: 'Not tonight lad.' You didn't go up and talk to them like you do today when you get little urchins shouting, 'Hey Vaughany give us your autograph.'"

James Greenfield, sports editor of the Yorkshire Post for many years, remembers a man who would have done anything for his club.

"Fred once said that he would crawl through broken glass to play for Yorkshire. And that's true. These days once players are picked for England they don't play so much for their county. Sometimes they don't care so much; with one particular Yorkshire player it was quite marked. Whereas with Fred, even though he maybe wasn't firing on all cylinders all the time, he was still a major force for the club.

"He was a talismanic figure, prepared to sacrifice himself, and he did stand out even in the great Yorkshire team of those days. [Frank] Tyson was faster but Trueman had longevity. He also had a very good physique. I remember Yorkshire had a lady physio and she said God only gave out one perfect physique and she gave it to Fred Trueman."

"I just don't know what's going off out there": after he retired from playing, Trueman was a familiar voice in cricket broadcasting © Getty Images

Wood, a Yorkshire player two and a bit generations on, remembers steeling himself to go up to Trueman and introduce himself after making a hundred in his second game, only for Trueman to say, "I know who you are." It touched him. He recalls too, an ageing figure who would slip into the background when Yorkshire were practising. "He used to come up the steps into the indoor school and see how we were doing. He didn't say much, he was just an aura."

It was an aura that England depended on. In his pomp, Trueman was the attack dog few had an answer to. Greenfield again: "My most poignant memory of him is at The Oval in 1963 when he was still a great bowler. England had set West Indies 253 to win and relied on Trueman to get them out but he had damaged his left ankle and could bowl only one over. Without him, [Brian] Statham and [Derek] Shackleton couldn't do it. England lost that series because they needed what only Trueman could have done."

Trueman carried on for a few more years, running in for Yorkshire, those Widow Twankey feet tumbling into that easy, beautiful, side-on action, cricketing brain as sharp as ever, but the bowling days got harder

He was an intelligent cricketer too, when his temper didn't get the better of him. During the 1961 Headingley Test, Trueman noted the wicket was wearing and that he would be better slowing down and bowling his medium-paced offcutters. Eventually captain Peter May agreed and by cutting down his run, and aiming for the dust, Trueman bowled Australia out, finishing with a spell of 5 for 0 in 24 balls. And in 1968 at Bramall Lane, in one of the proudest moments of his career, he led Yorkshire to a victory over the Australians for the first time since 1902, his bowling pedestrian but his captaincy astute.

So Trueman had pace and variety. He had the bouncer and yorker. He had the offcutter and a devastating outswinger. He had stamina too and was barely ever injured. He could be swaggering and petulant, but to those watching this didn't much matter. For a surprising number of YCCSA members his have-a-go batting has stuck in the memory. Many also remembered his wonderful fielding, particularly at leg slip and short leg. According to Brian Close, his team-mate and captain at Yorkshire, he was dreadful as a young man but by sheer force of effort and will, turned himself into a remarkable catcher.

Effort and will: Trueman's entire career rested on his willingness to exercise both.

Hawking his memorabilia at the The Fiery Fred Collection Auction in 2001

Hawking his memorabilia at the The Fiery Fred Collection Auction in 2001 © Getty Images

To some, Trueman was a caricature of a Yorkshireman, especially in retirement, but no one who played with him doubted his authenticity.

Peter Parfitt, whose friendship with Trueman grew in middle age when they moved close to each other, played with him for England and against him for Middlesex.

"Generally speaking he was a liked person. You have to remember that most great cricketers are basically selfish, they look after number one. Fred wanted to bowl when he wanted to bowl and at the end he wanted to bowl.

"Yorkshire was an austere establishment, more so than a lot of counties. You had to mind your p's and q's, and professionals were in no position to do a Pietersen - when Johnny Wardle wrote for the Daily Mail in 1953 he was taken off the Australia tour. And of course when he was very young, Fred blotted his copybook in the West Indies where his rather unruly behaviour on and off the pitch antagonised the crowd, the opposition and some team-mates. He was quite a maligned individual, although you can't deny that he did shoot himself in the foot."

Trueman's relationship with his beloved club and the England hierarchy was mixed. He felt patronised, ignored and misunderstood by both the patrician MCC and many on the Yorkshire committee - though his long feud with Geoffrey Boycott came to an end when Boycott sent Trueman a 70th birthday card. They were reconciled by the time of Trueman's death. Trueman could certainly be a tricky, prickly customer, but in that he wasn't alone.

To play for Yorkshire in the 1950s and '60s was to be part of a tightly knit band of brothers all born within the county boundary

Close, now 84, and nursing a cup of tea in the early evening, wants a final word. He and Trueman met when they were just 15, and Close was one of the few people who physically intimidated Fred.

"Yorkshire was our background, it was where we were all born, it was something that tied us all together," he says. "We had an occasional harsh word. I was his captain and I think I did a lot of good for him. I kept it short, five-six overs, though if he was taking wickets I never took him off.

"He was a great lad, quite a comedian and a hell of a personality. He didn't always speak the King's English but we didn't mind that, we enjoyed him - he was the greatest of the lot."

There have been other good, teetering on great, English fast bowlers since Trueman: Snow, Willis, Gough, Anderson. There have been equally big characters - Botham, Flintoff, Pietersen. But what made Trueman special was a combination of his skills and temperament and what he represented at a time when society was changing and cricket was almost universally loved. To many Yorkshire men and women, he epitomised success against the odds and a healthy disrespect for authority. A 2006 poll in the Yorkshire Post invited readers to nominate their greatest ever Yorkshire XI. Over 5000 people replied and 99% voted for Trueman, more than for any other player.

Yorkshire's own, departed at 75: Trueman's grave, at Bolton Abbey

Yorkshire's own, departed at 75: Trueman's grave, at Bolton Abbey © PA Photos

It seems improbable that cricket will regain the national significance it held in Trueman's time, nor that any English cricketer will have such a unique appeal to such a wide cross section of the population, even in Yorkshire, where cricket still means the most.

The county remains the great provider to the English game - six players on the West Indies tour last month were nurtured in Yorkshire and 16 of the 22 non-overseas players who won the title with Yorkshire last season were born within the county boundary; this, 23 years after the club lifted its Yorkshire-born rule. The club's conveyor belt of talent rolls on too, delivering other counties with rich pickings.

Yet despite the 2014 win, the club's record-breaking 32 County Championships were mostly won over four decades in the 20th century - the 1900s, 1920s, 1930s and 1960s. That was when Yorkshire's place in the nation's folklore was forged, as the home of bloody-mindedness and hard-nosed, blunt-speaking professionalism that so fitted the Trueman stereotype. (Over time less savoury reputations stuck too, like a refusal to move with the times and an initial failure to integrate with ethnic minorities.) Yet still the club throws its weight around - the new ECB chairman Colin Graves and Boycott, the BBC's most curmudgeonly commentator, are both Yorkshiremen.

A 21st century Trueman? Well, he would have played havoc with ECB protocol. Imagine the damage he could have done with Twitter had it existed when he was left out of the South Africa tour in 1956-57. England seems to have lost the confidence to let cricketers be themselves, 21st century men of disparate types, good and bad. Botham and Flintoff trod in Trueman's footsteps in terms of public adoration - Flintoff, the nation's darling in 2005, was perhaps the nearest equivalent with his forays into light entertainment, his passion for his county and his gentler private persona. But even Flintoff in his pedalo days didn't have to put up with the barrage of scrutiny international players do today. It takes a brave or foolhardy one to bare his soul - but somehow you get the feeling Trueman might just have thrown himself into the circus.

Instead he lies in the cemetery at Bolton Abbey, part of the Yorkshire landscape that sculpted him and that he so adored. His grave is just 22 yards away from his old friend Bob Appleyard's, who used to accompany him to Sunday worship, feet up, both of them, at last. "If anyone beats it," as Trueman said about his final tally of Test wickets, "they'll be bloody tired."

Tanya Aldred is a freelance writer who co-edits cricket quarterly The Nightwatchman