Fred Trueman was not only a great fast bowler, he was also a great entertainer.
There is a theatrical element to bowling fast and Fred played it for all it was
worth. He’d happily go into the opposition dressing room before play – in a
county match if not a Test match – and announce to the assembled audience
which batsmen he’d be getting out later in the day, and how. You can only really
play that game if you have the talent to back it up more often than not, and he
did. The fact that he played in an era when television, for the first time, was
making stars out of top sportsmen may have helped in the nurturing of the
image, but if he was the first to talk himself up, soon enough plenty of others
were following suit.
The downside to this was that the black-and-white footage of Trueman in
action survived for later generations to scrutinise and plenty concluded that he
was not quite as fast as the legend – burnished of course by Fred himself –
would have them believe. Make no mistake, though, Trueman was fast in his
early days and as time went on he developed into a highly skilful operator who
did not need pace alone to pick up wickets. In his mature years, he was a highly
intelligent operator. He had a lovely action, perfectly honed to the job in hand.
You do not become the first bowler in the history of the game to take 300 Test
wickets, which Trueman did in 1964, without being very good. His average of
21.57 and strike rate of 49.43 are both exceptional.
The way Trueman burst on to the scene at the age of 21 may have had
something to do with how his story unfolded. England had craved a fast bowler
of genuine hostility since the days of Harold Larwood, and when in his first
match India lost their first four second-innings wickets for no runs, three of them
to Trueman, there was understandable excitement, not least from the bowler
himself who sent the Indian batsmen on their way with a few choice words.
That, after all, was how a fast bowler was supposed to behave – according to
some! Later in the series, Trueman destroyed the Indians in even more
comprehensive fashion, taking eight for 31 in a mere 8.4 overs. ‘Where would
you like the sightscreen, batsman?’ ‘Between myself and Mr Trueman, thank
The aura was established but it took Trueman time to adjust to the reputation
he had won. On his first England tour to the Caribbean in 1953–54 his
immaturity got the better of him as he showed little concern at the manner in
which he injured some of the West Indies batsmen, one of whom was the greatly
respected George Headley. He lost his good conduct bonus and played only
three Tests in the next three years.
The penny dropped in the end and from the time that he got his England place
back for an extended run in 1957 he embarked on a golden period in his career,
and the one predicted for him when he first emerged from the South Yorkshire
mining community to excite the coaches at Headingley. He took 22 wickets at
just over 20 apiece in that summer’s series with West Indies, which England
won 3–0, and he took 15 more at 17.06 against New Zealand the following year.
The realisation dawned that a new-ball pairing of Trueman and Brian Statham
could be a winning combination. Between May 1957 and May 1963, Trueman
took 197 Test wickets and Statham 132, Trueman at the much superior average
and strike rate.
Although he had some natural gifts such as strength and speed, by Trueman’s
own admission it took him several years to fully master his craft. He learnt to
pitch the ball up to allow it to swing late. He commanded a big out-swinger but
also a deadly off-cutter, as well as a very good yorker. Although he became a
very canny analyst of conditions as well as the strengths and weaknesses of
opponents, there was still the occasional disaster where he lost the plot, as
happened at Headingley in 1964 when he tried and spectacularly failed to
bounce out Australia’s Peter Burge. It cost England the game. But against the
same opponents on the same ground three years earlier he had bowled brilliantly
For four years from 1959, Trueman was outstanding, taking 20 or more
wickets in seven out of eight successive series. Although his overall record in
England was exceptional he was also very good on tours of the West Indies and
Australia. England won in the Caribbean in 1959–60, which was a terrific
achievement given that the West Indies batting included the likes of Garry
Sobers and Frank Worrell, and came away with a draw – if not the Ashes – in
Australia in 1962–63. The one game that England won in each series owed much
to Trueman, who took five for 35 in the first innings in Trinidad and eight
wickets in the game at Melbourne.
If Trueman’s home and away records are lopsided it is partly because he was
selected for so few overseas tours in his early days. That said, his figures in
England accurately reflected how dangerous he was when the ball moved
around: he took 229 wickets at home at a shade over 20 each and a strike rate of
44.9. Jim Laker and Tony Lock took their Test wickets in England more cheaply
but none of England’s leading bowlers can improve on Trueman’s strike rate in
home matches. Not until James Anderson overtook him in 2014 did anyone beat
his haul of wickets in England.
In retirement, Fred almost became a caricature of himself, whether as a radio
summariser or as a regular voice on the after-dinner circuit. He was disappointed
at some of the things that might have been – he would have liked the Yorkshire
captaincy but it never came his way – and decried what he saw as declining
standards. In truth he was never quite the character of popular myth. He was not
a big drinker, nor really a fire-breathing monster. But it had served to think he
was. As John Warr, another England bowler, once said of Trueman, ‘Cricket and
the Anglo-Saxon tongue have been enriched by his presence.’