Fred Trueman

Truth and friction blend with eloquent ease

Michael Parkinson interviews Fred Trueman

Michael Parkinson

November 30, 1996

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I have to tell you Fred Trueman will not be well pleased with his BBC obituary. In fact, if it appears in its present form there is every chance he will haunt Broadcasting House. In it the writer describes his action as `lolloping`. This is a bit like saying an oak tree is `fragile` or the flight of a swallow `ungainly`: it is the very opposite of the truth.

Before I tell you what it was like watching Fred Trueman bowl I had better explain I came across his obituary not because he has secretly passed away - he couldn`t do anything quietly - but because in researching an interviewee I sometimes see a preview of the obituary. I am glad I did on this occasion because I am able to right a great wrong.

Anyone who believes I am being pernickety never saw Fred bowl. To do so was to understand that his action was a statement both of the man and the cricketer. The walk back to his mark, the bandy-legged, broad-beamed swagger, the arrogant display of wide shoulders and muscular forearms was a crude declaration of a formidable physical presence. When he turned 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 stretch of his body described the arc of a bow. It was the action not simply of a great fast bowler but also a purist with a proper reverence for the game`s style and artistic possibilities.

Fred Trueman might have made a reputation out of being a tough-talking, rumbustious Yorkshireman but his genius as a bowler was built on a technique of classical foundation. Cricket is a side-on game. Len Hutton defined the principle as a batsman, Trueman as the bowler. Fred thinks Len Hutton was the greatest batsman he ever saw and has never tired of saying so.

He is equally indefatigable expressing the opinion that the trouble with modern bowlers is they ignore basic principles. Many think he bangs on too much about such things. Maybe, except what he says is indisputably true and, what is more, no one is more entitled to speak on such matters than Frederick Sewards Trueman.

He has just set down his thoughts on the game in an audio tape called Owzat! He tells the story of batting with Len Hutton against Gloucestershire when he hung about long enough to see the great man score a century. The opposition tried their best to get Fred to the striker`s end but Hutton`s ability to take a single whenever he wanted frustrated them. So they gave Len a juicy full toss to hit for four. He stroked it through the covers and set off running. The Gloucester skipper shouted to the cover fielder to let the ball go for four. As Len passed Fred he said: "Run three. It won`t reach the boundary." And it didn`t.

He didn`t always see eye to eye with Hutton, but he never queried his talent. Similarly Hutton never doubted that the belligerent, chippy young man had it in him to be a very good Test bowler. As it was Fred Trueman proved him wrong. He became a great fast bowler, arguably the best ever produced by this country and among the best half-dozen of all time.

Many years ago I was asked to write Fred`s biography. I contacted the great man and agreed a deal but didn`t follow through because there was too much happening in both our lives at that time for us to settle down and write the book. Eventually John Arlott wrote the book: Fred. Portrait of a Fast Bowler. When I talked to John I asked how he managed to pin Fred down. "Didn`t bother talking to him. I had seen him play. What could be more eloquent than that," said John.

While I was still discussing the possibility of the book with Fred we considered a title. I told Fred it should be snappy and to the point. He thought for a minute and then said: "What about `Fred Trueman: T`Definitive Volume on T`Best Fast Bowler That Ever Drew Breath`." It is now an oft-repeated anecdote, but one I can vouch for.

"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."

On that very subject I asked Fred how many of the stories told about him are true. He said very few. But on the other hand strange things did happen to him. I asked him for an example and he told me of a bizarre incident which happened during a tour of India for the Royal Cricket Association`s Silver Jubilee matches. As Fred told it, he was making a long and never-ending journey by rail when the train made an unscheduled stop in the middle of nowhere and Fred alighted to be met by the station master.

He was overjoyed at meeting the famous bowler and almost beside himself when Fred asked if there was a handy toilet. He escorted Fred through the station into a room where he drew back a red velvet curtain to reveal a Victorian chamber pot mounted on a plinth. What is more the pot had the legend "F. S. Trueman" painted on it.

Now how it came to be there, how on earth the station master knew that Fred would one day arrive on his doorstep in need of a pee, what has since happened to such a significant piece of cricket memorabilia are important questions, but not as significant as the possibility that Fred Trueman might be adding to his own myth. When I asked him if he was being fanciful he said: "How could I possibly make it up?"

He was, of course, the most famous quick bowler of them all. They are the gunslingers of cricket, the fastest men in town, and as such are invested with the reputation and the legend of their breed. But none has so spectacularly pursued both the romance and the reality of being a fast bowler as Fred Trueman. Like Noel Coward in another branch of the entertainment industry he has an anecdotal history in which truth and fiction are so intertwined it is impossible to tell one from the other.

The Australian cricketer Norm O`Neill tells a 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."

Richard Hutton was once listening to Fred describing a spell of bowling in which, typically, every delivery seamed, swung and bounced, when he said: "Tell me, Fred, did you ever bowl a ball that merely went straight?" Ignoring the barb Fred said, without hesitation: "Aye, three years ago. It were a full toss. It went through Peter Marner like a streak of piss and knocked his middle peg out." Peter Marner later confirmed the story although he thought it likely Fred didn`t mention that it was on a dark day at Bramall Lane with him bowling at the end which didn`t have a sightscreen.

I always thought that Fred Trueman bowling at Bramall Lane defined Yorkshire cricket. Some grounds greet you with a smile. Bramall Lane scowled a welcome. It wasn`t pretty, but like Fred Trueman it had a certain grandeur. It wasn`t even functional. Had it been so it wouldn`t have had a sightscreen stuck in the middle of the football pitch and a few thousand spectators risking piles and worse by parking their backsides on terracing.

It wouldn`t do nowadays but when I first knew it during the Forties and Fifties it fittingly represented the industrial landscape I grew up in. The same area produced Fred Trueman and to see him marking out his run at the soccer pitch end and then come racing in with 30,000 spectators willing him on was to experience the perfect symmetry between a fast bowler and the clay that shaped him.

He survived major illness and even overcame a spell where Raquel Welch was his daughter`s mother-in-law. "My run-up lasted longer," he says.

It was significant Fred Trueman chose Bramall Lane for his swansong in 1968. Twenty years, 2,301 wickets and 16,000 overs after first playing for Yorkshire he captained the county against the Australians. Typically he wrote the perfect script. He scored runs, took a blinding diving catch in the gully to get rid of Doug Walters and skippered Yorkshire to a famous victory by an innings and 60 runs. Most unforgettably of all he bowled for the last time off his long run. He was 37 years of age and past his prime but what was still apparent as he ran into bowl was what John Arlott described as "the mounting glory of rhythm, power and majesty".

You could see what as shrewd a judge as Trevor Bailey meant when he wrote: "On all pitches and in all conditions it is doubtful whether there has ever been a more complete fast bowler." It was Bailey who also supplied the archetypal Trueman anecdote. Playing against him on a fast pitch at Leyton, Trevor went to hook, missed and was sweded. When he picked himself up he found himself face to face with Fred. "Sorry Trev lad," said Fred. "There`s many more I would rather have hit than thee."

Since his retirement from the game the legend has been propagated in a never-ending stream of public appearances and after-dinner speeches. He survived major illness and even overcame a spell where Raquel Welch was his daughter`s mother-in-law. "My run-up lasted longer," he says.

The sadness in retirement has been his falling out with the Yorkshire County Cricket Club to the point where he says: "I want nothing to do with them." There is fault on both sides; a great deal of posturing and false pride at work but it is a sorry state of affairs when the most famous cricket club in the world and their most renowned bowler ignore each other.

There has also been a tendency of late, particularly among young bucks, to treat Fred as some kind of joke figure. To an extent he has himself to blame because of a tendency to expound the idea that cricket finished when he stopped playing and today`s cricketers wouldn`t have been employed in his day. There are times when he seems sour, discontented and out of touch; a bitter caricature of the glorious athlete that was. Perhaps it is because he was a fast bowler rather than a cricketer, part of a troublesome, quarrelsome breed; an awkward cuss.

In the end, of course, none of it matters because Fred Trueman will be judged as a player and not a personality, and as such will take his place in the pantheon. He will be at home for he has always been one for myths and deities.

I once asked him for his opinion on Yorkshire cricket and how it might escape the doldrums (this was some time ago when Fred was still involved with the club). "It will get better," said Fred. He searched for the fine phrase and then said: "Take this down, Parky lad. Fred Trueman says: `One day Yorkshire cricket will arise like a Spartacus from the ashes`."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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