Legend on legend
John Arlott's writing rarely matched the irresistible richness of his broadcasting, but this wonderful biography was the indisputable exception.
Everything came together in this work. Arlott was at his peak as a journalist when he wrote it - reportedly within the space of a fortnight during a postal strike - and Fred Trueman had just come to the end of a long and illustrious career and was ripe for a major study. As the most colourful and complex English cricketer of his generation, Trueman was the perfect subject for someone who delighted in cricket's capacity for bringing out the personalities of its participants.
Finally, although this was not articulated in the book itself, Arlott may well have seen in Trueman's story aspects of his own. Arlott had to overcome some hostility within the BBC in order to establish a treasured place as a commentator, while Trueman's rise from Yorkshire pit village to a position as the country's pre-eminent fast bowler was not without its turbulence. These were not establishment men.
Many of Arlott's heroes were men of modest backgrounds whom he was apt to romanticise in the fashion of Neville Cardus, his great inspiration as a writer. But unlike Cardus, Arlott possessed a strongly practical streak (as a young man he had worked as a policeman), and wasn't averse to first-hand research.
For example, he took himself to the street where Trueman was born and spoke to one of the local residents. But he didn't bog down his narrative with empty quotes; he used his eyes as well, beginning with this graphic passage:
Scotch Springs is such a place as the Industrial Revolution and accidents of geology combine to scatter about the North of England. It is a terrace of twelve brick-built houses ... From their backs rich, dark ploughland runs to the village of Stainton, something over half a mile northwest. On the other side of the terrace, above the pocket of coal set in the farmland, is the vast grey whaleback, wrinkled with rain runnels, of the tip; the gaunt shaft and all the harsh surface works of Maltby Main.
No surprise, then, that this soil produced a thundering fast bowler, not a fancy-dan wrist spinner. No surprise, either, that the infant Trueman weighed in at 14lb 1oz. He could have been a lump of Englishness hewn from the earth.
In short, this book beautifully blends Arlott's own thorough assessment of a complex character and master craftsman (there is a rightly famous description of Trueman at the moment of delivery as a "cocked trigger") with plenty of testimony from third parties. All the tales are here.
It was greatly to Arlott's advantage that his professional career with the BBC (from 1946) and the Guardian (for whom he acted as chief cricket correspondent from 1968) spanned all of Trueman's playing career, so that Arlott witnessed most of the major events of Trueman's career at first hand - at least in England if not abroad.
Oddly, just as Trueman preferred playing at home, so Arlott preferred staying there. Arlott only covered two major overseas tours (to South Africa in 1948-49 and Australia in 1954-55), while Trueman took only 78 of his 307 Test wickets outside England.
The confluence of their careers allowed Arlott to put Trueman's career in its proper context. He accurately identified the start:
It is difficult for later generations to appreciate quite what Fred Trueman meant in 1952, not simply as performer but as a symbol - heroic, epic, nostalgic, dramatic, comic and downright earthy - constituted exactly to the demand of the day.
And also the end: Trueman's pathetic attempt to bounce out Peter Burge at Leeds in 1964, the "most unrelievedly disastrous [match] of Trueman's career".
The timing of this book was everything. Had Arlott waited another five years, probably the chemistry would have been contaminated. By then Trueman had started working alongside Arlott as a summariser on BBC Radio's Test Match Special, and their relationship, though always close and warm, would have changed decisively. By then, too, Trueman, always content to remain a celebrity, had embarked on a chequered media career that ultimately tarnished the image of lion-hearted hero. As chance had it, Arlott's book had captured the Trueman legend at its absolute zenith.
Fred: Portrait of a Fast Bowler
by John Arlott
Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1972
Simon Wilde is cricket correspondent at the Times and the Sunday Times