Portrait of the workman as artist
The summer of 1989 was a desperate time for an impressionable 11-year-old to get hooked on cricket. Four thumping Test defeats, 29 players, a raft of rebel-tour defectors, and Gooch lbw b Alderman 0. Try picking the positives out of that.
And yet there was one. A lone pillar of rectitude in a ransacked temple. His shoulders were perpetually stooped but his spirit was never broken, and while the charlatans and showponies were being ruthlessly disembowelled by Allan Border's freakishly focused Australians, Angus Fraser just ran in and bowled, and ran in and bowled, and ran in and bowled.
I had hit upon my hero largely by accident. I had been struggling, as a patriotic Scotsman born in Germany and raised in Dorset, to justify on the one hand my loathing of the England rugby team and on the other my adoration of all things leather and willow. Fraser, born near Wigan and based in Middlesex, but blatantly as Scottish as they came, was all the evidence an 11-year-old needed to have his cake and eat it.
But as soon as I saw him bowl, I realised the connection went deeper than any spurious claims to shared ancestry. In Fraser I recognised an anti-athlete at the peak of his powers, a sportsman to inspire the fat, the slow, the red-faced, and the sweaty. I was all of these and more. I loved cricket but was exquisitely hopeless at it.
Fraser taught me that there was another way. Line and length, rhythm and control. Parsimony over panache. Every spare moment was spent in the nets, lumbering in, reaching high, competing for the first time with my flash athletic peers who had all the pace but none of the guile. When I was picked as first change for the junior third XI, it was the proudest day of my life.
As the summer wore on and England's poundings continued to mount, Fraser's pyrrhic successes became the only thing worth clinging to. Take the fifth Test at Trent Bridge. I surveyed it from afar, having been whisked away on a family holiday to Yugoslavia, but a sneaked glimpse at a rare copy of the Daily Mail told me all I needed to know. Australia had amassed 602 for 6 declared, but Fraser had put his peers to shame with 52.3 overs, 18 maidens, 2 for 108. It was genius repackaged as futility.
But then suddenly Fraser's wickets started coming as well and my hero worship went into overdrive. Five for 28 in 20 overs at Sabina Park, as West Indies were sensationally toppled on home turf; eight in the match against India at Lord's, when Gooch scored 333; and another five-for in the very next Test at Old Trafford. When my parents caught me bouncing on the sofa in glee after India had been skittled for 432 (Fraser 5 for 124), they realised it was time to bite the bullet and indulge my odd obsession.
And so off we went to the Oval to watch my very first Test. It was an abominable day's play, dominated by a tedious Ravi Shastri century, but at the close, I finally met my man. In fact I almost missed him. I'd been immersed in autograph-hunting behind the pavilion, ticking off the names like a trainee anorak, but my mother spotted Fraser's loping figure plodding into the distance, and bang, I was off - hurtling down the Harleyford Road to intercept him as he fled. I don't recall speaking as I thrust my bat under his nose. Adrenaline could carry me only so far.
But no sooner had I met him than he was gone. A mystery hip condition, brought on by yet more Ashes futility, left his career hanging by a thread. For two seasons I searched for him in the county scorecards, but under ARC Fraser I found only an imposter with a handful of expensive appearances to his name. "Why aren't you playing, Angus? We need you," I shocked myself by shouting when I bumped into him again at the Oval in 1991. "I want to play," came the plaintive response.
But he couldn't, and didn't, and I had no choice but to move on. Mike Atherton became my new favourite player (no other bowler cut the mustard), and I took pleasure in England's rare moments of success. But I still checked the Middlesex card every week, hoping that the big man would return.
And then suddenly it happened. A spell of 7 for 40 against Leicestershire in 1993, and the cry went up from the shires that Fraser had got his "snap" back. Two games later he - and I - were back at the Oval for the sixth Test against Australia. But how would I respond? I was now 15 with my first vaguely teenage pretensions - clearly too grown-up for such childish obsessions.
Like hell I was. Eight match-winning wickets later I was smugly reminding anyone I'd ever met that Fraser was the greatest medium-fast seam bowler that had ever walked the earth.
And I was still doing it five years later as Fraser routed the West Indians in the third Test in Trinidad. Did he lose a certain something after his injury? Maybe. But in an era of slim pickings for players and fans alike, he still cared more passionately than any other English bowler of his generation. His main failing was that he was a sweaty knacker who looked defeated after a single delivery. But as the man himself has been known to grumble, "Bowling is bloody hard work." It was never in Fraser's nature to try and pretend otherwise.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo. This article was first published in the Wisden Cricketer