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The speedboat and the toes

Touring the Caribbean is a far from easy affair for cricketers, but Fred Titmus returned home more mangled than most

Martin Williamson

December 3, 2011

Comments: 6 | Text size: A | A

Fred Titmus is hugged by his children Dawn and Mark upon his return from the West Indies, where he lost four toes in a boating accident, London, March 9, 1968
Fred Titmus is hugged by his children Dawn and Mark upon his return from the West Indies, with Mark appearing to come worryingly close to treading on his father's injured left foot © PA Photos
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Touring the Caribbean is a far from easy affair for cricketers and a fair number have returned bruised and bloodied from the - until recently at least - fast bowling barrage at international and island level. But for England vice-captain Fred Titmus, the 1967-68 tour ended because of an incident on a day off.

Titmus, who was a good offspinner and a competent enough batsman to have opened in a Test, took four wickets in the opening two Tests, the second of which in Jamaica is best remembered for the riot that ended the fourth day.

The squad headed to Barbados for the third Test and on arrival went down to the beach near the Sandy Lane Hotel. A few of the players went into the sea and swam out to a motorboat, drifting around it as they chatted, "cavorting like dolphins" according to the Guardian. As they were out of their depth, one or two held on to the side of the boat as they chatted.

The boat's engine was idling, but unbeknown to the players it had an unusual design in that the propeller was underneath the hull instead of at the back. Titmus, who was resting by holding on to the side, went to clamber on board. As he did so, his left leg slipped under the boat, at which point "suddenly there was a bang".

At first he was unsure what had happened as he had been in the water long enough that his feet were slightly numb. "Hold on a minute, I think I've cut my foot," he said. As he lifted his leg out of the water the seriousness of what had happened hit home. His foot had gone into the propeller. Two toes had been sliced straight off and two others were hanging on by the skin alone.

What only emerged years later was that the driver of the boat at the time was Penny Cowdrey, the wife of Colin, the England captain. "Although she was completely innocent, her husband was very concerned her name was kept out of the papers," Titmus said. "After all, 'England skipper's wife chops off his deputy's toes' would have been a better story!"

Titmus was helped to the shore by Cowdrey and Robin Hobbs, where a towel was wrapped round his foot. Then Denis Compton, on the trip as a journalist, and Brian Johnston, the BBC cricket correspondent, carried him to a car in a beach chair. The three of them were about to rush to the nearest large hospital in Bridgetown when a young boy told them there was a small hospital en route, where there was a "famous doctor".

As St Joseph's Roman Catholic Hospital was only four miles away, they stopped the car there and found Dr Homer Rogers, a Canadian surgeon specialising in ice hockey injuries, who used to spend time working in Barbados.

Titmus was fearing the worst but Rogers opened the towel and breezily said: "Oh, we'll soon have that sorted out," adding he had seen dozens of ice hockey players return to action after losing toes.

His remaining toes were amputated and the skin wrapped over the foot, leaving only the big toe intact. Rogers explained to Titmus that he was lucky, as the propeller had only grazed his big toe. Had that been cut off as well, his balance would have been ruined. As it was, Rogers said it would be weeks, not months, before he could play again. As he recovered in hospital, Titmus' biggest concern was that the nuns who acted as nurses had banned him from smoking his ever-present pipe.

Titmus said his accident was put into perspective as he was waiting to see Rogers. "There was a little old lady sitting in a chair and she asked me if I was the young man who had lost some toes. 'What a shame,' she said, 'what a pity.' But when I looked at her I realised she had no legs. So there was no chance of feeling sorry for myself."

"Fine... except I feel a lot lighter" Titmus to a reporter when asked how he felt a day after the accident

Within four days Titmus was walking, and he then found out he could run without any pain. He remained in the Caribbean for a fortnight before heading back to the UK. His balance was a slight issue but he sought advice from a ballet school in London to help with that.

Eight weeks after the accident he played his first game, in the unusual setting of Munchengladbach in Germany, against a British Army XI. In an era where pre-season warm-ups were rare, he needed to test his fitness before the start of the domestic season. He scored 63 and took 6 for 44.

He initially wore a rubber left boot so there would be less grip on the foot he swivelled on, but after a few matches he realised it was not needed and reverted to conventional footwear.

When the season got underway, John Woodcock wrote in the Times: "As I watched him carried from the sea I saw little chance of him playing again. [His return is] a remarkable story of good doctoring, good luck and irrepressible spirit."

Titmus subsequently received compensation from England's insurers, of £98 "which did not exactly measure up to my loss… £25 a toe did not seem exactly generous".

What happened next?

  • Titmus proved his form was unaffected, ending the 1968 season with 111 wickets at 19.37 and 924 runs at 25.77
  • England won the five-match series with victory in the fourth Test
  • Titmus made a remarkable return to Test cricket when selected to tour Australia in 1974-75 at the age of 42

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email us with your comments and suggestions.

My Life in Cricket - Fred Titmus (John Blake Publishing 2005)

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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Posted by CricketMatchSpecial on (December 4, 2011, 14:33 GMT)

Not only the WI players of that era were aggressive, the spectators were no less either.

Posted by kitten on (December 3, 2011, 23:09 GMT)

I remember meeting Fred Titmus at a hotel at Lords, after he had retired. He was a remarkable guy, and we had a quick chat. He did not know me, but was very approachable, and talking to him one would never have thought he has such a terrible accident. When I asked him about it, he had a good laugh, and even said it hadn`t stopped him dancing. Good man Titmus, also a brilliant cricketer.

Posted by lorimer123 on (December 3, 2011, 14:36 GMT)

I had heard parts of the story over the years but never the full account.the remarkable thing for me which i didnt know before reading this was that he was back playing in eight weeks.that wouldnt be out of the ordinary in this day and age but 43years ago must have seemed like a minor miracle.

Posted by vatsap on (December 3, 2011, 14:27 GMT)

super read and good for Titmus. Keep the articles coming.

Posted by Beertjie on (December 3, 2011, 13:34 GMT)

I watched him in the 60s and he was a damn good off-spinner plus a very useful bat. It was good to learn the facts of the incident. Fred was a phlegmatic Cockney who imo was one of the best offies to play for England, perhaps the best since Laker until Swann came along.

Posted by Trapper439 on (December 3, 2011, 7:51 GMT)

I remember reading about this many years ago, although I had forgotten the name of the player involved. I'd actually been under the impression that it was a fringe Australian player, and that it ended his career. Good to hear that he didn't let the mere loss of four toes slow him down.

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.

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