It seemed strange not having Fred Titmus on the first-class field last summer, so often has he popped up out of apparent retirement. Jim Laker pays tribute to the player who featured in five successive decades

It would have been hard to visualise Fred Titmus playing for any other county bar Middlesex. Although his record will show that indeed he did take a wicket for Surrey, the chances of a lasting partnership with The Oval were about as good as Emmott Robinson wearing a tie with a red rose on it.

Fred first played for Middlesex in the late 1940s and was still turning out for them in the 1980s. To watch him still going through his repertoire with such consummate ease during the odd charity game this summer led me to believe that it is not impossible that he might yet reappear in a sixth decade.

Born a Sagittarian little more than a penny bus ride from the Nursery End in 1932, he was a natural from the very beginning. As a young lad he could both bat and bowl and probably had a preference for the former. For a long time Middlesex have been adept at encouraging the cricket/soccer relationship, and Titmus fell nicely into that category. He showed his midfield skills with Hendon, Chelsea and Watford before deciding that the summer game was to be his forte.

On leaving school he took a similar route to Alec Bedser before him by starting work in a solicitor's office, but survived that experience even less than 'Big Al' before writing to Lord's for a trial. His potential was such that within minutes of turning his arm over his long association with Middlesex was under way.

Bath debut
He was then just 16 years of age, and joining the Lord's staff usually meant plenty of menial tasks apart from the long net sessions; but he was destined never to sell scorecards at the Lord's Test that year. England had selected no fewer than five Middlesex players to play New Zealand at headquarters, and instead of watching Compton make yet another century, young Fred was hurried off to Bath to make his first-class debut against Somerset.

At a little over 17 he was to become a Middlesex regular before National Service called. The RAF and Combined Services together may well have made him a good airman, but they certainly furthered his cricket education, for back at Lord's he took his first 100 wickets in a season, a feat he was to repeat a further 15 times.

In 1955 he completed the first of his eight doubles, with no half-measures: 1235 runs and 191 wickets (he was still only 22), and was given the opportunity to make his Test debut against South Africa on his home ground. Middlesex were overjoyed, but the same feelings were not expressed by a slightly senior off-spinner on the other side of the Thames!

Fred did not have the happiest of starts in Test cricket. He took just a single wicket in his first two home Tests at a cost of 101, and in the same year, on his first overseas tour with MCC to Pakistan, he returned figures of 5 for 248 in representative matches.

Shorter stride
It was around that time that Gubby Allen suggested I might have a chat with him. I was happy to oblige, as Fred even later at the height of his career was always a good listener. As a medium-pacer converted to off-spin, I felt his delivery stride, especially for a man of his stature, was too long. This usually meant the trajectory of the ball was too low and flat. A shorter stride would help him pivot more pronouncedly, help give him better flight and consequently more variations. He agreed and set to work on the idea, which I believe in the end transformed him from a top-class county bowler into an accomplished Test bowler.

It is only fair to say that at that time I was picking up a few Test wickets, and Fred was on the short list as a successor along with David Allen, Ray Illingworth and John Mortimore. David was the biggest spinner, Ray, in length, mean and niggardly and a shade too defensive, and John the master of flight and variations. All were fine practitioners, but I always believed Fred Titmus had the edge. He was never easy to hit, his control of length and line was brilliant, and of course he mastered that away-drifter better than anyone.

Caribbean accident
Still, it was 1962 before he was fully established as an England regular, and the majority of his 53 Tests were played in the 1960s. It would have been fair to assume that after 49 Tests and 146 wickets his Test career had come to a sudden end in the blue Caribbean sea off the island of Barbados. His left foot became entangled with the boat's propeller and four of his toes were completely severed.

Balance is crucial and critical to all bowlers, and few believed that Fred would ever play again. But in a remarkably short space of time he was back at Lord's, quite unconcerned about all the fuss, bowling as studiously as before in the nets and ready to continue his distinguished career. Wickets fell to him as readily as ever and six years on, at the age of 42, he found himself Australia-bound for the third time. Unhappily he was unable to reach again the heights of his 1962-63 tour, when he took 21 Test wickets and averaged over 36 with the bat.

Back home, he continued to add to his remarkable haul of first-class wickets, and with 2830 victims to his credit only Shackleton and Lock of living bowlers have surpassed him. I doubt if he ever punched the skies or ever embraced John Murray or Peter Parfitt. He went quietly along, without fuss, proving himself to be a master craftsman of his time.