Yorkshire buried their Fred in his beloved Dales last week. Umpire Dickie Bird gave the main moist-eyed address. Brian Close remembered their debutants’ county curtsey in 1949, both just 18, against Cambridge at Fenners. At the snooty University Arms, the dinner menu was in French. The haughty waiter hovered. Bewildered Brian, the Guiseley mill-worker’s son, passed it blankly to the Maltby miner’s son Fred, already unblinkingly brimful of bluster. ‘Right, sunshine, I’ll begin w’a large plateful o’that,’ he demanded, jabbing his finger at the menu’s top line. It read: Mercredi le deuxième mai.
The tales of Trueman were up and running. The fables of Fred. To Fleet Street and the nation he was ‘Fiery Freddie’. To Harold Wilson ‘the greatest living Yorkshireman’. To the BBC’s Brian Johnston he was ‘Sir Frederick’ (it rankled that he was not awarded his overdue OBE until 1989 when he was 58). To cricket the world over just the two initials F.S. were enough, or even simply ‘Sewards’, his second baptismal name after his doting, and doted on, grandma. In the 1980s I made a BBC film of his cricketing life; simply Maestro they called it, for once a spot-on title. Fred traded as boozily bullish celeb of irreverent legend — and why not? — but in fact he was far less the hail-fellow taproom gladhander, more the reflective, brooding, questioning loner. Always happy, mind you, to embellish his art and craft, and tell how, in his pomp, he had the lot: inners and outers, five gears of bouncer, off-cutters, leg-cutters, this yorker, that yorker …though possibly far nearer the truth was his admiring compatriot Don Wilson: ‘Genuine as his true greatness was, F.S. never quite knew where the ball was going. All we knew was that Fred was Fred; he just ran up and bowled and bowled; and he was absolutely brilliant.’
I last saw him on the eve of last summer’s epic Ashes Test at The Oval. He was full of the joys, as well as, of course, enjoying his lifelong hobby: that is, dark, baffled, grave grumbles about the state of modern cricket. All of 52 years before, the Ashes had also needed regaining at Kennington’s final throw and there was a public swell for Aircraftsman Trueman, stores oik at RAF Hemswell in Lincolnshire, to be granted one week’s special leave from National Service — the government gave the nod and the boy bowled like the wind and the great deed was done. At 22, Fred was the babe of that still hosanna’d and fabled 1953 XI; with his going, only three immortals survive: Sir Alec Bedser, 88 last week; Trevor Bailey, 84 in December, and Tom Graveney, 80 next June.
The following week, a million miles away the Movietone newsreel trumpeted an Ashes special for us West-Country bumpkins in the ninepenny seats of the Gaumont cinema in Stroud. Fuzzily monochrome it may have been, but I still recall with a vivid clarity the shot from a ground-level camera at about, it seemed, extra cover, and my awestruck wonder at the rhythmically gathering crescendo as lusty young Fred, sleeve flapping, black mane flying, careered in with the gusto and grandeur of a gale from the pavilion end to put the Aussies to flight. It remains history’s most majestic fast bowler’s action; utterly regal, too, is his Test bowling average of 21.57, bettered only in the all-time top 10 Englishmen by Barnes and Laker. Note, as well, Fred’s ‘bunnies’: he had Worrell and Kanhai each nine times; Harvey and O’Neill 8; Lawry, Simpson and Sobers 7. Some hutchful.