How to understand the man behind the public image? If you take your cue from a modern-day sports publishing house, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a forensic approach to your subject’s private life was the most revealing route. Tip over his bins to find the man within, if you like.
A writer like John Arlott was from a different school, perhaps a different age. For Arlott, sport reveals character. Want to know the man; know the cricketer.
Fred, Portrait of a Fast Bowler, contains very little about Fred Trueman away from the game he loved, beyond a brief passage about his youth, similar coverage of his national service -mainly in reference to its effect on his career - and a single sentence about each of his marriages. In contrast, great care is taken to cover the most pivotal and revealing events in the career of the self confessed “t’finest bloody fast bowler that ever drew breath”. Through this we see that the character of the man informs the player of the game, the player of the game informs the character of the man, and throughout, the skill of the author informs the reader of what lays behind the public image.
From the outset – a four page opening chapter, as good as any you’ll find in sports journalism – Arlott sets out the complex nature of his subject’s character. Trueman we are told, was a man of many contradictions: boastful but insecure; immensely entertaining yet sometimes a bore; capable of the self-motivation needed to reach the top of his sport, but a player who could also need encouragement; a gifted wit who knew the right line to carry the day, yet on occasions someone who reverted to a clumsy, inappropriate comment.
If Trueman’s personality was complex, it was also as large as his talent. A combination that led him to become one of the most talked about cricketers of his age. Everyone, it seemed, had a Trueman story, regardless of any foundation in truth. And as we are taken through Trueman’s career, with match descriptions chosen for their relevance to the development of both man and player, Arlott calls the bluff of some of the more notorious tales that have attached themselves to ‘Fiery Fred’, whilst confirming the authenticity of others.
The picture that emerges is one of a great talent realised, yet one you feel was never fully utilised by the powers that be. Trueman was a bowler with an action as smooth as his personality could be grating. He had an individuality that often left him with an uneasy relationship with those higher up cricket’s overly hierarchical structure. Be it as a brash young man entering the Yorkshire dressing room of the early 50’s, where the hard-nosed professionals of that time were quick to put him in his place. Or later, as an England player, with a forthright opinion on the southerners and public school ‘fancy hats’ that ran the game. For in truth, Trueman could at times be his own worst enemy, whilst at others he was harshly treated, or even punished for crimes not of his making.
As a result, his final haul of 307 test wickets was enough to set a then world record, but was far less than what was achievable had the national management of the time fewer competing fast bowling options, or anything approaching a professional standard of man management skills.
Here was a talent that craved recognition and respect. Here was a man with a burning desire, not only to be a great fast bowler, but to be acknowledged as one. Here was a round peg that resisted the wish to be smashed into the square hole of English cricket.
That Trueman achieved all those aims, was compensation for the effort of bowling over a 100,000 deliveries in his career; something that would have broken the body, if not the heart, of a lesser man.
Verdict: This isn’t a book for the voyeur; it’s a book for the cricket lover. Arlott devotes great swathes of prose to match descriptions. Taken out of context, that can sound dry and uninteresting, but within the framework of the book, they explain the development of man and career.
Arlott’s use of the English language is as classically smooth as Trueman’s legendary bowling action and he uses it to describe a sportsman he knew well, but one he can observe objectively. In a marketplace swamped by ghost-written autobiographies that are little more than puff-pieces, this gem from 1971 is perhaps an indication that Freddie was right after all; some things were better in his day.