Only he and Wilfred Rhodes have played for their county in five decades but of all the extraordinary numbers attached to the name of Fred Titmus none conveys the impression he made when he began his waddle in from the Pavilion End writes Mike Selvey
FRED TITMUS would have been a remarkable cricketer in any era – and his was one of the longest. Some say his type of bowling would not have survived today, with its springboard bats with the moisture sucked from them, small boundaries and stratospheric run-rates. Poppycock.
I write these words having, for example, just watched Sri Lanka’s Tillakaratne Dilshan, an offspinner of modest pretensions and ability, tie the England captain in knots. Survive? Fred would have thrived, teasing, snaring and bedding himself in for a long spell – the spinner, he said, should be allowed to build his pressure over time, not be expected to produce instant results – relishing it all.
Cricketing longevity appears to be marked in international terms nowadays but it would be remarkable if anyone comes close to that of Titmus who, as a 16-year-old, began his first-class career at the Recreation Ground during the Bath Festival of 1949 and ended it one August day 33 years on when, having retired and just shy of his 50th birthday, he pottered into the Lord’s dressing room for a cuppa, pipe and a chat on the balcony and instead was persuaded to play one last match on a dry turner. His three second-innings wickets helped Middlesex to beat Surrey and eventually win the Championship. He just picked up where he left off.
The figures are beyond belief – not the 22,000 runs, though he was competent enough to open six times for England in an emergency and once, in his 40s, top-scored for England against Lillee and Thomson on a Perth flier. It is the wickets. From the first, Hampshire’s Neville Rogers bowled, to the last, Graham Monkhouse lbw, he had in the course of more than 30,000 overs taken 2,830 of them at an average of 22.37 and a shade above two runs per over. He is inside the all-time top 10.
One hundred and sixty-eight times he walked from the field, sweater thrust over his shoulder, with five wickets or more in an innings. These are phenomenal achievements. He played 53 Tests, his finest performances perhaps in India in 1964-65 (27 wickets) and a year earlier in Australia, where he succeeded (7 for 79 at Sydney) despite a virtual refusal of home umpires to award him lbw decisions, part of his stock-in-trade.
This is the age of YouTube but there seem to be none of him beyond his immortalisation in song by Half Man Half Biscuit. But I see him now, in his prime, a slight figure at the start of his run from the Pavilion End at Lord’s, so much his personal fiefdom it should be renamed.
His feet are Chaplin ten-to-twos, his walk more a waddle since losing four toes in a Caribbean boating accident (“I don’t feel the cold now”). There is a hitch of the flannels, a slight field-change with a subtle wave of fingers. Then he makes a fist of his right hand and blows into it, before wrapping his fingers round the ball, forefinger – gnarled and calloused – almost forced behind it.
Fred had variation (“enough generally in trying to bowl it in the same place twice”) and flight, not a direct function of simply bowling more slowly and tossing it higher but much more subtle: it was, he said, a fractional delay in his action, a gentle rocking, that delivered the ball imperceptibly later than the batsman perceived.
He spun his offbreak, not hugely but enough, drifting the ball away from the right-hander so that Peter Parfitt at slip came into play. He also used the wind perhaps better than any spinner, floating the ball into it (although he could bowl flat enough if he wanted). “I don’t like bowling into it,” he once said, “but I don’t get much option sometimes.”
But most devastating was the swinger, bowled from that index finger, a delivery which started outside the line of leg-stump, seducing batsmen into seeing a free hit, before straightening on to the stumps. “Don’t sweep Fred,” was the advice without which no novice batsman went to the crease. Sometimes, he would say, it was candy from kids. His brother in arms, the wicketkeeper John Murray (JT to all), who could read him like a book, would appeal almost as the ball left the hand. “Another one, eh, JT.” He was just brilliant.
Frederick John Titmus was born on November 24, 1932 and died on March 23, 2011, aged 78.
Mike Selvey, Guardian cricket correspondent, was a team-mate of Fred Titmus from 1972-82