By Swapan Dasgupta
One of my earliest birthday presents, which I still treasure, was a copy of Peter May’s Book of Cricket—a collection of cricketing tips and reminiscences of the then Surrey and England captain. I spent countless hours poring over the book, enthralled by the evocative photographs of cricketers and cricket matches. My childish imagination was captivated by matches played on picturesque grounds—Charterhouse, Fenners and Worcester. A good cricket ground, I concluded, must have a backdrop of tall spires and imposing cathedrals, and be a happy blend of sport and fairy tale.
The book captivated me so much that by my seventh year I was spouting names like Hutton, Bailey, Miller, Lindwall, Walcott, Weekes and Tyson—my equivalents of knights in shining armour—to bemused elders. Some of the more dramatic photographs added to the mystique—like Everton Weekes, front leg in mid-air, fiercely executing a square drive, and Len Hutton glancing the ball through the leg trap set by Pakistan during the final Test in 1954.
There was one photograph, however, that puzzled me. Over the caption, “The remarkable start to India’s Test at Leeds, 1952”, it featured a giant scoreboard showing the Total at double zero and Wickets 4. On badgering my father for an explanation, I was given a vivid account of what happened to the Indians in the second innings of the Headingley Test. It centred on “Troo-man”, a killer of a bowler who was so fast that no batsman could see the ball as it whizzed past them and uprooted the stumps.
Until another ogre called Griffith smashed Nari Contractor’s skull, “Troo-man”, in my mind, was the ultimate ju-ju man. A demonology was constructed around this faceless Englishman whose delivery, captured sideways in May’s book, was akin to a terrifying white X. There had already been instilled in us wariness of the hard, red cricket ball and to this was added the great fear of fast bowling.
It was a fear that wasn’t confined to wide-eyed school kids alone. The dread of being felled by the bumper and beamer stymied Indian cricket for a long time—until the Nawab of Pataudi and Sunil Gavaskar demonstrated that we had nothing to fear but fear itself.
Fred Trueman, whose death was announced to a full Headingley crowd watching Sri Lanka get the better of England on July 1, would have loved the tale of “Troo-man the nasty”. It would have bolstered his innate belief that most Indian batsmen were lily-livered ninnies, unworthy of taking the rough and tumble of a man’s game. “And how are Messrs Roy, Mantri and Umrigar?” he taunted an Indian journalist after the Lord’s Test in 1974, when India was bowled out for a shameful 42. Trueman was remembering his dream debut at Headingley in 1952.
In India’s first innings, the 5 feet 10 inches-tall fast bowler with what The Times obituary described as “an ample posterior”, took 3 wickets for 89 runs, even as Vijay Manjrekar (133) and Vijay Hazare (89) took the Indian total to 293. England replied with 334, Tom Graveney top-scoring with 71.
When India came out to bat the second time on Saturday, June 7, just before 3pm, Len Hutton asked the Yorkshire debutant to open the bowling from the Kirkstall Lane end. Writing 52 years later in his memoirs, As It Was, Trueman described the occasion: “People came from the North, East and West Ridings, the Dales, the mill towns of Halifax, Huddersfield and Bradford, from Sheffield’s city of steel and from mining communities of Rotherham, Pontefract, Castleford and my own Maltby. There were fishing folk from Hull, railwaymen from York and brewery lads from Barnsley… Being one of their own, I knew all eyes were on me.”
To cap it all, England was being led for the first time by a “professional” from Yorkshire. For Headingley, it was full house on a special Saturday.
Trueman’s first delivery pitched outside the off stump and Pankaj Roy let it to go through to wicket-keeper Evans. The second ball was a bouncer pitched on the middle-and-leg. Roy tried to hook, mistimed it, got a top edge and the ball ballooned into the hands of Denis Compton at second slip. Sensing trouble, Hazare sent in wicket-keeper Madhav Mantri, a doughty defensive bat, as number three.
The second over by Alec Bedser saw one delivery rising unexpectedly. D.K. Gaekwad couldn’t get his bat out of the way and the ball travelled into the safe hands of Jim Laker at gully. India was zero for 2.
When Trueman began his 22-yard run-up for his second over, he decided on a slower delivery. “My idea was to make the batsman play early, and that delivery to Mantri is one I shall never forget. It pitched on his middle-stump, then straightened out. Mantri’s off-stump was ripped from the ground and cart-wheeled across Headingley’s sward… Headingley erupted.”
In walked Manjrekar. “There were 34,000 people inside Headingley and it was as silent as a tomb… I let fly another straight delivery of full length… Manjrekar attempted a cover drive. Yet again the pace of the delivery was too much for the batsman. Manjrekar’s off-stump leapt out of the ground and yet again cart-wheeled across the pitch in a futile quest for freedom.”
It was sensational. India, recorded Wisden, “made Test history by losing four wickets for no runs in the first 14 balls of the second innings, three of them to eight balls from Trueman on his debut.”
In his 67-Test career, Trueman took 307 wickets—a record which endured for 11 years. Test. This amounted to one wicket every 49.43 balls. Against India he bagged 53 wickets in 9 Tests, all played in England—an incredible tally of a wicket every 33.66 balls.
Trueman, it would be fair to say, devastated Indian cricket. He didn’t merely bowl us out, he destroyed our self-esteem. He created in the Indian mind a paranoic fear of fast bowling that was to endure for another two decades. Writing in the Manchester Guardian on the Third Test at Old Trafford in 1952, John Woodcock described how “Trueman with the wind astern and all fielders crowded like vultures round the bat hurled himself into his task. He was not bowling short and he was bowling mostly straight but only Hazare, (Hemu) Adhikari, Manjrekar and (P) Sen stood firm with a stout heart. The others backed away to square leg or went berserk, afraid to stand and defend their wickets. It is hard to imagine a worse innings by a number five batsman in a Test match than that played by (Polly) Umrigar…”
Why single out Umrigar? In seven innings, Roy scored five ducks, including four successive ones. On four occasions he fell to Trueman.
As a cricketer, Trueman was everything May’s book did not prescribe. Pompous, arrogant, surly and blessed with a formidable chip on his shoulder, he was offensive to too many people. He was forever fighting his private class war—against the toffee-nosed cricket establishment, the various captains of England and, of course, the men he mocked as Gunga Din. His approach to cricket straddled the brave audacity of Robert Clive and the angst of Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy Atkins. In England, Trueman was always an outlander, the awkward anti-hero who would have been better off playing football.
For us in India, however, he symbolised another less confident age—a time when we were intimidated and psyched by the fury of the white man’s pace. It was a problem not confined, unfortunately, to cricket.
(published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, July 14, 2006)