Fred Titmus: Cricketer whose shrewd off-spin and highly effective batting kept him playing the game across five decades

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It was Fred Titmus's simple belief, both in his long career as a professional cricketer and later in a spell as an England selector, that the statistics of the game do not lie. "If you've got it, you'll get runs (or wickets)," he would say. "If you ain't, you won't." By such a measure Titmus certainly had it. He did the classic double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a season eight times, a figure bettered by only four men, and his 2,830 wickets place him in the all-time top 10 of bowlers.

In some ways he was an unlikely character to achieve such success.As an off-spinner he had the advantage neither of great height nor of long spinning fingers. He was not, in fact, a great spinner of the ball. But he did have a shrewd cricketing brain, and he developed the great gifts of flight and drift, varying the point at which he released the ball and maintaining an accuracy that drove frustrated batsmen into error. Similarly, he built a highly effective game with the bat, even opening the innings in a Test against Australia. Fred Trueman called him "the most successful self-made player since the war."

A railwayman's son, he was born close to King's Cross station in November 1932. He attended William Ellis Grammar School, where – despite his small size – he was in the first team at the age of 13. He was also a promising footballer, playing for Chelsea Boys, and for a while he was unsure where his greater ambition lay. Then he watched the young MCC professionals in the nets at Lord's, and with a confidence that he never lost he thought, "I can do as well as them."

He had kept the statistics of all his performances, and he wrote for a trial in early 1949: "I said I'd scored about 1,200 runs the previous summer. I didn't bother to add that it had taken me 84 innings." In a net behind the ladies' refreshment room he bowled six balls and did not bat. "You'll do," they said.

"You'll do," they also said when they were looking for an 11th man for the Middlesex side at Bath in late June. His whites were in the wash and, after a scramble to borrow replacements, he caught the train from Paddington.

He had been due to sell scorecards at the Lord's Test, where five of the county's regulars were in the England XI. Instead, he became the youngest Middlesex cricketer ever, joining a makeshift side which included the 46-year-old former England captain Gubby Allen and, in his second and last appearance for the county, the schoolmaster Horace Brearley, whose son would also captain England. Titmus showed his steady temperament by scoring 13 in an eighth-wicket partnership of 34 with Allen, vital runs in a narrow victory that would lead to Middlesex sharing that summer's championship title with Yorkshire.

At this stage Titmus was a batsman who also bowled, mainly seamers, but in the following years he turned himself into a first-rank off-spinner. Middlesex, with an ageing team, encouraged his progress, picking him through most of the next summer, and after two years of National Service he settled into an annual routine of cricket that continued until 1976. Sixteen times he took 100 wickets, with a best of 191 in 1955, when he also scored his maiden century and topped 1,000 runs for the first time. Still only 22, he was selected for two Tests that summer but, having little success and with Jim Laker in his prime, he was discarded. It was seven years before England turned to him again, by which time he had become a master craftsman.

He would stand at the end of his run-up, hitching up his trousers and surveying the field with a knowing smile. There was a calm, unhurried air about everything he did, a sense of control as he probed away at the batsman. "He was the best bloke I ever bowled with," the miserly England seamer Tom Cartwright said. "He bowled with the same philosophy as me, building pressure." Like Cartwright he loved bowling, always willing to shoulder the burden when conditions were unhelpful.

The last 40 years, at least until the emergence of Graeme Swann, have seen a great decline in the potency of the traditional English off-spinner. The causes are several: the covering of pitches, the greater power of bats, the rise of the one-day game. It was so different in the 1960s, with Titmus one of a generation of fine exponents that included David Allen, Ray Illingworth and John Mortimore, all of whom were useful batsmen as well.

Australia, with its firmer pitches, has never been a happy hunting ground for off-spinners, but England took three in 1962-63 – Allen, Illingworth and Titmus – and Titmus confounded the critics by taking 21 wickets in the five Tests, including seven in an innings at Sydney. The Australian writer Tom Goodman called him "the outstanding personality of the tour", describing his success as "a triumph of character", while Alan Ross wrote, "He gave himself precise tasks and he fulfilled them admirably."

He had further success in the next two winters, in India and South Africa, holding his place in the England team till a tour of the Caribbean in 1967-68, when on a boat trip out of Barbados's Sandy Lane Bay his left foot got caught in the propeller and he suffered the loss of four toes. His fellow passengers thought he might never play again, but two months later he was bowling for Middlesex, on his way to another haul of 100 wickets.

In 1971 Mike Brearley took over the Middlesex captaincy. Titmus hadhad an unsuccessful spell in the post in the mid-'60s, and he did not initially see eye to eye with the younger man's new ways. Nevertheless he remained a model professional, continuing to bowl with canny effectiveness well into his forties. Then, to general astonishment, the selectors plucked him back into the England ranks for the 1974-75 tour of Australia. He could not repeat the success of his first tour there, but he lifted flagging spirits with some gutsy batting against the ferocious pace of Lillee and Thomson. Underneath his equable temperament the competitive fire still burned strongly within him. In all, he played 53 times for England, taking 153 wickets and scoring 1,449 runs.

His last summer as a professional cricketer was in 1976, when for the first time Middlesex dropped him in favour of the young John Emburey. He took the decision without fuss, but he soon proved it wrong, returning to the side in August and ending his career with a harvest of wickets: six against Lancashire, six in each innings against Derbyshire and seven for 34 against Glamorgan at Swansea. With a late run of victories, Middlesex were county champions for the first time since the summer of his debut.

He had two years as coach at Surrey, when the club was going through an unhappy spell, then he left cricket to run a sub-post office at Potten End in Hertfordshire. Yet even that was not the end. With Emburey away with England, he was summoned out of retirement in 1979 and 1980. Since the establishment of the championship in 1890, only he and Wilfred Rhodes of Yorkshire have played for their counties in five different decades.

There was one last and most extraordinary appearance, the stuff of fiction. One morning in late August 1982, nearing his 50th birthday, he came down to Lord's, popping his head into the home dressing room before start of play. "Fred, just the man," Brearley exclaimed. "We could do with a third spinner." Boots had to be found for him, just as whites had been 33 years earlier when he had made his debut alongside Brearley's father, and on the last afternoon, with time running out, he took three vital wickets. It was Brearley's last match at Lord's, and the victory led once more to the championship title.

Only five first-class cricketers have scored 20,000 runs and taken 2,500 wickets: Rhodes and Hirst of Yorkshire, Tate of Sussex, the great WG Grace and Fred Titmus. For a self-made cricketer, he ended his career in pretty good company.

Stephen Chalke

Frederick John Titmus, cricketer: born London 24 November 1932; played for Middlesex 1949-82, captain 1965-68, 53 Tests for England 1955-75; MBE 1977; married Jean (divorced; one son, one daughter), Stephanie (one daughter); died Hertfordshire 23 March 2011.