Angus Fraser: Titmus's remarkable longevity just part of his gift to the game

One of cricket's greats, the Middlesex and England all-rounder, whose career spanned five decades, passed away yesterday

Cricket is a game of figures and statistics. The game's history is littered with numbers, with 99.94, 800 and 61,760 being three of its most notable. Records are always being broken but it is hard to believe any player will surpass Sir Donald Bradman's Test match average, Muttiah Muralitharan's tally of Test wickets or Sir Jack Hobbs' final number of first-class runs.

To the same extent it is difficult to believe a player will repeat the feat of the Middlesex and England all-rounder Fred Titmus, who passed away yesterday at the age of 78. Titmus played first-class cricket for Middlesex in five decades, the 1940s, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. During this period he took an astonishing 2,830 first-class wickets at an average of 22.37. He also scored 21,588 runs, statistics that arguably make him Middlesex's greatest cricketer.

Although Titmus's (right) achievements are not reflected at Lord's in the same way that those of Denis Compton, Bill Edrich, Gubby Allen and Patsy Hendren have been – each has a stand named after them – his legend at the club remains strong. When I first joined Middlesex in the mid-1980s he would occasionally turn up at the Lord's nets to pass on a little advice to a young spinner. Inevitably, he would end up having a bowl and we all used to watch his first warm-up ball which, unerringly, would always hit an immaculate length and clip the top of off-stump.

Titmus made his first-class debut for Middlesex at the age of 17 against Somerset at Bath in 1949, but it was his last game that is better remembered. Middlesex were playing Surrey at Lord's in 1982 and, at the end of a hot summer, the pitches were dry and taking spin. Unannounced, he entered the Middlesex dressing room before the start of play. Because of the look of the pitch Mike Brearley, the Middlesex captain, half jokingly enquired whether Titmus, now 49, had brought his kit with him. Fred said it was in the boot of his car. Brearley immediately changed his plans and picked Titmus, who took three late Surrey second-innings wickets to help Middlesex win the game.

It was not the first time Brearley had used the tactic. In 1980, when John Emburey and Phil Edmonds were playing for England, he brought Titmus back from retirement at the end of the season. At the age of 47 he held his own to help Middlesex win the County Championship.

Whether Titmus was England's greatest spinner is a matter of debate. That accolade often goes to Surrey's Jim Laker. But there are many north of the river who believe Fred was the better of the two. Even though his stock ball spun in to a right-handed batsman, Peter Parfitt took hundreds of catches at slip. Titmus could beautifully drift a delivery away from a batsman in the same way Graeme Swann does now.

As a bowler Titmus was miserly. He hated conceding runs and against certain batsmen wanted fielders placed in the deep. The approach was the opposite of his captain, the more adventurous Brearley, and the pair often argued about field placement.

As a person Titmus was old school. He had a dry sense of humour and was very witty but he could also be caustic and blunt. He showed his tenacity by recovering from a horrific boating accident in Barbados on England's 1967-68 West Indies tour, when the propeller of a boat removed four of his toes. It would have ended the careers of many cricketers but in the summer of 1968 he returned to take 111 wickets in a season for Middlesex.

Titmus' achievements were celebrated in an unlikely manner when the UK indie band Half Man Half Biscuit wrote a song called "Fuckin' 'Ell It's Fred Titmus". The song was written after the lead singer unexpectatntly met Titmus on three occasions at unlikely venues – at a supermarket, a train station and in a park.

The encounters probably took place after Titmus had retired from cricket, when he ran a Post Office near Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire.

Middlesex, the MCC and Lord's are yet to acknowledge this great cricketer in the same manner as Half Man Half Biscuit. A cricketer needs to have achieved something quite special to have an area of Lord's named after him but very few deserve it more than Titmus, who took almost 1,200 first-class wickets at the home of cricket.

Angus Fraser is the Middlesex Director of Cricket

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