End of the line for steam train Fraser

Some time tomorrow, at Hampshire’s spanking new ground, Angus Fraser will remove his Middlesex cap, now frayed at the edges, and a couple of sweaters, and mark out a run that has not changed for 15 years. He will then stoke up his engine for one last time and choo-choo in to bowl like a steam locomotive of a bygone age. At the end of the day he will reflect on a journey completed, and he will go and fill his pen with ink and retire to issue forth from the press box.

He will be missed, but his retirement is well timed. Once, he bowled a heavy ball – the type to cause a batsman serious jarring between the thumb and forefinger of his bottom hand. Now, with the passing of time, his first ball lands as gently as a fly on a trout stream – invariably near a length, however, just like the thousands of other deliveries he has sent down in his long and illustrious career.

When I watched him bowl to Mark Butcher this week, the ball arced down, its trajectory more of a spinner than a seamer – not quite above the batsman’s eyeline, but nearly. Thankfully, at Hampshire, there will be no speedometer to record the lack of pace of his last spell for Middlesex. If there is, no doubt old Gussie will invoke the spirit of the ICC and declare its findings invalid and unofficial.

While there will always be room for a line-and-lengther, the game seems to be moving on. It is now a crash, bang, wallop affair, ill-suited to patient probing and a Fraser-like spell of 9-2-15-1. Nor will he miss the 20-over slogathon. When he was asked last week what he thought the new competition should be called, he paused for a moment and then grunted: ‘A bowler’s nightmare.’

No, he is firmly in the departure lounge of his playing days. Beneath the blue cap his hair is thinning markedly, and his gait is ever more stooped. The legs take just a little longer to get going now, and the next morning the stiffness a little longer to overcome.

It wasn’t always so, of course. In the summer of 1989 he burst into the England team, a bright young thing. In the midst of an Ashes thrashing, he was the promise of better times to come. Ted Dexter, then chairman of selectors, had scoured the country for a bowler to dismiss Steve Waugh. What the rest of England couldn’t do, Fraser did in his first Test at Edgbaston and Waugh became the first of 177 Test victims.

The next Test was at Old Trafford and I was there as twelfth man. I didn’t know anybody in the England team so I sat next to Gus in the boot room at the back of the pavilion for no other reason than I knew his brother Alastair. It was the start of an enduring friendship. We watched together as England tamely surrendered the Ashes and we watched in disbelief as the South African rebel touring party was announced mid-match. Three of them (Neil Foster, John Emburey and Tim Robinson) were playing in that Test and Fraser sat there, constantly shaking his head and muttering darkly.

The best of Fraser was in those years before 1991, when a hip injury threatened his career. Before the injury, his body action had a little more snap, was less stiff, and his right arm followed through past his left not his right side. His six wickets in Melbourne on a ‘flattie’ in 1990-91 was his best performance, though it contributed to his presence in the same surgeon’s room as mine six months later. He doesn’t agree, but he wasn’t quite the same bowler afterwards. He needed a little something in the pitch, and his ‘nip’ could occasionally go AWOL for a while.

Because of our shared injury problems I was delighted, as captain, to be able to recall him to the team against Australia in 1993. He led the attack that game and took us to victory, our first over Australia for seven years. My new-ball pairing of Fraser and Devon Malcolm began to take shape in my mind and after that there were many match-winning performances, notably in Trinidad in 1998. Each one was a testament to how good he might have been but for injury.

Most of all he was an absolutely wholehearted team player. He enjoyed bowling on a helpful pitch, but you sensed he really loved the challenge of rolling up his sleeves and bowling when conditions were less friendly, and others had cried ‘enough’. And he relished proving the doubters, such as Ray Illingworth, wrong. In attitude, temperament and style, I liked to tell him that he was a modern-day Alec Bedser. ‘Bedser,’ he snorted. ‘The keeper used to stand up to Bedser!’ Precisely Gus.

But that was then and this is now. He has nearly bowled his last ball in anger; his work is almost done. It has been a long, and you sense, thoroughly enjoyable journey. He leaves with his cup full to the brim with respect, from team-mates and opposition alike. He can rest safe in the knowledge that his presence over the last 15 years has enriched the game, not diminished it. And that, at the end, is all a man can hope for.

I hope at the Rose Bowl tomorrow that a Hampshire batsman inside-edges a Fraser delivery past leg stump for a streaky four. Just to see Gussie standing mid-pitch, hands on hips, kicking a sod and giving the batsman a baleful stare, and even a word or two. I wish I could be there to see it. Sunday Telegraph, 4 May 2002