“Is that the correct score?” he telephoned his reporter at the ground.
“Are you sure that you haven’t got it the wrong way round?”
The information that had reached him from Headingley was that India were 0-4 in their second innings in the Test match against England in 1952.
Three of the wickets had fallen to Fred Trueman, a 21-year-old tearaway fast bowler making his debut.
The surprise was no less pronounced in the Headingley stands, where a Saturday afternoon crowd of 25,000 watched in amazement, and even among the players.
As Trueman later recalled, having turned to look at his captain, Len Hutton, as the wickets fell in the space of 14 balls: “For a brief moment our eyes met. Then Len’s head fell, he sighed and shook his head from side to side as if saying, ‘I don’t believe it, Fred.’
“I was having trouble believing it myself…”
As the sides prepare to lock horns at Headingley again, with the match that starts on Wednesday the seventh in Test cricket between England and India at the Leeds ground, there remains no more remarkable start to a Test innings than the Trueman-inspired mayhem of that inaugural meeting.
Having been called-up while on National Service with the RAF (Trueman had to ask his Group Captain for extra leave and was favourably received on condition that he arranged some tickets for the Group Captain and his wife), the legend of “Fiery Fred” was born with a performance that might have been plucked from the pages of Boy’s Own.
Bowling from the Kirkstall Lane end, after England had scored 334 in reply to India’s first innings total of 293 (Trueman 3-89), the Yorkshireman struck with his second ball when Pankaj Roy top-edged an attempted hook and was caught at first slip by Denis Compton (0-1).
From the fourth delivery of the second over, bowled by the Surrey great Alec Bedser, the ball rose awkwardly off a length to the other opening batsman, Datta Gaekward, and ballooned to Jim Laker in the gully off the bat’s splice (0-2).
On the first day, as the players had taken to the field after India won the toss, there had been an amusing moment when Trueman confidently strode up to Bedser, who had carried England’s pace attack since the war and was playing his 39th Test, to advise him: “If you keep ‘em quiet at one end, I’ll get the bastards out.”
Now, on this celebrated Saturday, the third day’s play, the novice really was as good as his word.
Charging down the hill with the roar of his home crowd ringing in his ears, a whirlwind of jet-black hair and hostile aggression morphing into a glorious, sideways-on action, Trueman struck again with the opening ball of his second over, sending the middle stump of wicketkeeper Madhav Mantri cartwheeling spectacularly (0-3).
As Mantri trudged off, he was astonished to discover that it was not Vijay Hazare, the India captain and the team’s most experienced batsman, who walked out to face the music but Vijay Manjrekar, the captain having chosen to drop himself down the order – a pusillanimous decision in Mantri’s eyes.
“I crossed Manjrekar on my way back to the pavilion and his pale face is still vivid in my memory,” he remembered.
“He looked at me and muttered in Marathi, ‘Mala bakra banaola’ (I’ve been made the sacrificial goat).
“Hazare wanted to avoid the intense pressure of going in at nought for three and had asked Manjrekar to bat ahead of him.
“It was an act of self-preservation that should never have been allowed to happen.”
It didn’t work either.
Although Manjrekar had scored 133 in the first innings, and indeed shared 222 for the fourth wicket with Hazare, who struck 89, he was a 20-year-old making only his third Test appearance.
Unsettled by the atmosphere and occasion, and above all by the discombobulating sight of Trueman’s speed, Manjrekar aimed a nervous cover drive at his first delivery and lost his leg stump (0-4).
It was Trueman’s third wicket in eight balls and India’s batting was in ruins.
As England celebrated Manjrekar’s wicket, Hutton, who had just been appointed England’s first professional captain, pointed to the scoreboard.
“Take a good look at it,” he urged his players. “You’ll never see another like it in a Test.”
Trueman was on a hat-trick and it was now – and only now – that Hazare appeared at No 6.
The hat-trick ball missed off stump by a whisker and after Polly Umrigar was fifth out with the score on 26, caught and bowled by Worcestershire leg-spinner Roly Jenkins, Hazare (56) and Dattu Phadkar (64) added 105 for the sixth wicket before Trueman bowled Hazare to claim his fourth and final victim.
Jenkins and Bedser mopped up the tail as India were dismissed for 165, England cruising to a 125-run target on day four for the loss of three wickets. Afterwards, Pankaj Gupta, the India manager, admitted that his players had been scared of Trueman.
“It is terrible, terrible,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
“I am very distressed. This Trueman has terrified them.”
The Yorkshire crowd lapped it all up – including an 11-year-old Geoffrey Boycott, who watched Trueman the Terrible from behind the arm.
“When Fred got his first two wickets, this fella said to us, ‘If he gets another wicket this over, I’ll buy you all an ice-cream’,” recollected Boycott. “Well, he bloody well did get another wicket, so we all had an ice-cream on Fred.”
There was no time for Trueman to bask in his triumph. He went straight into an RAF cricket tour of Holland and Germany from which he then made a laborious journey back to Lord’s for the second Test.
Trueman left Germany two days before the match at 4am, caught a bus, a train, a ferry, a taxi, followed by another train and taxi, and eventually arrived at the team hotel in London at 8.15pm.
He pulled up sufficiently well to take eight wickets in the match and collected 29 in total in the four-match series, including 8-31 in the first innings at Old Trafford.
England thrashed the tourists 3-0, with only rain at the Oval denying Trueman and his team-mates a probable whitewash.
His debut at Headingley had been pinch yourself stuff. Trueman had even thought that the phone call announcing his call-up had been one of his fellow erks winding him up.
It was only when the great Bill Bowes told him it was really true that he eventually believed it, but who would have believed 0-4?