'It was just one of those days'
A feature of the early English season right through until the 1970s was the Test trial. It was generally unloved by the players, but the idea was that the first-choice England side took on the best of the rest, to allow the selectors to watch all those in the frame for the national side. The reality was that matches achieved little and meant even less to those taking part. Perhaps one of the most remarkable games - and certainly the most unhelpful as far as the selectors were concerned - came in May 1950 at Bradford's Park Avenue ground.
Although Jim Laker - he of the 19 for 90 fame - is remembered as a Surrey offspinner, he was in fact Yorkshire-born, and Bradford was the home town where ten years earlier he had started work as a bank clerk. Park Avenue was a daunting place to play. "It was called the bullring," he recalled. "Once you'd descended the three steps and gone onto the field, you saw brick walls all around and a circle of intent Yorkshire folk watching you."
On a damp pitch with the sun poking through the clouds, Norman Yardley, England's captain, won the toss - and without hesitation asked The Rest to bat. Trevor Bailey and Alec Bedser opened the attack in conditions suited to their styles - there was also a biting wind sweeping across the ground - and Bailey soon trapped David Sheppard leg-before for 4.
Don Kenyon and Hubert Doggart survived, but did little more as the score crawled to 10 for 1 in 12 overs. The bowlers were very much on top and it was, therefore, a surprise when Yardley replaced Bailey (6-4-3-1) with Laker.
Laker, bowling slightly faster than usual on a spiteful surface, struck twice in his first over - Doggart and Peter May both caught in the short-leg trap - and then removed Donald Carr in the same fashion in his next over. "I was able to drop the ball on a length from the very first," he explained, "and I could see the ball turn and lift immediately."
Eric Bedser, Alec's brother and Laker's Surrey team-mate, came in at No. 6, and received a gentle leg-side full-toss - "I was obliged to honour an agreement made earlier on the train," Laker admitted - and he played it up to his brother who had retreated deeper at mid-on to allow the single.
The key wicket, that of the experienced Kenyon, who had been playing the turning ball superbly, fell to a brilliant catch from Godfrey Evans, the wicketkeeper. Kenyon had taken to playing back and, with soft hands, dropping the ball dead at his feet. "Evans had been watching Kenyon's method closely," smiled Laker. "With a superb piece of anticipation he moved like lightning, and the batsman stared in disbelief as the ball dropped cosily into that big red glove waiting by the batsman's feet."
Laker had 4 for 1, and that became 7 for 1 as he pinned Eric Bedser leg-before for that one-off-the-mark single and bowled Dick Spooner and Bob Berry, both for 0.
That brought in Fred Trueman, 19 years old and in only his 14th first-class match. He lunged at the first delivery from Laker and found an inside edge. Laker and Bailey started towards the ball, hesitated, and the batsmen scrambled a single.
But Laker wrapped up the innings ten minutes before lunch when Jackson again tried to blast the ball back past him, and he held an excellent caught-and-bowled chance. The Rest were dismissed for 27 and Laker finished with the amazing figures of 14-12-2-8.
The Cricketer was less than impressed, commenting that it was a "first-class county side in conflict with a scratch Saturday afternoon XI". Bruce Harris observed in the Evening Standard that "the ball, twisting and hopping all over the place, needed a fly-swatter rather than a bat to control it".
The general consensus was that only the most experienced and talented of batsmen would have coped with Laker on that day. It was notable that when England batted one such player, Len Hutton, hammered 85 in two hours, admittedly against a far less daunting attack. Others suggested that the survive-at-all-costs approach employed were to blame. "I did decide to have a swish," Carr told Alan Hill. "The trouble was the ball went straight up in the air and I was caught."
Even Laker admitted that it was a fairly pointless exercise. "It was destined to go down as one of the most remarkable matches ever recorded. As a Test trial it was a complete waste of time. Eight of those selected were mostly forgotten forever."
The match was over before lunch on the second day. England, thanks to Hutton's efforts, made 229, and then bowled The Rest out for 113. Second time around Laker only managed 2 for 44: this time the damage was done by the legspin of Eric Hollies, the man who had brought the curtain down on Don Bradman's Test career two seasons earlier.
The small crowd which had braved the elements watched Laker with a mixture of emotions - pleasure at an England spinner at his best, regret that Yorkshire had allowed such a talent through their fingers.
"There was nothing really special about it," Laker told a reporter a few days later. "It was just one of those days."
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Jim Laker: A Biography - Alan Hill (Andre Deutsche, 1998)
Wisden Cricket Monthly October 1983
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1951