19-90: Jim Laker by Brian Scovell

The spinner's lot - immortal for a day

Jonathan Rice
Jonathan Rice reviews 19-90: Jim Laker by Brian Scovell

Jim Laker's astonishing feat at Manchester 50 years ago has a very strong claim to be recognised as the greatest cricketing achievement of all time. No batsman has ever dominated a match so single-handedly and no bowler has so completely demoralised and destroyed the opposition. Nineteen wickets in a match - it defies belief.

Yet today Jim Laker is rarely mentioned among the pantheon of the truly greats of cricket: there is a feeling that somehow the wickets were doctored in his favour, or the opposition were not up to much, that he was a one-match wonder or that nowadays no mere finger-spinner could inflict much damage. Offspin is the poor relation of the bowling battery and English cricket-lovers, raised on a diet of solid triers like John Emburey, Peter Such and Robert Croft, cannot imagine an offspinner as a world beater.

Jim Laker was a difficult man, which did not help his cause. Even Brian Scovell's sympathetic treatment cannot hide the fact that he was a hard man to get to know and one who did not always forgive and forget. But his background and early experiences, which Scovell delves into more deeply than any previous biographer, help us understand a man who was, more than most of his generation, unwilling to show his real feelings. The story of his banishment from both The Oval and Lord's, largely through the machinations of one man, Lord Monckton, needs to be told, as does the background to his feud with Peter May, another brilliant but insecure cricketer. His relationship with Tony Lock was odd, too. Only in their final years, long after they finished playing, did they become friends. After Laker's 19 wickets Lock said nothing to him for about a month. The tales of his final seasons at Essex, while still in MCC's bad books, are a revelation. Brian 'Tonker' Taylor is even quoted as saying "we had plenty of laughs" from the moment Laker arrived in 1962. The Essex dressing room must have been a very dull place in the 1950s.

This is a good, enjoyable read, written by a man who ghosted Laker and thus knows him as well as anybody. It is a pity, therefore, that the editing is so poor that it looks a bit of a rushed job. At least 10 stories are repeated in different parts of the book and there are long passages quoted from other books, which makes it look like a cut-and-paste job, which it certainly is not. Scovell lists well over 60 people whom he interviewed for the book and their contributions are telling.

The first Test match I ever saw live was the fifth Test of 1956, at The Oval, a few days after Laker entered into immortality at Old Trafford. Yet all I really recall of that game was the dampness, Keith Miller's hair, the bowling of Tyson and the catching of Lock. I do not remember seeing Laker bowl that day, although Wisden tells me he did. I am grateful to Brian Scovell for re-establishing my memories of Jim Laker, one of the greatest bowlers of all time.

This article was first published in the September issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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