'You've got to get them when you can'
Fifty-five years ago today, one of Test cricket's greatest individual achievements was completed. On July 31, 1956, the England offspinner Jim Laker walked off the Old Trafford field having taken 19 for 90 against Australia in the fourth Test of the Ashes series. It was a record not only for the most wickets in a Test match, but also in first-class cricket, and to this day, nobody has bettered Laker's effort. The Australians were at the time upset that the pitch had been doctored to suit spin but this week, four of Laker's opponents looked back at the remarkable achievement.
Neil Harvey, Australian batsman If you look back to the Test at Lord's, the wicket there was a green top, and seamed around. It was a good cricket wicket. We won there. Peter May was captain of England, and I remember he said to me after the game, "That's the last wicket you'll get like that." Sure enough, we got up to Manchester and the first look at the wicket, we thought it wouldn't last two days.
Colin McDonald, Australian batsman The whole nature of the pitch changed, and I would suggest deliberately. The Lancashire committee men at Old Trafford said they had nothing to do with the preparation of the pitch, that it was directed from down south, from the England cricket administration. The curator, Bert Flack, was asked about the pitch, and he said, "I acted on instructions." Looking back on it, I still believe the English administration cheated. But not the England players; they played the game perfectly well, according to the traditions of the game, and they weren't responsible for the conditions.
England won the toss and batted. Two of their top three batsmen, Peter Richardson and David Sheppard, made centuries, and the team finished with 459.
Ian Craig, Australian batsman We certainly got a bit of a shock when we went out to field. That was the first I'd seen of the pitch. It was very dry and virtually white. Certainly it was a shock after the previous pitches we had had. It was a bit of a let-down because we'd had problems in Leeds in the previous Test on a spinning wicket, and got a bit of a setback and negative attitude, which reflected in our performance.
Maddocks Ray Lindwall bowled the first ball of that Test and it landed outside the off stump and came through to me accompanied by a cloud of dust. Keith Miller was at second slip, and he burst out laughing and said, "This game will be over in two days."
Craig It was relatively easy on the first day. It was just very dry and with not much grass showing. We assumed it was going to spin before the game was out. We just didn't have the type of spin bowlers who could use it.
Harvey It suited a quick finger-spinner, not the blokes with a bit of flight and guile. It needed quickish finger-spinners like Jim Laker and Tony Lock, who dug the ball in and could still turn it a couple of feet. That was the big difference.
McDonald England batted very well on the first day, and made a lot of runs, even though it was a very sandy pitch. We had Ian Johnson, who couldn't use the pitch to the same manner as Lock and Laker, and Richie Benaud was just developing as a bowler, and he was not an offspin bowler. He was an over-the-wrist spinner.
Australia's innings began after lunch on the second day. McDonald and Jim Burke put on 48 for the opening partnership, but Laker demolished the rest of the order, and Australia were all out for 84. Burke fell to Lock, the only wicket not taken by Laker, and Harvey was bowled by a delivery he compares to Shane Warne's Gatting ball.
Harvey I thought I had a fairly good defence against good spin bowling. You get these balls every now and again. It was pitched around leg stump or a fraction outside, and I just pushed forward, thought I had the thing covered, and it turned past the bat and knocked the off bail off. It was just too good.
McDonald Australians are not brought up on English wickets, and English wickets tend to be softer for climate reasons. Australian wickets are hard, and have a different texture altogether. Australians in those days didn't play offspin as well as Englishmen because we were brought up on different pitches. Australians generally had a weakness against offspin, which Laker was able to exploit.
Craig Our mental attitude was not very good. We dropped our bundle a bit after what had happened in Leeds. It was a turning wicket, and we hadn't been able to cope on that. To cop another one right on top of it played on our attitude, and it was reflected in that first innings. But give credit to them, they did bowl extremely well, there's no question about that. But we had lost some of our resolve.
Laker took 9 for 37 in the first innings, and before the end of the second day Australia were forced to follow on 375 behind. McDonald retired hurt with a knee injury on 11, and the next man in, Harvey, was out first ball when he hit a full toss to short mid-on.
Craig The great thing about Laker was that he rarely bowled a bad ball. The only bad one I can recall him bowling in that match was when he bowled a full toss to Neil Harvey, who hit it straight down somebody's throat.
Persistent rain allowed only 45 minutes of play on the third day. It continued to rain on the fourth day, which changed the conditions somewhat. McDonald and Craig batted resolutely between showers, but saving the game was going to be difficult.
McDonald It was necessarily to apply all your concentration. I top-scored in both innings of that match. In the first innings the pitch was like Bondi Beach, and in the second innings it was a mud heap. You were using all the technique you'd gained over years of experience, using it to its full and not doing anything silly.
Craig It rained for virtually two or three days. When the wicket was wet it wasn't as difficult, the ball wasn't gripping. It was only when it was dry that they were able to get the turn and bounce that they did. In that period where the rain was there, and we only played short periods for a couple of days, the ball was tending to skid through more and we were deadly committed to defence. We were able to see that period through.
McDonald My technique was based around two things. One was side-on play, and secondly, any ball that was pitched up you used your feet to get to. Laker didn't throw much stuff up in that match, so you had to largely play back against fairly prodigious offspin.
At stumps on the second-last day, Australia were 84 for 2, and Laker had taken 11 wickets for the match. McDonald and Craig were still in, and the Australians needed to bat all day to salvage a draw.
Craig We were rather surprised that we played that day. When we went to the ground, we didn't expect to be starting early. We were only 10 minutes late starting, when we thought we'd be lucky to get on before lunch. The wicket was certainly still damp at that stage.
The Australians did make it to lunch without further loss, but after the break Laker picked up four wickets in nine overs for three runs.
Craig I think at that stage we did think we could save the match, particularly the way the wicket had played before lunch. But at lunchtime on the final day the sun came out, and when we went back to bat after lunch, the ball was turning quite remarkably, and it was obviously going to be very difficult to hang on.
One of Laker's victims in that spell was Craig, for a hard-fought 38.
Craig My dismissal in both innings was virtually identical. I'd been concentrating for quite a long time on making sure that I played forward. I think it was a reflection on Laker's skill that he bowled virtually a round-armer to me, which I immediately thought was very short. Of course, it wasn't, and I played back, which was fatal. He caught me out, had me lbw. We lost four quick wickets straight after lunch, and then the sun went in again, and then Richie and Colin McDonald played out another hour.
McDonald In the second innings, with the uncovered wickets, it was wet and muddy. It was very difficult.
Harvey That's probably the best innings he [McDonald] ever played in Test cricket. To survive that long and make the runs he did was an extraordinary performance. You've got to take your hat off to him. I would think he hadn't played any better than that during his cricket career.
McDonald We were six out at tea on the last scheduled day. I remember Ian Johnson, our captain, saying, "we can save this match", and I remember Keith Miller in the background saying, "I'll give you 6/4"! I got out the second ball after tea, from Laker. It was a prodigious spinner, and it found the inside edge of my bat and went to Alan Oakman, who was fielding close in just behind square leg. It was the first serious mistake I'd made in many hours of batting. But that's what Laker did. It was a beautiful ball. Not only did it pitch where it was meant to pitch, it spun enormously, and I didn't quite cope with it.
McDonald was out for 89, an innings he considers his best for Australia.
McDonald I'd been batting on four consecutive days. The weather was dreadful - I hadn't batted for seven or eight hours every day, because we were off and on because of the weather conditions.
Maddocks I've spent my life being optimistic, but you could tell that the pitch had got wet from the rain, then the clouds would drift away and the sun would come out, and it would start turning at right angles. Bradman wouldn't have lasted on that pitch. Colin McDonald and Jimmy Burke were the openers and batted well, and Ian Craig played a reasonable innings. The rest of us could hardly put bat to ball.
Two more wickets fell, and then Laker picked up his 10th for the innings, and bowled England to victory by trapping Maddocks lbw at 5.27pm.
Craig It's very interesting to look at the old video of Laker taking that final wicket. A couple of England players were applauding and some came up and shook him by the hand, but they weren't jumping and hugging him and all the things that seem to go on now. I've got a still photo of him walking off, and the players are just clapping him politely, and he's walking off modestly.
Maddocks I remember walking off with the crowd cheering madly, and they weren't cheering me!
Craig We were disappointed, but there was quite good camaraderie. We had a drink in their dressing room after the game.
Harvey I shook hands with Laker and congratulated him, like everybody else did. I said, "Well done, Jimmy. You've done a great job." He said, "Well, you've got to get them when you can, don't you?" That's all he said.
Craig He was very quiet. He wasn't an extrovert by any means. He was a nice chap. He just went about his business. He was a real typical English county player. They were tough and never gave you anything. You had to earn everything you got off them.
While Laker finished with 19 wickets, England's left-arm finger-spinner, Tony Lock, had match figures of 1 for 106, having bowled more overs than Laker.
Harvey I've been trying to work that out since the day it happened and I can't do it. Lock was just as good a bowler as Laker, in my opinion. The wicket would have suited him just as much as it did Laker. It's just one of those things.
Craig Laker was spinning the ball in to us [right-hand batsmen], which was forcing us to play, whereas Lock was spinning it away and quite often was missing the outside of the bat. When you look at it, it is quite remarkable that Laker got 19, and Lock got one. I don't think that was a reflection of their relative merits of their bowling, it was just the luck of the game. Lock was certainly spinning the ball. If anything, I think he was getting a little bit agitated that he couldn't get wickets, and he was getting faster and faster. Laker was varying his pace and flight.
McDonald Lock probably did bowl a bit short. The best way to bowl on that pitch was to keep them well up. Using your feet on a muddy pitch is dangerous. Laker bowled better than Lock on it, obviously, but it was still unexplainable that Lock only got one.
Craig The toss determined the result of the game, but you can't take anything away from Laker's performance in that game. It was incredible.
Harvey We haven't seen it since, and I don't think we'll ever see it again.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo