Fourth Test Match

ENGLAND v AUSTRALIA 1956

L.S.

Toss: England
England won by an innings and 170 runs, with just over an hour to spare and so retained the Ashes. This memorable game will always be known as Laker's Match because of the remarkable performance by the Surrey off-break bowler in taking nine wickets for 37 runs in the first innings and ten wickets for 53 in the second. Laker broke all the more important bowling records in the history of cricket. His achievements were:

1. Nineteen wickets in the match, the most in any first-class game. The previous best was 17, achieved twenty times. The most in a Test Match was 17 for 159 by S. F. Barnes for England against South Africa at Johannesburg in 1913-14.
2. Ten wickets in an innings for the first time in Test cricket. The previous best for England against Australia was eight for 35 by G. Lohmann of Surrey in 1886-87. The best for England in any Test innings nine for 28 by G. Lohmann against South Africa in 1895-96.
3. Ten wickets in an innings twice in one season for the first time. Laker previously took ten for 88 for Surrey, also against the Australians at The Oval in May.
4. Thirty-nine wickets in four Test Matches, equalling the record of A. V. Bedser as the highest number in an England-Australia series, with one match to play.
5. Fifty-one wickets in five matches against the Australians to date in the season.

Apart from Laker's personal records, other noteworthy points about the match were:
1. It was the first definite result in a Test Match between England and Australia at Manchester since 1905.
2. For the first time since 1905 England won two matches in a home series against Australia.
3. For the first time since five Test Matches were played in a series regularly from 1897-98 England held the Ashes for three series.

Those are bare facts, interesting in themselves, but they fail to capture the drama of one of the most exciting and controversial matches for a long time. The excitement came towards the last day, first when England were trying hard to make up for the time lost by rain to gain the victory which would settle the destination of the Ashes, and later as Laker drew nearer and nearer his ten wickets in the innings. The controversy arose over the preparation of the pitch and for days cricketers, officials, critics and the general cricketing public could talk of little else.

The England selectors sprang a surprise when they named Rev. D. S. Sheppard among the twelve from whom the team would be chosen. Sheppard, who had given up regular cricket to take up Holy Orders had played only four innings for Sussex during the season, when selected. One of these was 97 against the Australians at Hove. His previous Test appearance was two years earlier when he captained England against Pakistan. Like nearly every move the Selection Committee made during the season, this one proved fully justified.

Graveney, originally in the twelve, dropped out because of a bruised hand and Oakman, who played at Leeds, was added to the party. The selectors continued their policy of relying on a four-man attack and Trueman was omitted. This meant two changes from the side which won at Leeds, Sheppard and Statham replacing Insole and Trueman. The Australians, with their injured men fit, were able to choose from all seventeen members of their party for the first time since the first Test. They omitted Burge and gave Craig his first chance in a Test against England. Langley, the wicket-keeper, was intended to play, but an unusual mishap kept him out. During the night he slept on his hand and damaged it.

May won the toss for the third time in the series and he gave England a big advantage. The pitch was completely useless to fast and fast-medium bowlers and Richardson and Cowdrey, as at Nottingham, gave delightful displays. They took command from the first over and in three hours ten minutes scored 174 for the opening stand. This was England's best start against Australia since 1938 when L. Hutton and C. J. Barnett began with 219 at Trent Bridge. Both batsmen went all out for their strokes and their perfect understanding in running enabled them to offset the value of Australia's defensive field.

Cowdrey, strong in driving, was first to leave, but Richardson did not survive much longer, batting three hours forty minutes for 104, his first Test century. Most of his eleven 4's the same number as Cowdrey, came from well-timed leg-side strokes, but he also brought off some good cover drives, notably two in an over from Lindwall which were models of execution.

Sheppard and May continued the mastery of the Australian attack, but towards tea time, puffs of dust became noticeable when the ball landed and it seemed that the pitch was breaking up unusually early. Johnson and Benaud, the Australian spin bowlers, were unable to exploit the conditions and England finished the first day with a total of 307 for three. Towards the close May was caught off a quickly spun and lifting leg-break after helping Sheppard add 93. A curiosity was that the first five England batsmen were all amateurs, something that had last happened against Australia in 1899 when C. B. Fry, A. C. MacLaren, K. S. Ranjitsinhji, C. L. Townsend and F. S. Jackson were the men concerned.

Mutterings about the pitch could be heard that evening, but they rose to full fury next day. The Australians still could not get the ball to bite as much as they ought to have done and England went gaily on, adding 152 in two hours eleven minutes before being all out for the highest total against Australia since 1948. Sheppard, 59 overnight, completed a chanceless century and batted five minutes under five hours for 113 which included one 6 and fifteen 4's. He drove delightfully and gave not the slightest suggestion of lack of match practice.

Evans, revelling in the situation, hit lustily and scored 47 out of 62 in twenty-nine minutes. England made their 459 runs in 491 minutes, an unusually rapid rate for Test cricket in recent years.

Australia began their reply just after half-past two and before play ended on the second day they had lost eleven wickets. McDonald and Burke began steadily with a stand of 48, but they had to fight hard against the spin of Laker and Lock, who were brought on early. Laker did not start his devastating work until switched to the Stretford end, from where he took each of his nineteen wickets. McDonald and Harvey fell at the same total and after tea, taken at 62 for two, the last eight wickets went in thirty-five minutes for 22 runs. Lock took his only wicket with the first ball after the interval and Laker did the rest, his after tea spell being seven wickets for eight runs in 22 balls. While admitting that Laker spun his off-breaks appreciably, the Australian batsmen gave a sorry display and appeared to give up too easily.

Following on 375 behind, Australia were unfortunate to lose McDonald, who retired with a knee injury after scoring 11. Harvey replaced him and was out first ball, hitting a full toss into the hands of short mid-on. Harvey failed to score in either innings. Australia finished the day with one wicket down for 51 and the controversial storm broke that night.

Accusations were made that the pitch had been prepared specially for England's spin bowlers and these were denied by the Lancashire authorities. The Australians were said to be extremely bitter over the condition of the pitch, but their captain, Johnson, declined to comment on the subject. The arguments continued over the weekend and not until Laker's wonderful bowling on the last day overshadowed everything did they abate.

The weather changed completely on Saturday, when rain allowed only three-quarters of an hour's cricket between ten minutes past two and five minutes to three. In that brief period Australia added six runs and lost the wicket of Burke. Sunday was an atrocious day and Monday was almost as bad. In two spells of forty-five minutes and fifteen minutes Australia took their score to 84 without further loss. Conditions were terrible for cricket, a fierce wind making batting and bowling extremely difficult. Lignum bails were used and were most successful, not once being blown off.

England looked like being robbed of victory by the weather but it improved considerably on the last day and play began only ten minutes late. The soaking the pitch received left it slow and easy-paced and by fighting, determined cricket, McDonald and Craig remained together until lunchtime when the score was 112 for two with four hours left.

Shortly before the interval the sun appeared and almost immediately the ball began to spin quickly. Afterwards Laker began another devastating spell, sending back Craig, Mackay, Miller and Archer in nine overs for three runs. Craig, who helped McDonald add 59, gave a fine, courageous display for four hours twenty minutes; the other three failed to score, Mackay, like his fellow left-hander, Harvey, for the second time in the match. Benaud stayed with McDonald for an hour and a quarter to tea when, with an hour and fifty-five minutes left, England needed to capture four wickets.

Occasionally Laker changed ends, but only when he returned to the Stretford end did he continue his success. After tea the ball spun quicker than at any time in the match and Australia's last hope vanished when McDonald fell to the second ball. His 89, made in five hours thirty-seven minutes, showed that the bowling could be played by determined concentration and he deserved the highest praise for his great effort.

The tension mounted as Laker captured his eighth and ninth wickets. There was never a question of giving Laker his tenth wicket for England's only thought was victory. Lock repeatedly beat the bat, but it was not his match and at twenty-seven minutes past five a great cheer went up as Laker successfully appealed to the umpire, Lee, for lbw against Maddocks. The match was over and Laker had taken all ten wickets.

He earned his triumph by remarkable control of length and spin and it is doubtful whether he bowled more than six bad length balls throughout the match. As Johnson said afterwards: "When the controversy and side issues of the match are forgotten, Laker's wonderful bowling will remain."

That night the rain returned and the following day not a ball could be bowled in any of the first-class matches, so it can be seen how close was England's time margin, and how the greatest bowling feat of all time nearly did not happen.

© John Wisden & Co