Among the many off-break bowlers who enjoyed considerable success in the English season of 1951 none looked superior to James Charles Laker, of Surrey and England. Born at Shipley on February 9, 1922, Laker is a product of Yorkshire, and that he slipped through the hands of his native county can be ascribed to the twists of fortune brought about by war.
None of Laker's immediate relatives played cricket, but he did so continuously from an early age, receiving every encouragement from an aunt, Mrs. Ellen Kane, a school teacher and a lover of cricket. She spurned the idea of playing cricket for a living. Educated at Salts High School, Saltaire, Laker was in the right environment for cricket. In those days he was primarily a batsman and fast bowler. In one school match he took six wickets for no runs and the opposition were dismissed for a single. He left school in February 1939, and a year later went to Herbert Sutcliffe's Indoor Cricket School at Headingley. There he came under the influence of B. B. Wilson, a Yorkshire opening batsman before the 1914-18 war who now coaches at St. Peter's School, York. Wilson suggested Laker should try off-spin and showed him the way.
Meanwhile young Laker had become associated with the Saltaire club in the Bradford League and he played for them for three seasons, 1938-40. In fact, when he first assisted Saltaire--he went straight into the first team--he used to play for his school in the morning and Saltaire in the afternoon. He did little bowling in the Bradford League, but batting number four he once hit 100.
Laker intended to take up banking as a career and spent two years at Barclays, Bradford, before joining R.A.O.C. in 1941. That meant goodbye to cricket for two years. He served in Egypt, Palestine and Italy before getting a chance to play again, and then while still in the Middle East he found himself taking part in Army representative games with such renowned players as N. W. D. Yardley, A. D. Nourse, H. E. Dollery, Peter Smith, A. W. Wellard, L. G. Berry, G. M. Emmett, A. E. Pothecary and the two New Zealanders, Bert Sutcliffe and T. L. Pritchard. It was in these games that he first concentrated on off-spin.
Returning from overseas, Laker still had six months to serve; he was posted to the War Office, being billeted with a friend at Catford. That happened to be the turning-point in his cricket destination. He joined Catford C.C. whose President is Mr. Andrew Kempton, a prominent Surrey member, and seeing Laker's possibilities Kempton introduced him to the Kennington Oval officials. After a trial Surrey asked Laker to sign as a professional but he doubted whether he was good enough for first-class cricket and instead asked the bank to transfer him to London. Six months passed and then Laker decided to resign from business and take his chance with Surrey for whom he made his first appearance against Combined Services at The Oval in 1946.
As Laker was on Yorkshire's list of Colts, Surrey sought their permission to engage him. This Yorkshire readily gave, possibly having forgotten all about him owing to the long interval caused by the war. In 1947, Laker made his debut in the County Championship and soon his promise was noted beyond The Oval. He headed the Surrey bowling that season and finished seventh in the first-class averages with 79 wickets. Sir Pelham Warner asked him to play at Hastings in what was a semi-trial match and next came an invitation to go with G. O. Allen's team to the West Indies.
Considering his limited experience, that was a tremendous advance but he made a satisfactory Test debut at Barbados, for in the West Indies first innings he took seven wickets for 103 runs. Overnight West Indies reached 244 for three wickets, but showers left the pitch lively and Laker finished the innings in nine overs, dismissing six men for 25. For the remainder of the tour strained stomach muscles gave him considerable pain, yet only R. Howorth sent down more overs.
Within a few weeks of returning to England, Laker was picked for the first Test against Australia at Nottingham and there he showed his ability as a batsman. England began by losing eight men for 74, but Laker excelled with the off-drive and hook and his 63 was easily top score in a total of 165. His Surrey colleague, Alec Bedser, helped him in a ninth wicket stand of 89. Laker also did well with the ball when he took the first three wickets--Morris, Barnes and Miller--but after he seldom worried the Australians, mainly because he never found a pitch suitable to his off spin. Yet at Leeds, where Australia hit off 404 in five and three-quarter hours, Bradman (173 not out) was missed off him three times and that England suffered defeat there was due mainly to the eleven going into the field without either a leg-break or a left-arm slow bowler. On the last day worn patches caused by the bowlers' run-up could have been exploited by any one turning the ball from leg, but Laker, pitching the ball on the opposite side of the pitch, could make only the occasional ball turn.
One must remember that even at that time Laker had been playing in first-class cricket for only one year. He continued to shine for Surrey and though in 1949 he appeared in one Test against New Zealand he seemed to be almost forgotten by the selectors until at the end of May 1950 he ruined the Test Trial staged at Bradford Park Avenue, only five miles from his birth-place. England sent in The Rest and in 110 minutes they were all out for 27, the lowest total for a match or representative class. In 14 overs (twelve maidens) Laker took eight wickets for two runs. On drying turf, he spun his off-breaks with rare skill and maintained perfect length and direction.
Laker reckons that was his best performance, but it was not enough for the selectors. They chose him for the first Test at Manchester against West Indies--the only one of the four that England won--but he took only one wicket and was passed over until twelve months later he was again selected for Manchester, where he bowled extremely well against South Africa. Yet again he was dropped for the following Test at Leeds, only to be recalled for the last at The Oval when he bowled England to victory with ten wickets for 119 runs.
A natural cricketer, Laker relies solely on finger spin. At times he has worn callouses on the first finger of his right hand. When the pitch is helpful he bowls round the wicket to three or four men placed close to the batsman on the leg side and the ball whips viciously across in their direction.
While his bowling has developed, his batting has been left to take care of itself, but in a crisis he can still rise to the occasion. He has one first-class century to his credit, against Cambridge University at Guildford in 1950, and that was hit when Surrey were in trouble. Laker also deservedly has the reputation of being a splendid fielder, particularly in the gully where he holds the hottest of catches. As he is no more than 30 he should have several seasons left as a player, and with five English seasons behind him, besides visits to West Indies, India and New Zealand, he has had the necessary time to settle down in the best company and learn the essential secrets of how to become a top-class bowler. -- N. P.