Climbing Everest in a short-sleeved sweater
It is 50 years since Jim Laker took all but one Australian wicket at Old Trafford. Stephen Chalke recalls the greatest of all bowling performances
Nineteen wickets for 90 runs. In a Test match against Australia. To settle the destination of the Ashes. Fifty years on, Jim Laker's triumph at Old Trafford still stands as the Everest that towers over every other bowling performance in cricket's long history. The drama began at 4pm on Friday July 27, 1956. England, thanks to centuries from Peter Richardson and David Sheppard, had scored 459, and in reply Australia were 48 for no wicket. Then Laker, who had been switched to the Stretford end, had Colin McDonald caught by Tony Lock at short leg, and in the same over he pitched a ball on the line of lefthander Neil Harvey's leg stump, spun it past his outstretched bat and clipped the off. "It was the ball that won the Test series," Laker reckoned.
In that one over the mood of the Australians altered irrevocably. In May Laker had taken all 10 in their first innings when Surrey had become the first county to beat them since 1912. Then at Headingley, in the third Test, they had found themselves on a pitch that was taking sharp turn by the second day, and Laker's 11 wickets had sent them to an innings defeat. Now another surface was starting to break up and, according to their captain Ian Johnson, they were "trapped on a stinker, the fellows were angry and the batting blew up". Lock had Jim Burke caught with the first ball after tea, then Laker struck seven more times as they slumped to 84 all out. Laker, 9 for 37. According to the England captain Peter May, "The pitch was not that bad. Jim just dripped away at their nerves, realising that they had got a little obsessional about him and the wickets."
Alan Oakman was fielding at forward short leg. "Most of the Australians were back-foot players. They tended to push at the ball when they went forward. I was standing very close and, when Keith Miller came in, he said, `If you don't look out, I'll hit you in the bollocks.' I thought, `He's kidding me.' I wasn't wearing a box or anything. Then I thought, `Is he?' But he just stabbed at it, and that helped it on its way to me."
Ken Mackay tried pad play, resembling in his own words "an elephant on ice". Richie Benaud was more adventurous, but his first big hit was caught by a solitary deep fielder. "Jim always wanted a fielder at cow-shot corner," says his Surrey team-mate Micky Stewart, recalling the disagreements with their captain Stuart Surridge. "Sometimes, when nine, 10, 11 came in, Stuart would try to bring the fielder in. And Jim would put the ball down. `If you want him up,' he'd say, `somebody else can bowl.'" Thirty years later it fell to Stewart to accompany the Laker family to The Oval with Jim's ashes. "I was coming down the steps, and I hadn't thought about where I was going to scatter them. I couldn't put them on the square - so I put them down at cow corner."
Laker's name is forever bracketed with that of Lock but they were wholly different characters. Lock, excitable and demonstrative, was an aggressive cricketer while Laker, sensitive and thoughtful, was a quiet, philosophical man. "He moved to his bowling mark with a constabular stroll," John Arlott wrote. "In the moment before he turned, he looked up into the sky, often with half a smile." "He told me how he once talked to Bobby Locke the South African golfer," Stewart recalls. "Locke trained himself never to do anything in a hurry. Everything was in the same slow way: walking on the fairway, addressing the ball. `By nature I'm quite excitable,' he said. `I've schooled myself so that I've got total control, so I've got repetitive rhythm.' And Jim did the same. He didn't rush about."
Colin Cowdrey, writing of Laker's performance at Old Trafford, called him "the calm destroyer". "He was in perfect rhythm. The batsmen played and missed so often, yet you couldn't tell from his expression." It was a wet summer. Pitches were not covered and there was no limit to the fielders who could stand in close on the leg side. Of the 23 bowlers who took 100 wickets, 17 were spinners, eight of them offspinners: apart from Laker, there were Bob Appleyard, Ray Illingworth, Robin Marlar, Don Shepherd, Roy Tattersall, Fred Titmus and Bomber Wells.
It was a golden age of offspin, but who was the greatest of them? Illingworth plumps for Appleyard in his brief period of greatness. "Bob would bowl on anything and never know when he was beaten." "Tattersall was a very good bowler," Gloucestershire's Arthur Milton says. "He had a flatter trajectory, and I couldn't use my feet to him so easily." What about Bomber Wells, with his broad girth and one-pace run-up? Does he think Jim Laker was the best? "Well," he says, a twinkle in his eye. "It was either him or me."
"Jim was in a class of his own," Trevor Bailey says emphatically. "He was surely the finest offspinner in the history of the game." "Jim was a great bowler," Tom Graveney agrees. "He had a fantastic action. Beautifully balanced. And he read the batter so well. In his early days he used to lose it a bit if someone got after him. George Emmett used to say, `Have a go at him. He won't bowl so well.' But he soon got over that."
"Throughout my career," Laker wrote, "I never ran up to bowl without some plan in my mind." "I was the sacrificial lamb at forward short leg," Stewart recalls. "He was so accurate that I never felt in any danger. He was the biggest spinner of the ball at that time, too. You could hear the snap of his fingers when he spun it, and on many days you could hear the whirr of the ball as it came down."
For a big spinner he was not blessed with outsize fingers, suffering throughout his career from soreness, corns and split skin that he tried to prevent by applying liberal quantities of friar's balsam. By close on Friday at Old Trafford he had dismissed Harvey for a second duck, within two hours of the first. Then came the torrential storms. One wicket fell in nine overs on Saturday, none in 22 on Monday when EW Swanton described the ground as "a blasted heath". More heavy rain fell through Monday night but, against all the odds, play started only 10 minutes late on the final day. On a pitch that The Times reckoned to be "too saturated to be of use to anyone", McDonald and Ian Craig survived till lunch.
Then the sun came out and wickets fell quickly, all to Jim Laker. When he had Ray Lindwall caught in the leg trap, he became the first man to take 18 wickets in a first-class match. Then, when he trapped Len Maddocks lbw, he became the first to take all 10 in a Test. He slung his jersey over his shoulder and walked, as leisurely as ever, towards the pavilion. His 19 for 90 had passed the Test record of 17 for 159, set in South Africa in 1913-14 by the great Sydney Barnes, who was in the Old Trafford crowd. "No beggar got all 10 when I was bowling at the other end," was the old man's gruff comment as he left the ground.
Lock had bowled 69 overs in the match to Laker's 68. They had switched ends several times and Lock had beaten the bat repeatedly. Yet he had taken only one wicket. "At the start," Oakman says, "he'd been applauding Jim's wickets but by the end you could see him just folding his arms." To add to the indignity, Lock had been in line for a £100 prize for the season's best bowling, with 10 for 54 against Kent at Blackheath, and now Laker had pipped him with 10 for 53.
"Tony tried too hard," Bailey reckons. "He was closer in temperament to a fast bowler, and he bowled quicker and quicker. If Johnny Wardle had been bowling at the other end, Jim would never have got 19 wickets."
It was a match that would always haunt Lock. "We used to say to him," Glamorgan's Don Shepherd recalls with a chuckle, "`Tell us about that match at Old Trafford when you and Jim shared all those wickets.'"
Some years later, when Lock spoke to Lilly, Jim's wife, he had acquired a different perspective. "I wish I hadn't taken that one wicket," he said.