In the last days of July in 1956, Jim Laker completed one of the most remarkable personal performances in the history of the game, taking 19 for 90 to spin Australia to an innings defeat at Old Trafford. As Don Bradman said at the time, it was a feat unlikely to be equalled. But while those 19 wickets are still remembered, what has largely been forgotten is that it was the dusty Manchester pitch which commanded almost as much attention during and immediately after the game.
England came into the fourth Test with the series level at 1-1, and as holders after wins in 1953 and 1954-55, victory would ensure they retained the Ashes. Over five often soggy days, Laker exploited conditions which the Australians claim to this day were tailor-made for him. It was not as if the Australians didn't know what to expect. Two-and-a-half months earlier, Laker had taken all ten in Australia's second innings in their match against Surrey at The Oval. By the end of the Manchester Test, they were as openly critical of the surface as they were to be 16 years later at Headingley.
On the eve of the match the newspapers were predicting a "true and lasting" pitch suited to fast bowling. England's selectors were unsure who to leave out, but in the end Fred Trueman was omitted, partially because of doubts about the weather and also because Australia had been all at sea against spin in the previous Test at Headingley where England had won by an innings and Laker and Tony Lock had taken 18 wickets between them. Despite this, the general feeling was that the game would be a draw - no Ashes Test at Old Trafford had produced a result since 1905.
However, Australian suspicions that the pitch had been prepared for the England spinners were confirmed years later when Bert Flack, the Manchester groundsman, said on the day before the start he had been instructed by Gubby Allen, the chairman of England's selectors, to shave the pitch. "That's stupid," Flack replied. "The match won't last three days. The surface is not that well knit." After pondering for a few minutes, Flack did as he had been ordered and immediately covered the pitch to prevent the press from seeing what he had done.
England ended the first day on 307 for 3, with Peter Richardson, who opened with Colin Cowdrey, scoring his maiden Test hundred. But he too was surprised at what greeted him when he walked out to bat. "[The pitch] looked totally different to how it looked the night before," he said. 'When we arrived it looked lush green, perfect for seamers. Next morning, it had been shaved right down. It looked cooked. I don't know if it was deliberately done but it certainly helped our chances of winning. It's still being discussed by the old fuddy-duddies but none of us knew what really happened with it."
On the Friday Australia fought back well to bowl them out for 459. Australia started their innings with few alarms, and Laker and Lock began with little sign of what was to follow. But Peter May switched them around, and from 48 for 0 they crashed to 84 all out. Laker finished with 9 for 37, with Lock taking the other wicket. Laker's last nine overs produced figures of 9 for 16, and his seven wickets after tea came at a rate of one every three balls. The last eight wickets had fallen for 22 runs in 35 minutes.
As early as the first afternoon, however, the press had started revising their thoughts, and The Times noted that "Laker and Lock must be licking their fingers at the prospect of bowling later in the match".
Although Australia also had two spinners - Ian Johnson and Richie Benaud - neither turned it as much as England's pair. Flack was concerned that he had seen a puff of dust from the first ball of the match sent down by Brian Statham which had flown over wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans' head for four byes.
The quiet murmurings of discontent in the Australian camp spilled over into the press. It was, the argument went, unacceptable that the pitch was taking considerable turn as early as the second afternoon and was far too dry. One reporter, however, noted that while the pitch was poor, had Australia possessed bowlers of the calibre of Clarrie Grimmett or Bill O'Reilly then their protest might have been more muted.
It was the forthright O'Reilly, writing for the Australian press, who cut to the quick. "This pitch is a disgrace," he fumed. "What lies in store for Test cricket if groundsmen are allowed to play the fool like this?" Flack was forced to take the criticism in silence. Australia batsman Ian Craig, meanwhile, admitted that they had already started thinking themselves out of the game. "We were all pissed off," he said. "We felt we'd been dudded, and we dropped our bundle a little bit.''
When Australia followed-on, Flack asked Johnson, Australia's captain, which roller he wanted. "Please your effing self," was the terse response.
Laker took the one wicket to fall before the close "with the worst delivery I bowled in the season," he later admitted. It was a slow full-toss on leg stump which Neil Harvey pushed tamely to Cowdrey on the leg side. The famous photo shows Harvey flinging his bat in the air in frustration, and Laker sympathised with his reaction at picking up a four-ball pair within two hours.
On the Saturday, only 45 minutes' play took place between the showers, Laker adding one wicket - Jim Burke - to his haul. The media view of the pitch continued to change, and the Daily Telegraph admitted it was a bad wicket and one about which Australia had "a legitimate grievance".
The dire weather continued all weekend, with the ground lashed by gales and storms, and only an hour was possible on the fourth day. "It was as if Laker and Lock had had their teeth drawn," noted the Times. Australia were poised, it seemed, to get out of jail.
On the final day it only stopped raining at dawn, and although play started on time, the pitch was too wet for it to be of any help to the spinners. What was needed was sunshine to dry it. Colin McDonald and Craig batted through the first session with few alarms. McDonald showed what could be done with application - he was the top scorer in all four innings of the matches where Laker took all ten.
During the break, the sun came out and the wind got up - titanium bails were needed as the wooden ones kept blowing off - ushering rain clouds which had been gathering safely towards the Pennines. The dismissal of Craig after lunch triggered a collapse in which Laker took four wickets in 26 balls. The Australian middle order perished, it was noted, playing back when they should have gone forward.
But Richie Benaud and McDonald stopped the rot, Benaud adopting tactics which would attract far more comment these days. "He took guard every over, and slowly and deliberately took a botanical interest in the pitch after every ball," observed the Times, adding that the small crowd were less than impressed. Benaud later admitted that his actions were a deliberate protest at the state of the surface.
The end came after tea. Two balls into the session McDonald's 337-minute vigil was ended when he steered Laker to Alan Oakman at backward short leg for 89. "He played that wicket as any high-class player would have played it, and I can't pay him a higher compliment than that," Richardson said. "I talk to people about that innings now, and they don't know what I'm talking about. Given the conditions that was one of the best innings that has ever been played in Test cricket. He never got the credit."
The remainder of the innings folded with barely a whimper. Finally, Len Maddocks was trapped lbw to give Laker his tenth wicket, and as the spectators ran on to the ground, Laker ambled off, his sweater slung over his shoulder, as if his feat was an everyday occurrence.
In his wake trailed a bewildered Lock. He had bowled one over more than Laker and finished with match figures of 1 for 106. The consensus was that he had bowled too fast. "He lacked the power or the patience," noted John Arlott. "Nobody felt more humiliated than he did," Cowdrey recalled. May knew how Lock was feeling. "Forget the scorebook, Tony, you played your part, too," he said.
"The thing is, Laker and Lock didn't get on very well," Richardson said. "The more wickets Jim took, the more annoyed Locky got, and the more annoyed he got the faster he bowled. In the end he was very nearly as quick as Brian Statham. It helped Laker that Locky got so heated up about him bowling so well."
While Laker was the headline news, some, especially in Australia, continued to gripe about the pitch. Not so Johnson. "When the controversies and side issues of this match are forgotten," he generously explained, "Laker's wonderful bowling will remain."
"There was no such euphoria in Australia where our performance was regarded as being on the poor side of mediocre," reflected Benaud, adding: "And that of the groundsman possibly more so."
Trevor Bailey was to the point. "I don't think they had a price from the word go," he said. "We played on a beach and it became muddy as well because the rain came down. We were well equipped for a beach because we had two great spin bowlers. They had two reasonable spinners but certainly not bowlers who were likely to be really difficult on this type of wicket."
Laker was besieged by press and well-wishers, and he did not leave Old Trafford until 8pm. On the way home he stopped in at a packed pub near Litchfield where the TV was replaying his feats. "My celebration dinner consisted of a bottle of beer and a sandwich," he said. "I sat in the corner of a crowded bar while everyone talked about the Test. No one spotted me. Beyond asking me how far I had to go, the landlord said nothing."
And Laker could afford himself a rueful smile the next day. The rain which had stayed away from Manchester followed him and the Australians back to London and washed out the first day of Surrey's match against the tourists. A crowd of 25,000 was expected for a day that had been put aside for Laker's benefit, and it was estimated that it cost him £500 in lost takings. His previous benefit earlier in the summer against Yorkshire had also had the first - and most lucrative day - ruined by rain.
As for Flack, his infamy was short-lived as much more serious things were happening elsewhere. "Thank God Nasser had taken over the Suez Canal," he reflected. "Otherwise, I'd have been plastered over every front page like Marilyn Monroe."
What happened next
Laker took 46 wickets in the five-Test series, which remains an Ashes record, although it was the only time he played in every Test of a home series. He was the first cricketer to be named BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
England won the series 2-1 and retained the Ashes
Jim Laker Alan Hill (Andre Deutch, 1998)
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1957
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