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The Rediff Special/John Mehaffey
Laker bowling feat defied logic and probability
July 25, 2006
Once in a generation sport throws up an oddity defying logic and the laws of probability,
Fifty years ago this Thursday, England and Australia began the fourth Ashes Test at Manchester's Old Trafford with the series tied 1-1.
Six days later, England completed a crushing victory with Jim Laker taking 19 of the 20 Australian wickets. Theoretically someone, somewhere could better Laker's record. It is a safe bet that no one ever will.
Years later England all rounder Trevor Bailey recalled his incredulity.
"I said afterwards, turning to Peter Richardson as we left the field, 'We have taken part in something which will never happen again. No one will take 19 wickets in a Test match again'. It didn't make sense then and it still doesn't."
After the first Test had been drawn, Keith Miller took 10 wickets to win the second for Australia at Lord's.
Laker, who had already taken all 10 Australian wickets in an innings for Surrey, captured 11 in the third Test at Headingley to set up an England win.
Now the teams were to meet on a Old Trafford pitch seemingly devoid of grass after it had been heavily fertilised with red marl.
"The pitch...was shaven bare and marled," wrote the Observer cricket writer Alan Ross. "The outfield, in contrast to the red-brown Suez Canal-coloured playing strip, was a rich oasis green."
The simile would not have been lost on his readers. In the same year the Observer infuriated the government and alarmed thousands of its subscribers with its resolute opposition to air attacks by Britain and France on Egypt after it nationalised the Suez Canal.
At Old Trafford there was no immediate indication of the sensations to follow when England compiled 459 in their first innings with Richardson (104) and Colin Cowdrey (80) putting on 174 for the first wicket. The Reverend David Shepherd, one of a number of inspired England selections that summer, struck 113 in a short break from his parish duties.
Already puffs of dust were flying from the pitch and former Lancashire and England wicketkeeper George Duckworth, commentating for the BBC, remarked: "I wouldn't want to be a pace bowler on there but spin bowlers, I think, should get something out of it in a day or two."
As understatements go, Duckworth's thoughts deserved an award of their own as Laker spun his way remorselessly through the Australian batting.
The Yorkshire-born off spinner had been blamed for failing to bowl out Don Bradman's Australians in favourable conditions in the 1948 Headingley Test. Seven dropped catches, including three off Laker, were more important factors.
Still Laker was not required on a succession of tour parties and found it difficult to command a permanent place at home, despite his extraordinary figures of eight for two in the 1950 Test trial.
Those who played with and against him swore they could hear the ball buzz through the air, such was the rip he gave it from an index finger which was to become arthritic long before he retired. By 1956 he was the ultimate off spinner with a relaxed economical runup, delivering from a braced left leg, and commanding a precise mastery of flight, line and length unmatched by any other bowler of his type in history.
When Peter May turned to Laker and his Surrey spin twin Tony Lock on the second day, England had still to take a wicket. Seventeen overs later Australia still had all their first innings wickets on the board.
Then May switched the pair around and Australia tumbled from 48 without loss to 84 all out. In 3.4 overs after tea Laker, somewhat to his bemusement, took seven for eight. Lock, whose waspish left arm spin persistently beat the bat, had the wicket of Jim Burke to show for his labours. It was the only wicket which would not be credited to Laker.
Rain and the obdurate Colin McDonald threatened to deny England their victory before the sun came out on the fifth day. McDonald was caught in the leg trap for 89 and Laker went on to take all 10 wickets, finishing with 19 for 90.
The Australians were openly disgusted with the pitch and Richie Benaud showed his displeasure in the second innings by continually holding up play to check his guard or pat down imaginary divots.
Bailey believed an English county side, containing batsmen who had learned their trade on uncovered pitches, would have coped better than the Australians. Ross agreed.
"One has a right to expect from Test cricketers a certain degree of adaptability," Ross commented. "The Australian batting during their brief innings on Friday night was bereft of all heart and skill."
The final day was typical of an era when overt emotion was seen as bad form. After each wicket Laker hitched up his trousers and sauntered up the pitch, indicating merely that he was rather pleased.
After the match the players soon dispersed and Laker stopped at a pub on his return to London where a television set was showing highlights of the day's play. Nobody recognised him.