Laker’s Match, and a Record That May Never be Broken

At Manchester in 1956 the England off-spin bowler Jim Laker took 19 wickets for 90 runs as Australia crumbled to an innings defeat. It remains statistically the best set of match figures in the history of the game. Nobody has ever taken 18 wickets. Syd Barnes took 17 against South Africa in 1913.

England and Australia went to Manchester for the fourth test match with the series level at one-all with one draw. England won the toss (what a good toss to win, as it turned out) and batted well, making 459, with Richardson and Sheppard scoring centuries and Cowdrey 80.

Australia’s first innings was an extraordinary affair. By dint of some careful batting by McDonald and Burke, they had reached 48 in 80 minutes before the first of Laker’s 19 wickets, that of McDonald, fell. Burke followed at 62, after which the innings collapsed in a terrible heap, the last 8 wickets falling for only 22 runs, Laker taking 9 for 37. One oddity of this match is that Tony Lock, the other member of the infamous Surrey ‘spin-twins’, took Burke’s wicket, but took no other wicket in the match.

Australia were asked to follow on, and their second innings promised a far better effort as Burke and McDonald again started quietly but confidently. The innings inched forward very slowly, as australis tried to dig themselves in and out of trouble. Again, however, once the breach was made with Laker dismissing Burke for 33, the innings slowly subsided. Harvey was out for a pair, having been dismissed twice by Laker in three balls in the match. Ian Craig batted 260 minutes for 38, but four wickets went down between 114 and 130. Mackay, Miller and Archer all went for nought. The match was as good as over at 130-6, but the last four wickets added an excruciatingly slow 75 before Maddox was last out at 205, giving England victory by a massive margin of an innings and 170 runs. This meagre total had taken 150 overs to attain.

The grainy footage of that test match leaves two strong impressions. First, that Laker bowled quite beautifully, spinning the ball viciously but maintaining perfect control, bowling mainly round the wicket, and turning the ball consistently but not prodigiously (for anyone who has seen Shane Warne). And secondly, that the Australian batsmen had really no idea how to play Laker, which might have been already evident from the fact that he had taken an all-ten for Surrey against them earlier in the season. In fact, the way they played Laker is almost bizarre in its repetitive incompetence, astonishing considering the batting talent available, with Lindwall, a test century-maker, coming in at nine and Benaud, a genuine allrounder at eight, not to mention Harvey, Craig, Miller, McDonald, Burke, Archer and Mackay – all very good players indeed. Even Maddox at ten and Johnson at eleven were no rabbits.

Of the 19 wickets taken by Laker, in no less than 17 cases the batsman played back or half-prop, or at best with a kind of desperate lunge, leaving a large gap between bat and pad. In no case did the batsman seem to move down the pitch to meet the ball on the half volley; in no case did he seem to even play solidly forward, or else right back in his crease. Altogether five were bowled; three were out leg before; nine were caught close to the wicket at short leg, or slip/ gulley in the case of the only two lefthanders (Harvey and Mackay), off the inside or outside edge. Oakman took five catches, Lock three, and all at short leg. Most of the batsmen seemed to be out exactly that same way in both innings. Only two brave souls were out actually trying to hit Laker – Benaud holing out to long on and Archer stumped.

However, Australia had had almost no experience – or no good experience - of this type of bowling. True their own captain, Johnson, was an offspinner, but he was a rare bird, and not noted as a particularly great off-spinner (he was cheekily dubbed ‘mixomatosis’ because he only seemed to dispose of rabbits). In fact Australia had, and still have, not produced many off-spinners of note. For the 1956 team Trumble was far in the past, and Mallett, May and Lyon yet to come. Johnson was not only rare but a very different type of bowler from Laker. Bowling on mainly flat pitches, his technique was to tease the batsman with flight and dip, whereas Laker’s skills, never more apparent than in 1956, had been honed in the era of uncovered pitches in England’s damp and uncertain climate. The Australians of 1956 had only faced English off-spin, if at all, in test matches. They had faced Appleyard in 1955/6 (as different from Laker as chalk from cheese), and earlier Laker himself, but not very often, and had faced even less of Tattersall of Lancashire, and McConnon of Glamorgan. The other outstanding England spinners post-war were Wright (legspin), and Lock (slow left arm). Of the Australian batsmen Colin McDonald, an opener, proved the best at playing Laker. He scored 89 in Australia’s second innings, having, curiously, scored the same number of runs when Laker took all ten for Surrey against them.

As we have seen, one very curious fact is that Lock took only one wicket for 106 in the Manchester test. At the Oval for Surrey back in May, when Laker took ten for 88 in the first innings, Lock took seven for 47 in the second. Lock’s wicket-drought, in addition to Benaud’s and Johnson’s figures, seems to give the lie to the idea that the pitch at Manchester was a ‘dust bowl’, as some have claimed. For comparison, Australia’s spinners, Richie Benaud and Ian Johnson, took 6 wickets in England’s only innings, in 92 overs for 274 runs.

In fact the pitch did become hard to bat on, but after rain, so was something of a sticky, not a dust bowl where the pitch had broken up - and certainly not impossible when you consider that as dangerous a bowler as Lock, who generally carried all before him during the 1950s, achieved so little success. By contemporary accounts Lock was very frustrated at this lack of penetration in conditions that so suited Laker, and bowled too fast to really grip the surface and cause big problems. In this match Lock conceded 106 runs for his single wicket, off 69 overs with 33 maidens – Australia had successfully blocked him on this occasion, and he was in fact only marginally more expensive than the unplayable Laker, whose 19 wickets cost 90 runs off 67 overs. It was certainly slow-going at Old Trafford. Although their success bowling together had over the years earned Lock and Laker the reputation of being Surrey’s ‘spin twins’, they were in fact more rivals than partners in crime, even if they each benefitted from the pressure created at the other end, while being nicely contrasted in style. Part of the success of the spin twins was that they were not especially good mates (unlike, say the fast bowlers Trueman and Statham) and were constantly in competition with each other – very bad news for batsmen.

The final test was drawn, England taking the series 2-1. Laker continued to torment Australia, taking 7-88 at The Oval.

Laker was used to attaining remarkable figures, at the test trial at Bradford in 1952, he came on before lunch, by his own account feeling rotten after a bad night with his infant child, and initially refused to bowl. However, taking an early wicket he was encouraged and finished the inning with 8 for 2! He insisted ever afterwards that one of the two runs was actually a leg bye that the umpire did not signal.

There have been few occasions on which a bowler has exerted such dominance over a powerful test batting line-up as Laker did over Australia in 1956. He was indeed the perfect off-spinner, bowling off a very short run, with a simple but rhythmical high action, the right hand almost seeming be thrown aloft before the large fingers exerted their magic. The ball was said to fizz and even, some said, hum through the air when he bowled, the ball curling away from off stump late in its flight before spinning sharply back towards it, the arm ball also causing havoc as the batsman searched for the spin that was not there. His accuracy was legendary. Was the proverbial phrase, ‘he could land it on a sixpence’, invented for Laker? If not, then it should have been. I would hazard a guess that his 19-90 will never be exceeded.

 

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