bowling feat defied logic and probability
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
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.
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
"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