Jim Laker, born February 9, 1922, was perhaps the best off-spinner ever produced by England, and a man of sophistication, wit and charm. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at his career, during which he took part in just 46 of the 99 matches played by England.
“Laker skittles Australians”, screamed the headline. No, this was after that historical day in Manchester, 1956. Nor was it due to the 10 wickets in an innings he took for Surrey against the touring side earlier that season.
The banner, sometime in the early 1940s, screamed from the sporting columns of the Egyptian Gazette. In the newly-opened El Alamein stadium of Cairo, young corporal J.C. Laker had taken six wickets for 10 runs in 29 deliveries. The Australian Servicemen had been bowled out for 60.
This was the first time Jim Laker had created a stir as an off-spinner. Seeking worlds of adventure beyond the loving protection of his mother, the charmin`g young man had lied about his age and joined the army, embarking from Glasgow on SS Mooltan. The wartime odyssey to the Middle East transformed his life. Later he recalled, “There were no coaches to help, no manuals to study as I became a self-taught off-spin bowler in the shadows of the Sphinx and the pyramids.”
It is almost forgotten in the wake of his magnificent spinning career, but before the War, Jim Laker had been a promising batsman, with some skill in bowling medium pace. Born in Bradford, Yorkshire, he attended indoor coaching camps under Herbert Sutcliffe and received some encouragement the great English opening batsman as well as the legendary Yorkshire all-rounder George Hirst. He played for Saltaire and had made a name for himself in the cricketing circles. And in the army, he had first attracted attention as a footballer, captaining the Corinthians Club in Tel Aviv, and winning a place in the British Army XI.
Yet, he ended the War as a well-nigh unplayable off-spinner whose balls could be heard in the air as he gave them a tweak. And when he returned to his land, Yorkshire County Cricket Club informed him that they were not looking for a bowler of his type. Laker, looking for greener pastures and enticed by the city life of London, landed up playing club cricket for Catford and soon Andy Sandham invited him for a trial for Surrey. That day, he made Errol Holmes, the captain of Surrey, look silly with his off-breaks, and walked into the county side starting a long and eventful association.
Success and scapegoat
Soon Laker was selected to tour West Indies, member of an English side without the frontline cricketers. Gubby Allen, 45-year old by then, led a limited side in a venture described by John Arlott as the most unnecessarily depressing tour in English cricket history. The entire voyage ended without a single victory in any of the First-Class matches. Two Tests were drawn and the remaining were won by a powerful West Indian side. But, Jim Laker, with seven for 103 on his debut – including six for 25 in nine overs, emerged from the tour as a major find.
The truth that escaped the English think tank was that Laker was still very raw at the highest level. Hence, when in his seventh Test, he was pitted against Don Bradman and Arthur Morris going for the kill on a last day at Headingley, he fell victim to nerves and inexperience. The Australians had already gone after him on the tour, with Keith Miller leading the way. Laker later confessed to having a cricketing equivalent of a boxer’s glass chin at that time, not knowing what to do if batsmen decided to step out and hammer him.
On a dusty Leeds wicket where the lack of a wrist spinner cost England dear, and Norman Yardley was forced to perform the costly experiments with Len Hutton’s leg spinners and Denis Compton’s whimsical chinaman, Bradman and Morris overhauled the 400 plus target at a canter, well within the six and three quarter hours they had. Laker finished the second innings with figures of 32-11-93-0. There were unending inquests and all discovered him a useful scapegoat .He was disavowed, overlooked for the tours of South Africa and Australia and for several years was not considered a regular in the side.
In1950, Laker had figures of eight for two in a Test trial. Those playing against Surrey had no doubt that he was the best off-spinner of England. Yet, his appearances for England remained limited. Roy Tattershall, Bob Appleyard and sometimes even Brian Close were preferred over him.
True, Australia was known for pitches where only wrist spinners could make an impression. But, Laker maintained that the claim had not been fully tested. When Freddie Brown took his side to Australia in 1950-51, he refused to consider Laker. And to rub salt into Laker’s wounds, mystery spinner Jack Iverson proved to be Engalnd’s nemesis on the tour.
In 1954-55, Len Hutton preferred a pace based attack, preferring the additional seam option of Bob Appleyard. There is the well-known story of Hutton sitting with Laker, Tom Graveney and Brian Statham in a hotel lounge, sipping cold drinks. Hutton first asked Graveney and then Statham whether they would like to go to Australia. And finally, turning to Laker, he asked, “Like another drink, Jim?”
Laker appeared in a few Tests against touring New Zealanders, South Africans, West Indians, Indians and Pakistanis. There were two highlights during this period of semi-exile. Laker forged a partnership with Tony Lock for Surrey, a spinning combination which with Alec Bedser and Peter Loader in company would see the county win seven tournaments in succession. He also went on a hugely successful tour of India with the Les Ames led Commonwealth team where he bowled alongside Sonny Ramadhin, George Tribe and Bruce Dooland.
The ten that changed all
It all changed in the summer of 1956. Laker, by then 34, had allowed his basic sense of humour to help him prevail over the injustices. By the time Australia visited under Ian Johnson, Lock and he had already become legends in the county circuit. The refrain was already doing rounds, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If Laker doesn’t get me, Lockie must.”
Australians first suffered against Surrey in May. After a sleepless night nursing his sick daughter, three year old Fiona, Laker was persuaded to play by the great Surrey captain Stuart Surridge. He cut through the Australians like a grocer’s wire through Cheddar cheese. Laker took all ten for 88 runs, obtaining the match ball and £50 from the Surrey committee. Five of the wickets were taken by straight balls which the batsman played for turn.
Australia started the series well, winning at Lord’s. But soon, Laker and Lock took 18 wickets between them at Leeds to draw level. Laker had 11 to Lock’s seven. And in the fourth Test at Manchester, they accounted for all 20, with Laker famously claiming 19 of them.
The match was full of curiosities. The first five English batsmen, Peter Richarson, Colin Cowdrey, David Sheppard, Peter May and Trevor Bailey were all amateurs. Secondly, on the eve of the match, Tom Graveney pulled out due to injury. Hasty consultations in Manchester led Gubby Allen, the chairman of selectors, to call the Hastings police station to search for Alan Oakman. The Sussex all-rounder was contacted by the police, asking him to report for the Test match. It was the second and the last match of Oakman’s short Test career, and he held five catches off Laker at short-leg.
After Jim Burke had half-heartedly pulled Tony Lock into the hands of Cowdrey, Laker picked up the remaining 19 wickets in the match for 90 runs. And after somehow managing to get through the ring of congratulatory messages and felicitations, he spent the evening biting into a sandwich and sipping beer in a pub, alone and unnoticed, as the excited patrons discussed the landmark and the highlights were repeatedly shown on the television.
Colin Wilkie, folk singer and lyricist, wrote the lines in tribute: “The ball, like a hovering hawk; Tossed from a falconer’s hand; Swooped in hunger for the kill; When the hunter did command.”Among many congratulatory messages was a telegram from Wembley which read, “Thanks for making us feel 19 and the Australians 90.” Laker ended the series with 46 wickets at 9.60 each.
Jim Laker finally had sealed his place in the English cricket team, as well as in the history of cricket as one of the greatest off spinners ever. He could no longer be given the occasional Test. Succession of series followed with excellent figures, and finally, at the age of 37, under Peter May, he embarked on his first venture to Australia.
The troubled final days
It was a disastrous tour for England, but Laker successfully laid to rest the contention that finger spinners could not succeed Down Under. He took 15 wickets in four Tests, at 21.20 apiece before Neil Harvey became the first batsman to really master him.
But, the tour was marred by differences of opinion between Laker and the management – captain May and more importantly, Freddie Brown – now in the role of a notoriously autocratic manager. On his return, Laker published the ghost written Over to Me which spoke strongly about the tactics in Australia and also against the ridiculous distinctions between amateurs and professionals that still survived in the cricketing world. Laker, who always felt strongly about the class distinction prevalent in cricket, stood by what he had written, but not all of it was carefully reviewed by him before being rushed to press. It did not go down very well with the establishment. His honorary membership of Surrey and MCC were revoked. Although they were later restored, Laker never played First-Class cricket again.
His 193 Test wickets were taken at an average of 21.24 and strike rate of 62.3, staggering numbers for a spinner. What is even more striking is that he took part in just 46 of the 99 Tests played by England during his career span. At the time of his retirement, only Fred Trueman, Alec Bedser and Brian Statham exceeded his tally of wickets.
The bowler and the man
According to Bailey, the perfect balance and rhythm of Laker was uncanny. “He was so grooved that he could have run in to bowl blindfolded.”
There was a slightly disdainful hitch of the trousers, before he commenced along a succession of short steps. It was followed by a pivot, and then the sharply stretched left hand, palm upwards, before the ball was delivered side-on, at the strictly regulated 12-o’clock position. Laker released the ball from about as high a trajectory as one could achieve, maximising spin, using splendid body and shoulder movement. His success was made more prominent by the watertight field to which he bowled, with two leg slips, a short square leg, mid-on and square leg on the fence, and sometimes a deep mid-wicket – often halfway to the boundary. The close in fielders took care of defensive prods, always risky to Laker on turning wickets, and the men in the outfield catered to the swishes.
Mickey Stewart recalled, “One of Jim’s major assets was that he controlled the cricket ball in all conditions.”
While his partner Tony Lock was the son of the soil, overbearingly aggressive and earthy, Laker was undemonstrative and sophisticated. There was no curse, cry or gesticulation when catches were put down. He merely stood there tapping his feet, waiting for the ball to be returned. Sometimes, his eyes would be lifted heavenward as if asking justice for bowlers.
His accuracy was supreme. Once he confided to David Sheppard, “I had a bad season last year, I bowled two long hops.” However, he was never mechanical. John Arlott, a close friend and later co-commentator, wrote, “He achieved his results on turning wickets at the lowest possible cost, while on batsmen’s wickets he set problems of length and flight. His variations were subtle, designed to deceive a batsman a pitch-length away, therefore rarely visible to spectators. But to watch a great batsman play an over of apparently identical deliveries in six different ways indicated the profundity of his resources.”
Indeed Laker was parsimonious. After the Test trial figures of eight for two, he lamented that he could have had much better economy if he had not given a courtesy single to Eric Bedser to allow him to get off the mark.
Not blessed with the long fingers of Lance Gibbs, Laker painfully put the ball between the index and middle fingers and stretch the webbing in between. Success came at a cost. His spinning finger was callused and raw and kept him sleepless with pain on many a night. His terrific tweak had to be recharged with continuous rubbing with ointment.
Laker had been schooled well by his mother. He was a wizard with numbers and could recite Shakespeare from memory. As Arlott claimed, there have been off-spinners who have spun more, but seldom have any been more intelligent. He also had a refined sense of humour. When intrigued by the curious first name of Everton Weekes, he was told by the great West Indian batsman that his father had been a devout supported of the English soccer team Everton. Laker had responded that it was fortunate that the old man did not support West Bromwich Albion.
It was little wonder then that he soon became a commentator of fame and repute and an integral part of Test Match Special as he moved away from his playing days.
When he passed away in 1986, and was followed in that final journey a few hours later by Bill Edrich, cricket lovers mused that two mighty trees had fallen over cricket’s memory lane.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)