Jim Laker
Jim Laker (bowling in picture) took 10 for 88 in an innings for Surrey against Australia in 1956 © Getty Images (File Photo)

May 16, 1956. A couple of months before scripting history in the Manchester Test, Jim Laker captured all 10 Australian wickets on an unhelpful wicket at The Oval. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the sweltering day that saw the Australians psychologically vanquished even before the start of the Ashes series.

The thoroughbred came thundering out of the ruck

It was the benefit year of Jim Laker. It was also the watershed season of his career.

1956 was perhaps Laker’s last year to take a shot at international greatness. He was 34, had all the guile and class, but had taken part in only 24 Test. England had played more than double that number since the off-spinner had twirled his first delivery for the country. His 86 wickets had come at 27.86 apiece, a decent enough rate but not quite as spectacular as could be expected from a gifted in the 1950s known for dodgy wickets.

For Surrey, he had for long been a splendid weapon in the side’s versatile arsenal. However, his international appearances had remained intermittent, his successes had been achieved against weaker batting sides. Alongside his county spin twin Tony Lock, he had played a crucial role in the Ashes clinching Test at The Oval in 1953. But when England had gone down to Australia in 1954-55, Len Hutton had placed his faith on extreme pace. For his spin department, Hutton had opted for the versatile Johnny Wardle and the additional seam options provided by Bob Appleyard.

The story goes that was Hutton sitting with Laker, Tom Graveney and Brian Statham in a hotel lounge, sipping glasses of chilled drinks. The captain had first asked Graveney and then Statham whether they would like to go to Australia. And finally, turning to Laker, he had popped the question, “Like another drink, Jim?” For a man who had topped 100 wickets with ease for seven consecutive summers, it had come as a rude shock.He had gone on to capture 133 wickets at 17.90 in 1955 as well, but the disappointments had been tough to accept — both for him and his admirers.

Lastly, that unhappy trial against Don Bradman and Arthur Morris in the fourth innings at Headingley, 1948, still rankled at the back of his mind.

But, 1956 changed it all. That summer saw Laker vanquishing the principal foe, crushing Australia with the art refined over all these years. Of course, the pinnacle of his feats was achieved at Old Trafford, when he took take 19 for 90. It would lead folk singer and lyricist Colin Wilkie to write:

The ball, just like a hovering hawk
Tossed from a falconer’s hand,
Swooped in hunger for the kill
When the hunter did command.

However, before his passage into the realms of eternal glory there was a dress rehearsal of things to come. On the first day of the match between Surrey and Australia at The Oval Laker’s brilliance shone through – foretelling of the great deeds to follow. To quote the colourful prose of Bill O’Reilly, that was the day when “the thoroughbred came thundering out of the ruck.”

Perfect 10

It is surprising to note that Laker had actually declared himself unfit to play on that sweltering May day. The previous night had been sleepless, spent in nursing his sick daughter, the three-year-old Fiona. The pitch looked, and was, unhelpful, and Laker was unwilling to venture out. However, captain Stuart Surridge coaxed him into the ground.

Surridge would do much more. He would keep him on, continuously, from half-past twelve for 4 hours 20 minutes.

According to the Times, “He came on to bowl, broad of beam and red-faced, and he continued to the end, completely unemotional, his shoulders hunched. Always he hitched up his trousers, always he licked his fingers. His run-up never varied, his legs hardly bending at the knees, his strides short.”

Jim Burke fell first, followed by Ken Mackay. Neil Harvey went next, and then Colin McDonald was caught behind after scoring 89. The wicket was not at all tailor-made as has been carelessly suggested down the years. Each and every scalp took some time and labour in coming. Australians were four down at tea. Laker was dead-tired.

During the break, Surridge brushed aside the request of the bowler to be taken off. “No, Jim, there are more Australian wickets for you in this innings.”

And the skipper was correct. Len Maddocks and Ray Lindwall were bowled immediately after resumption and Ian Johnshon nicked to the keeper. The three wickets were taken without cost in the space of two overs.

“Laker smothered the batsmen with his science,” wrote O’Reilly. “His perfectly pitched off-spinners took just enough turn to encourage doubt and flat-footed loitering.”

As Keith Miller batted on at one end, Alan Davidson tried to belt the tweaker out of the attack. A few strokes did come off. But, the left-hander played right into the hands of Peter May. Pat Crawford too swung the bat, got a couple of boundaries, and then missed a straight one.

From the Vauxhall end, Lock, as he was to do in Manchester, was bowling tirelessly and without success, growing more and more frustrated with each over. When Keith Miller skied the left-armer to Dennis Cox at deep extra-cover, the catch remained unaccepted. According to fringe Surrey cricketer Pat McKelvey, Cox always claimed that as the ball was descending from the heights towards him he was busy computing the nuances of the situation. In the end, he decided to muff the catch on purpose, making the attempt look as realistic as possible.

About Cox’s gesture, Laker later said, “I was so tired I just wanted the innings to end. I would certainly have held the catch if it had been mine.”

Laker enjoyed a further piece of luck when left-arm spinner Jack Wilson was caught to a rather dubious decision. However, Roy Swetman’s appeal was upheld and the spinner walked off with the figures 46-18-88-10. Lock remained wicketless, conceding 100 runs from 33 overs. The Australian total was 259.

Denys Rowbotham of Manchester Guardian waxed eloquent about the ball’s lovely curve in the air, its deceptiveness confounding judgement. He added that there was, “the insistent, nagging accuracy of length, the bite of spin, and those disarming deliveries that did not spin of which people will talk when they look back on the match.” Laker himself conceded that five of the wickets fell to straight balls, the batsmen playing for the turn.

It was the first time that someone had captured 10 wickets in an innings against Australia since Edward Barratt had taken 10 for 43 from 29 overs for the Players in 1878. Barratt had also been a Surrey man. Barratt’s feat had earned him a bonus of £5. Laker got the match ball and £50.

Jim Laker (bowling in picture for Surrey) © Getty Images (File Photo0
Jim Laker (bowling in picture for Surrey) © Getty Images (File Photo)

What followed?

Laker’s effort turned even more magnificent through comparison. Australian captain Ian Johnson, an off-spinner himself but nowhere near the class of the Surrey bowler, now tried to match his effort. The great Lindwall bowled just 2 overs, Crawford 1 and Miller, not fully fit, did not send down even one ball. Johnson rolled in over after over, bowling 60 and a half of them. He did take 6 wickets, but they came in exchange of 168 runs. Davidson was urged to bowl left-arm spin, and sent down 44 overs.

Johnson bowled flatter, looked for economy, and was severely criticised for his bowling and tactics. Bernie Constable hit a century, and Laker, not yet done tormenting the Australians, drove handsomely on his way to 43. They put on 57 in 39 minutes for the ninth wicket. Jim Swanton marvelled at the contrast between the two, “There was Constable, sweeping, gliding and stepping away to cut, while Laker drove at almost everything, long hops included, with that grandiloquent back-lift and flourish of the follow-through.” He hit Johnson for 16 in one over.

Surrey led by 88, and then it was Lock’s turn. From the moment his first ball reared angrily at Burke, it seemed that he would emulate his spinning partner. He snapped up the first six wickets, bowling full and straight. According to Swanton again, “there was venomous spin and a stark Spofforthian hostility and threatening fielding to his own bowling.” But at 93, Laker trapped Ken Mackay leg before and the sequence was halted.

In the end Lock picked seven for 49, all his wickets coming within a span of 23.1 overs during which he conceded just 36. Laker added two more to his tally. Johnson successfully stopped this total rout by spin by managing to run himself out. From 56 for no loss, Australians were all-out for 107. Surrey triumphed by 10 wickets.

What followed further down the line

The Brylcreem manufacturers had provided an award of a silver cup and £100 for the best innings bowling performance of the 1956 season. Laker’s 10 for 88 stood for just 25 days at the top of the chart before Ken Smales, the Yorkshire off-spinner, captured 10 for 66 against Gloucestershire.

This new feat once again lasted just about a month. With Laker absent due to injury, Lock exploited a wet wicket at Blackheath and bagged 10 for 54 against Kent.

No one could have faulted Lock for thinking that the prize was his. However, less than three weeks later Laker struck again, taking all 10 Australian wickets in the Test at Manchester, for 53! He beat Lock by 1 run, and all the left-arm spinner could do was run in from the other end, bowling furiously and without reward.

Brief scores:

Australia 259 (Colin McDonald 89, Keith miller 57*; Jim Laker 10 for 88) and 107 (Colin McDonald 45; Tony Lock 7 for 49) lost to Surrey 347 (Tom Clark 58, Bernie Constable 109, Jim Laker 43; Ian Johnson 6 for 160) and 20 for no loss by 10 wickets.

(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)