Jim Laker with his controversial autobiography © Getty Images
Jim Laker with his controversial autobiography © Getty Images

December 9, 1958. Jim Laker stood at the crease at Brisbane, facing Ian Meckiff and Jim Burke. Arunabha Sengupta talks about how the ace English spinner later recounted his encounter with the ‘throwers’ of Australia.

When Ian Meckiff ran in with his bent arm and hurled them down, according to England skipper Peter May, “it blotted the sunniest disposition.”

And Meckiff was not alone. Gordon Rorke had both a bent arm and a serious drag. Keith Slater was another with suspicious action. And part-time spinner Jim Burke threw as well.

That 1958-59 series had seen England arrive on the Australian shores with top billing, as the strongest side in the world.

But there were enough problems within the team, especially with Jim Laker and the skipper having buried a contentious hatchet just before the ship sailed.

Then the throwers came out from the Australian lines, one after the other. Jack Fingleton’s tour book was titled Four Chukkas to Australia. Trevor Bailey set up movie cameras to get evidence of bent arms on film. Whispers were heard about the action, which later became clamouring voices.

There were counteraccusations too, from the Australians. Tony Lock had a distinctly unclean action, and Peter Loader not really an untainted one. Besides, at the heat of the moment, the Aussies pointed to non-existent jerking of the bowling arm in blameless pace bowlers such as Brian Statham and Fred Trueman.

England, plagued by injuries, bickering and focus on complaints, lost the series 0-4.

Laker published his first autobiography, Over to Me, immediately after announcing his retirement once the tour was over. Perhaps he was still edgy with all the problems with the authorities. Perhaps he was plain outspoken with his predominantly Yorkshire roots.

But it was he who pulled no punches in his book when discussing the ‘throwers’.

“Throwing was not invented by the Australians,” Laker wrote with his personal brand of restraint, “but it was on this tour that it became more flagrant than ever before. The names involved were Meckiff, Burke, Slater and Rorke.”

Laker’s special focus was on Meckiff: “Meckiff throws all the time. Throwing is an essential part of his action — so much that if he tried to bowl fairly, I think he would do well to get a place in his local Grade side. From a run of about half a dozen paces, with little or no follow-through, he gets a lively pace, and I don’t believe this could be so if he kept within the law. As with most of the guilty bowlers, Meckiff gets worse as he tires.”

Meckiff later claimed he had been born with a naturally bent arm, but Laker was relentlessly scathing in his assessment. Perhaps he was unhappy about something else, which he added in his analysis: “Meckiff’s lack of follow-through, incidentally, means that there is no rough outside the off-stump to encourage the off-spinner… but that is the sort of thing I would notice.”

He next moved on to Burke: “Burke’s off-spinners, in the eyes of English players, are no more than a standing joke. Everyone knows that Burke throws. He cheerfully admits it himself. And yet he regularly takes four or five wickets for his club side every Saturday throughout the season. Nobody seems to mind.”

Laker then recounts the famed incident of the Brisbane Test: “I vividly remember batting in the Brisbane Test, with Meckiff on at one end and Burke at the other. ‘It’s like standing in a darts match,’ I told Neil Harvey. Neil doubled up.”

This is followed by yet another anecdote: “It was about that time that Meckiff had one of his wild spells. Norman O’Neill, from the boundary, sent a fine throw right to the top of the stumps. ‘Put Norm on,’ yelled a wag in the crowd, ‘At least he can throw straight.’”

Few autobiographies are as colourfully direct.