Jim Laker Biography
The refrain was already doing rounds, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If Laker doesn’t get me, Lockie must.”
The 1956 Australians first suffered against Surrey in May. Jim Laker took all ten for 88 runs, obtaining the match ball and £50 from the Surrey committee.
And then, in the fourth Test at Manchester, Laker became immortal in the annals of cricket claiming 19 wickets for 90. 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.”
Laker ended the series with 46 wickets at 9.60 each. And from then on remained as one of the greatest off-spinners ever, if not the greatest.
It was a rather ill-advised and hard-hitting autobiography centred around the final tour of England in 1958-59 that led the 37-year-old into a premature retirement. Even then, on the disastrous trip of England, 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.
He ended with 193 Test wickets at an average of 21.24 and a 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.
According to Trevor 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.
Laker once confided to David Sheppard, “I had a bad season last year, I bowled two long-hops.” Indeed, Laker was parsimonious. After the Test trial figures of 8 for 2, 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.
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.”
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. 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.