jim laker

Even if he did nothing else in his entire career, James Charles ‘Jim’ Laker, born February 9, 1922, would have been remembered for the Old Trafford Test of 1956. Let alone Tests, his 19 for 90 remain the only 19-wicket haul in history. His 10 for 53 in the second innings are also the best innings bowling figures in Test cricket. Laker’s 46 Tests fetched him 193 wickets at a phenomenal 21.24, while his First-Class figures, mostly for Surrey, got him 1,944 wickets at 18.41, which meant he fell agonisingly short of both landmarks. Laker also formed the backbone of the Surrey side that won the County Championship seven times in a row between 1952 and 1958.

Put a 150-wicket cut-off, and you will find that Laker has the best bowling average among all spinners in the history of Test cricket. Yes, he was that good. Abhishek Mukherjee recollects 23 facts about an outstanding off-spinner-turned-commentator who never held a thing back in life.

1. Bradford to Bradford

Jim ‘JC’ Laker was born in Frizinghall, Bradford, Yorkshire before moving to Surrey. In 1950 he was picked for the Test trial, for England against The Rest. Probably egged by the fact that the match was played at Bradford, Laker finished with the small matter of 14-12-2-8.

Of course, that was not Laker’s only eight-wicket haul that season. He took 8 for 45 against Gloucestershire and 8 for 45 against Middlesex less than two months after his 8 for 2.

Astonishingly, he got to play only one Test that summer — one dominated by Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine.

2. Jim of all trades

As it often happens with many spinners, Laker started his career as a batsman and medium-pacer. In fact, when a teenage Laker went to Yorkshire nets before World War II, it was as batsman that he earned a reputation. He would also go on to become a very good fielder, especially at gully.

His batting talent would later come handy at Trent Bridge against Don Bradman’s Invincibles: a 101-minute 63 on his first Test on English soil would help England reach 165 after being 74 for 8.

Abandoned by his father when he was two, Jim was brought up his aunts. One of them, Mrs Ellen Kane (Allan Hill called her “the indomitable Yorkshire matriarch”) was a school-teacher, and an aficionado of the sport.

3. Hirst and Sutcliffe

He went to Salts High School, Saltaire, where he once took 6 for 0, the first known outrageous figures of his career. The opposition was bowled out for 1. He joined Saltaire Club shortly afterwards, and played in the Bradford League.

He was fortunate to be coached by two legends — George Hirst and Herbert Sutcliffe — after he graduated from school. Later, when he joined Royal Army Ordnance Corps during The War, he made it to the British Army XI — in football.

4. Kangaroo killer

Laker’s numbers are phenomenal, as mentioned above, but his record against Australia is outstanding even by his lofty standards. Not only did he take 79 wickets at 18.27 against them, he got them from a mere 15 Tests. Even on that ill-fated Australian summer of 1958-59 (of which we will discuss later) when England were obliterated 0-4, Laker topped the English bowling charts with 15 wickets at 21.20, the same as his career average.

But Laker’s preference for the Antipodeans started years before that, against Australian Servicemen at Cairo during his days as Corporal in World War II: the spell read 6 for 10; the headline on Egyptian Gazette, “Laker skittles Australians.”

5. Love in the air

Lilly, the woman Jim would marry, was from a family of Jews who fled Vienna in 1938 when the Nazis attacked the city. Being an Austrian, which meant she had scant knowledge of the sport.

Lilly joined Auxiliary National Services for British Army in Egypt. She and Jim met in Cairo, and their first date was at a cricket match. Lilly later told Brian Scovell that her first reaction was “I thought English people were supposed to be fair; how is it proper for eleven men to play against two?”

They met again in 1950. By then Lilly had lost contact with her parents. Then the Red Cross informed Lilly that they were in a farm in South France. Jim helped her financially, and Lilly’s parents settled down in London.

Jim and Lilly married soon afterwards. Hill wrote that Lilly was “an immensely loyal and devoted wife” to Laker (they had two beautiful girls, Fiona and Angela).

6. An off-spinner is born

Years before this spell, Benjamin Wilson (former Yorkshire batsman and then a renowned coach) was the first to suggest Laker take up off-breaks after he saw the youngster bowl in the nets. That was before The War. Laker was smart enough to listen to Wilson.

Laker was in his early twenties at this stage. “You can hear the ball buzz as he lets it go,” they said of the young off-spinner serving his duty in North Africa. Garry Sobers would agree with that in his autobiography (“when you batted against Jim Laker you could hear the ball fizz as he spun it”).

7. Surrey get Laker

Following World War II, Laker joined Catford CC. Catford President Andrew Kempton was a Surrey CCC Member. However, though Surrey were willing to take Laker, he was a part of Yorkshire Colts at this time.

Before The War, Laker had worked at Barclays, Bradford; Surrey, keen on getting Laker but still not making up their mind on whether Laker was good enough for First-Class cricket, requested Barclay to grant Laker a six-month transfer to London.

After the stipulated six months, Laker resigned and played as a Surrey CCC professional.

8. Sims, paid back

An interesting anecdote connects Jim Sims and his namesake. Set 142 in a low-scoring match at Lord’s in 1948, Middlesex were reduced to 47 for 6 by Laker and Alec Bedser. Then Walter Robins and Sims got a bit adventurous, but though the seventh wicket saw 54 being added, Middlesex still needed 22 when last man Laurie Gray joined Sims.

They needed another 10 when Sims hit one back to Laker, who grassed the chance. Michael Barton, Surrey opening batsman, later told Hill: “Jim never said very much, but he was silent that day. He was obviously deeply upset at the lapse.” Middlesex scraped through by 1 wicket.

The story does not end here. When the sides met at The Oval next season, Sims hit one back to Laker. This time Laker “took a brilliant one-handed catch as the ball was struck fiercely back at him,” wrote Hill.

In typical Laker style, the great man uttered: “One year too late.”

9. The Brylcreem race

Laker’s 19 for 90 at Old Trafford has been so written-about that it does not merit a retell. That, however, was not the only time he did that against the Australians that season.

Brylcreem had announced £100 and a silver cup for the best bowling figures of the season. Laker reached the 10-wicket mark in mid-May, routing the Australians with 10 for 88 for Surrey at The Oval.

Ken Smales of Gloucestershire got 10 for 66 in mid-June, pushing Laker down the ladder. Then, with Laker not playing, his spin partner Tony Lock grabbed 10 for 54 against Kent in July. Then, later that month, Laker had his 10 for 53 at Old Trafford…

10. Postscript of 19 for 90

As mentioned before, I will not bore anyone with intricate details of Laker’s 19 for 90. There are a few aspects, however, that need to be mentioned.

Media and fans ensured Laker did not leave Old Trafford till 8 PM that night. Once out of the ground, Laker retired to a pub at Lichfield and settled down with a beer and sandwich, watching himself bowl on television, taking out the Australians one by one. By the time he was home, his wife Lilli had already attended a barrage of congratulatory phone calls. ALSO READ: Jim Laker records the best bowling figures in Test history

When her husband returned home that night, a bemused Lilli (her cricket knowledge was not the best, remember) enquired: “Jim, did you do something good today?”

Laker received many congratulatory messages after the feat. One of his most favourite was a telegram from Wembley that read THANKS FOR MAKING US FEEL 19 AND THE AUSTRALIANS 90.

Daily Express ran a cartoon by Roy Ulyett, depicting a bamboozled kangaroo in front of a headstone that ran HERE LIE THE AUSSIES OF ’56, SKITTLED BY LAKER FOR NEXT TO NIX. To the foot of the kangaroo was tied a small tag: “Never forgotten. Sorry you thought our wicket rotten. — Love, from the ground-staff.”

Famous lyricist and singer Colin Wilkie later penned down (and composed) Jim Laker Took All Ten to commemorate the spell.

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10. The man who wasn’t there

Laker made his Test debut against West Indies at Kensington Oval. He took 7 for 103 in the first innings, including 6 for 25 on the second morning. Though he suffered from a stomach muscle pain, he took 18 wickets in the series, more than anyone for England.

Then he was decimated by Don Bradman’s Invincibles. Playing for MCC at Lord’s, Laker was slaughtered by the tourists, especially Bradman. He was hit for 9 sixes on the second morning. When Australia chased down a record 404 at Headingley, Laker went wicketless — and was made scapegoat. The 8 for 2 in the Test trial did not make a difference.

Nothing went Laker’s way. In 1951 he took 149 wickets at 17.99. This included 4 for 64 and 6 for 55 at The Oval against South Africa, where he bowled England to victory despite South Africa’s slender first-innings lead.

A disgruntled Laker went to New Zealand for a season of Plunket Shield for Auckland in 1951-52. With 24 wickets at 15.79, he finished next to only Tom Burtt (29 at 14.37) and Alex Moir (28 at 20.67). Of his teammates, only Geoff Rabone (16) had more than 10 wickets.

Thereafter he was left out of the side, almost astonishingly, despite decent numbers. His first 24 Tests got him 86 wickets at 27.86. It had taken him eight years to play these 24 Tests.

Before Len Hutton set out in 1954-55 to retain The Ashes in Australia, he had already made up his mind: his side will be entirely reliant on pace. Thus, when he, Laker, Brian Statham, and Tom Graveney were once sitting in a hotel lounge over soft drinks, Hutton asked Statham and Graveney about their availability for the tour.

Then he asked Laker: “Like another drink, Jim?”

11. The man who wasn’t there

Scovell mentions an incident in his book 19-90 Jim Laker: when Lilly asked Dorothy (wife of Hutton) why her husband was left out, she got to know of a theory that Hutton thought “English bowlers with blue eyes don’t bowl in Australia because of the strong sunlight…”

12. Kiwi affairs

In between all this, a disgruntled Laker went to New Zealand for a season of Plunket Shield for Auckland in 1951-52. With 24 wickets at 15.79, he finished next to only Tom Burtt (29 at 14.37) and Alex Moir (28 at 20.67).

Of his teammates, only Geoff Rabone (16) had more than 10 wickets. Auckland came second that season, 2 points behind Canterbury.

13. The two Lakers

It was astonishing, the way that 1956 Ashes changed Laker’s career. Indeed, his Test career can be split into two parts. While the first part was impressive, the second was almost out of the world.

Jim Laker

M

W

Ave

5WIs

10WMs

Before Ashes 1956

24

86

27.86

3

1

Ashes 1956 and after

22

107

15.93

6

2

Career

46

193

21.25

9

3

14. Over to Laker

On his return from the Ashes tour of 1958-59, Laker published Over to Me, his no-holds-barred ghost-written autobiography. He criticised Peter May and Freddie Brown, England captain and manager on that tour, for their strategies and man-management skills.

The book came out in early 1960, and became so controversial that Laker’s honorary MCC and Surrey CCC memberships were cancelled. They were reinstated a few years later, but Laker did not play First-Class cricket again.

15. Prince of parsimony

Laker finished his Test career with a remarkable economy rate of 2.04. His reluctance to give away easy runs attained legendary status. During his 8 for 2 at Bradford, Laker had a prior agreement that he would ‘give away’ a run to his friend Eric Bedser.

He never forgot to make a mention of that whenever mentions of the spell came up: “Well, they would have been less expensive if I hadn’t given Eric one to get off the mark.” As for the other run, he wrote that it “came from a push to forward short-leg by Freddie Trueman, a strike that was worth the single only because Trevor Bailey and I both went to field the ball and collided!”

Has there been anyone more disgruntled about conceding 2 runs from 14 overs?

Wisden wrote: “The essential (against a quality off-spinner) is to get into line, so that the bat can swing straight down the path of the ball. But the batsman who follows this principle against vicious off-spin soon finds himself reduced to an ugly jab right across the line, and the result is always likely to be an lbw or a catch to one of the close-fielders.”

Indeed, he once told David Sheppard: “I had a bad season last year. I bowled two long-hops.”

16. You don’t break my record…

In 1955, five years after Laker’s 8 for 2 at Bradford, Charlie Palmer of Leicestershire was scything through Surrey. At point of time Palmer’s figures read an astonishing 8 for 0, and Laker’s record for the cheapest eight-wicket haul seemed to be at stake.

But Laker was batting. “I lasted out six successive maidens from him, by the simple method of playing as far forward as I could reach to every ball. At last — I don’t pretend the shot was deliberate or controlled — I nicked a three down to fine leg. This broke the atmosphere, for my figures.”

17. Well, he got both of them…

In Over to Me, Laker created a post-World War II World XI, in which he had both Hutton and May — captains with whom he did not get along. For academic interest, the XI read Hutton, Arthur Morris, Bradman, May, Everton Weekes, Keith Miller, Richie Benaud, Ray Lindwall, Godfrey Evans, Hugh Tayfield, and Alec Bedser.

18. The duplicate

Ken Barrington, probably England’s greatest middle-order batsman, was not a poor bowler. His leg-break had fetched him 273 First-Class wickets, of which 29 came in Tests. With the Newlands Test of 1964-65 as good as dead, Mike Smith got ten of his men to bowl.

When Barrington came on, he decided to mimic Laker’s action and bowl off-breaks. He got Denis Lindsay, Peter Pollock, and Glen Hall without the aid of a fielder. The figures of 3.1-1-4-3 remained his career-best.

Even a Laker replica was capable of freakish figures!

19. Hollywood calling

Laker attained legendary status following his 19-wicket haul. He was invited by Boris Karloff, who umpired in a Sunday benefit match Laker played, to visit Hollywood. The plan was set: Hollywood CC, founded by C Aubrey Smith, would show a five-minute reel of Laker’s Old Trafford spell, followed by a question-and-answer session.

Laker was bowled over. He ran into Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, and David Niven in a night-club. Then, in the elevator of his hotel, he met the charming Gene Tierney. “This was living!” was what he thought…

Then came the shock, when he realised that the audience of the show was not full of English expatriates, but consisted mostly of “Mexicans and South Americans, all with their dark, swarthy looks and little moustaches.”

Laker was hailed by the audience as someone who had achieved the cricket equivalent of a no-hit-no-run. Then he had to go through the unenviable process of explaining why fielders standing three yards away from the batsman never had protective gear.

But what really stumped Laker was when Americans asked why he was not shouldered off the ground and “carried round on a lap of honour with bands playing.”

For once Laker had no response.

20. Awards galore

His Old Trafford spell made Laker the first cricketer to be named BBC Sport Personality of the Year in 1956. He was not a Wisden Cricketer for that year, for he had already been named one in 1952 — the same year in which he was named a New Zealand Cricket Almanac Cricketer of the Year for his Plunket Shield heroics. ICC inducted Laker into their Hall of Fame in 2009 along with Jack Hobbs and Hutton.

Shipley, a suburb of Bradford, has a Jim Laker Place.

21. With Arlott and Richie

Laker later became one of the most popular commentators, his economy of words attaining a status next to probably Benaud’s among contemporaries. Add to that his ability to recite numbers at will and Shakespeare from memory, and you would seldom find a better commentator.

John Arlott wrote of Laker: “Wry, dry, laconic, he thought about cricket with a deep intensity and a splendidly ironic point of view.”

His commentary, characterised by the use of ‘-in’ instead of ‘-ing’ at the end of the verbs in continuous tense made him a popular subject for mimicry.

Laker’s colleague Peter West mentioned: “Jim, with his mentally wry and nimble humour, could produce an anecdote at the drop of a hat.” As West complained, Laker’s “disarming raconteur” was underused by the channels.

22. Quotes galore

Some of his iconic quotes, behind the microphone or otherwise, read thus:

“The aim of English cricket is, in fact, mainly to beat Australia.”

“My idea of paradise is Lord’s in the sunshine, with Ray Lindwall bowling from one end and Bishan Bedi from the other.”

“It was a good thing your father wasn’t a West Bromwich Albion fan,” to Weekes, when the Barbadian told him that his father had christened him after his favourite football club.

There was the occasional unintentional one, causing much unintentional hilarity among fans and colleagues:

“An interesting morning, full of interest.”

“It’s a unique occasion really — a repeat of Melbourne 1977.”

23. Last days

Laker was diagnosed with a near-fatal aortic aneurism in 1981, but recovered well. Though he was back behind the microphone, things were never the same.

In 1986 he was hospitalised for three weeks. Pancreatitis was the diagnosis; they decided to do away with his gall-bladder. He recovered, but not for long. This time he was down with septicaemia. He passed away at Parkside Clinic, Wimbledon on April 23 that year. Bill Edrich, Laker’s opponent for many a London derby, died next day.

The memorial service was held at Southwalk Cathedral. Benaud was there. True to his wish, he was cremated (at Putney Vale Crematorium). His ashes were scattered at The Oval.