Arthur Mailey (left) congratulates Jim Laker on his feat. Years back, Mailey had also taken a 9-for in a Test. © Getty Images
Arthur Mailey (left) congratulates Jim Laker on his feat. Years back, Mailey had also taken a 9-for in a Test. © Getty Images

On July 31, 1956, in Manchester, Jim Laker single-handedly routed the Australians, taking 10 wickets in the second innings, making it 19 for the match. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the day that can be bettered by no bowler however hard he tries.

Gentlemen, we are going to have an early finish

The Ashes series was tied 1-1 when the teams moved to Old Trafford.

Trevor Bailey described the wicket as a beach. After all, it was not every day that Fred Trueman was left out of the side and it fell on the Essex all-rounder to share the new ball with Brian Statham. There were indications that the pitch had been prepared specifically for Jim Laker and Tony Lock. After all, Laker had recently taken all ten against Australia for Surrey — a match in which the spin twins had captured 19: Laker 12, Lock 7.

The pitch was dry and white — quite shocking for the Australians. When pressed, curator Bert Flack did admit that he acted on instructions. After the match he remarked that if Gamal Abdel Nasser had not taken over Suez Canal a few days ago, his picture would have been plastered all over the front pages like Marilyn Monroe!

Keith Miller ran his hands over the surface, turned to the umpires and said, “Gentlemen, we’re going to have an early finish.” The all-rounder did not think it worthwhile to take off his sweater to bowl in the match.

Yet, when England won the all-important toss and batted, Miller did bowl 21 wicket-less overs. Ray Lindwall bowled a bit more, picking up two wickets. The major load was shouldered by spinners Ian Johnson and Richie Benaud, sharing 94 overs equally, picking up 6 wickets between them. Five years later, Benaud would bowl Australia to a win on this very ground, but during that match, the wicket was not exactly suited to his liking.

Tom Graveney had withdrawn with a damaged finger, but England piled up 459 by lunch on the second day. Opener Peter Richardson got a hundred. Taking time off from church, Reverend David Shepherd got another.

The fun begins

Skipper Peter May did not expect Statham and Bailey to knock the Australians over. They were to get the ball sufficiently old to throw it to the spinners. They were miserly, but not threatening.

When Laker and Lock got into the act, Colin McDonald and Jim Burke looked comfortable enough. Forty-eight had been added when May brought back Statham to help the spinners switch ends.

Bowling from the Stretford end, Laker immediately had McDonald caught at short-leg. Neil Harvey was bowled off the second delivery, the ball pitching on leg-stump, turning across the face of the bat, hitting off.  “It was the ball that won the Test,” Laker observed later.

Returning after tea, Lock had Burke caught at slip. It was a significant scalp, the only Australian wicket in the match not taken by Laker.

At the other end, the mild-mannered Surrey off-spinner ran through the side in another 35 minutes, taking 7 for 8 in 22 balls. The Surrey pro did turn his off-breaks appreciably, but the surrender of the Australians was remarkably docile.

Alan Oakman, in the side for Graveney, stood close at short-leg, and arriving at the wicket Miller warned: “If you don’t look out, I’ll hit you in the bollocks.”  Yet, he only managed to push at it and was held by the fieldsman he threatened. “Most Australians were backfoot players who pushed at the turning ball,” Oakman, who pouched 5 catches in the match, recalled later.

Elephants walking on ice

Ken Mackay confessed that his attempts to play resembled an elephant walking on ice. He also pushed one into the hands of Oakman.

Only Benaud showed signs of adventure, and was caught by Statham at the cow corner off the only ball he middled. Laker was famously finicky about having a man deep in the cow corner. If captains tried to bring the field in, he would put the ball down and refuse to bowl. Years later, Surrey teammate Micky Stewart distributed Laker’s ashes over the cow corner at The Oval.

By the time Laker, with figures of 16.4-4-37-9, had bundled Australia for 84, murmurs of discontent were going around the Aussie camp. When Flack asked which roller they would prefer when following on, skipper Ian Johnson retorted: “Please your f**king self.”

When Australia batted again, McDonald retired hurt with an injured knee with the score on 28. Harvey came in and faced perhaps the only bad ball bowled by Laker in the entire match, a slow full-toss, and ended up hitting it down the throat of Colin Cowdrey at short mid-on. Harvey’s picture of flinging his bat in the air in disgust, having been dismissed twice without scoring within an hour, is a collector’s classic.

Australia ended the day at 51 for 1.

Clouds and rain

The evening and the following morning saw a storm brewing as the fairness of the pitch was questioned. Former leg-spinner Bill O’Reilly was cutting in his criticism: “This pitch is a disgrace. What lies in store for Test cricket if groundsmen are allowed to play the fool like this?”

The mood was anything but positive. Ian Craig, the middle-order batsman, remarked later: “We were all p***ed off. We felt we’d been dudded, and we dropped our bundle a little bit.”

However, one reporter did mention that had Australia possessed spinners of the quality of Clarie Grimmett or O’Reilly himself, they would not have complained as much.

The next day, the weather did provide some hope for the visitors. Persistent rain allowed only 45 minutes of play during which Laker added Burke to his list.

McDonald and Craig then batted through the hour that was possible on the fourth day showing a lot of grit and application. “It was as if Laker and Lock had had their teeth drawn,” wrote The Times.

The final day

The rain ended at 5 AM on July 31, the last scheduled day of the Test.

And when Craig and McDonald batted through till lunch on a wicket which had changed from sandy to muddy, there was growing confidence in the Australian camp. The conditions seemed manageable and the batsmen looked good. Eight wickets remained.

However, the sun shone during the interval and after, and the ball started spinning remarkably. The wind also started blowing all over the place, and titanium bails had to be brought in to replace the wooden ones that kept falling off.

Craig, who had played well forward all day, was done in by a tactical masterpiece — an almost round-arm ball from Laker. It gave the impression of being short, Craig went back and was trapped plumb in front.

Mackay followed, pushing into the hands of Oakman at short-leg yet again. Miller and Archer got their ducks, and Australia slumped to 130 for 6.

The new batsman, Benaud, resorted to tactics that would have cost him a fat percentage of his match fee these days. According to The Times, “He took guard every over, and slowly and deliberately took a botanical interest in the pitch after every ball.”

All the while McDonald was probably playing the best innings of his life. The two saw through till tea, and captain Ian Johnson remarked, “We can save the match.” In the background, the eternally sporting Keith Miller’s voice was heard, “I’ll give you 6/4.”

Perfect Ten

The slight optimism died soon after tea. The second ball from Laker purchased huge turn, took the inside edge of McDonald’s bat and was pouched by Oakman at backward of square. It was the end of a superb knock of 89.

Benaud was bowled after a brave and dubious 105 minutes at the crease. And when Lindwall was caught — by Lock in leg-trap — Laker broke the world record for most wickets in a Test, claiming 18.

At the other end Lock was growing increasingly frustrated at his wicketlessness. A unique spinner with the mentality of a fast bowler, he started bowling quicker and quicker, forcing the slips to go further and further back. But, this was not going to be his day. He had even stopped celebrating Laker’s, standing gruffly with folded arms. It prompted the great Sydney Barnes, whose 42-year-old record Laker had just eclipsed, to exclaim in the stands, “No beggar got all 10 when I was bowling at the other end.”

And then came the finale. Len Maddocks, the wicketkeeper, was wrapped on the pads, and John Arlott in the commentary box announced the decision before the umpire. “Laker’s taken all 10!”

The famous figures read 51.2-23-53-10, 19 for 90 in the match.  In clips and photographs of the match, Laker is shown walking off the field, tossing his sweater over his shoulder, while teammates clapped in the background.

The off-spinner was mobbed by press and public after the match, and did not leave Old Trafford until 8 PM. On the way home, he drove to a pub where his exploits were being shown on the television. He sat there, peaceful and unrecognised, savouring his pint and sandwich!

(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)