Troubled Laker, May & Wardle ensure that England's 1958-59 Ashes tour was doomed long before it began

England skipper Peter May (left) and team mate Jim Laker winning the fancy dress contest as Tweedledum and Tweedledee during the MCC’s 1956 voyage to South Africa. But things got so bad between May and Laker in the years that followed which had a huge bearing on the 1958-59 series in Australia © Getty Images

Even before the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) team set out for Australia, captain Peter May was plagued by multiple problems — especially in the spin department. Jim Laker almost withdrew after severe altercation with the skipper. And after the team was announced, Johnny Wardle’s name had to be erased in the after-shock of his issues with the Yorkshire management. Arunabha Sengupta traces the domestic problems before the foreign venture.

 
Iberia, the P & O Liner which carried the MCC party was on its 13th crossing to Australia, landed at Fremantle on October 13. However, the misfortunes of the English team had started lot earlier. The England team, that had ruled the world for the past few years, had sent down a side that seemed one of the strongest ever to drop anchor Down Under —at least on paper. Yet, the tour was doomed to be a disaster. Long before it got under way.
 
The trouble that rippled forth even before the journey centred around two of the best spinners the country had ever produced. Jim Laker almost opted out because of an infamous wrangle with his Surrey and England captain Peter May. And further up north, Johnny Wardle was dismissed by Yorkshire after being selected for the Australian tour. The events led MCC to reverse their decision and leave him out of the final squad.
 

The elusive trip
 
For Laker, the letter from Lord’s asking about his availability for the tour was akin to Holy Grail. “Every English cricketer, assuming his head is screwed on the right way round, dreams of the day when he will be selected for Australia,” begins his tumultuous account of the tour, Over to Me. And for the great off-spinner, the opportunity had finally arrived at the very end of a long and impeccable career.

In 1950-51, Laker had expected to go to Australia as the foremost and most experienced off-spinner in the land. But, the selectors had decided on the young 19-year-old Brian Close. That summer of 1950 had seen Laker capture 166 wickets at 15.32. Close, admittedly a batsman of merit, had taken 20 at 19.30 apiece. Later, the selectors had sent down two bowlers without Test experience to bolster the attack — a pacer in the form of Brian Statham and another off-spinner Roy Tattersall. It had left Laker an understandably bitter man.
 
Not only had he been overlooked, the replacements had done precious little to justify their respective inclusions. Tattersall had played two Tests in Australia, with four wickets at 64.25 apiece. Close had played one match, scoring one run and picking one wicket. If the argument was for his all-round prowess, Close had struggled through the tour scoring 231 runs at 23.10 and capturing 13 wickets at 36.53.
 
Laker had opted for the first available alternative and had toured India with the Commonwealth team. And during the voyage, at Port Said, he had had a conversation with captain Les Ames that had compounded his anguish. Ames, one of the selectors who had been party to the choice of Close for the tour, had confirmed that the name of the Yorkshire youngster had been suggested almost as an aside. The captain Freddie Brown had jumped at the proposal, forcing the decision, much to the embarrassment of the rest of the committee.
 
In 1953, Laker had teamed up with Surrey colleague Tony Lock to bowl England to an Ashes triumph after two decades. Yet, captain Len Hutton’s pace theory had ensured the selection of Bob Appleyard as the off-spinner, someone who could also bowl seamers when required. The surprise choice of traditional off-break bowler had been Jim McConnon of Glamorgan, and he had not played any Test. The left-arm spinner for the tour had been Johnny Wardle. Laker and Lock had worked off their frustrations at the county championships, taking 104 wickets between them after the team had been selected, the scalps coming at less than nine runs apiece.
 
The choice of the off-spinner for the Australian tour was obviously not treated with a lot of studied thought. The champion bowler, however, did not subscribe to the theory that Australia was the graveyard of the off-spinner. “As we have so rarely sent a decent off-spinner to Australia, anyway, it seems to me that the policy came first and the legend followed after, like Mary’s little lamb.”
 
By the time the 1958-59 tour came along, no selection committee could dare to overlook Laker. When the Australians had been over in 1956, he had taken all 10 against them for Surrey and had grabbed 19 of the 20 wickets at Manchester. He had finished the series with 46 wickets at 9.60.
 
So, when the press started manufacturing rumours about his not being available for the tour, he was annoyed. When the chairman of selectors Gubby Allen asked him about it, he reassured him that he would be eager to go to the country that had remained an elusive dream.
 

Trying circumstances
 
It had been a tiring few days for the spinner when the glad tidings arrived in the form of the letter from Lord’s. At Leeds, Laker had sat in the pavilion, watching the rain for almost three days, before bowling 58 overs against New Zealand, picking up eight wickets in a victory over the combined resistance of John Reid’s men and the weather.
 
The very next day, he had set out for Swansea to play for Surrey against Glamorgan. Somewhere in the wilds of Cheshire, Peter May’s car had broken down. Laker had stopped to help, pushing and shoving the car till late in the night. The two had arrived at Swansea at three in the morning.

Glamorgan won the toss and Laker sent down 35 overs on the first day, and again 28 in the second innings. The very next day, the team had moved to Blackheath to take on Kent.
 
Laker had sent down 38 overs in the first innings and 16 in the second. Exhausted and nursing a spinning finger bruised and raw from overuse, he had not been at his best. May had played a lone hand of 98 in the first innings, and had missed a slow full toss from John Pettiford to be bowled for 36 in the second. Surrey, for years the champion side, had chased 252 for win and had lost by 29 runs.
 
So, it was a weary Laker who got into his car to drive to The Oval and inform the Surrey Secretary, Commander Bob Babb that he would be going to Australia. According to protocol, Babb had to pass on the message to Lord’s.
 
May himself was equally tired and still disgruntled over the loss to Kent. And it was rather unfortunate that the spinner and captain ran into each other at The Oval that day.
 
There was no welcoming smile from the captain. And the moment they started talking, it was evident to Laker that May blamed him for the defeat — his 16 overs for 35 runs without a wicket in the second innings. Even as Laker was digesting this suggestion, there came a further insinuation he could not stomach. May told him coldly, “I don’t think you were trying to bowl them out.”
 
A heated argument followed and Laker asked May to take back his words. The skipper refused. Laker pointed out that May, the greatest batsman of the world, had been bowled by a slow full-toss, but he would never suggest that it was due to not trying. Yet, May stood by his words.
 
A hurt and angry Laker stormed into Babb’s office and told the Secretary that he would not be going to Australia. In a brief sentence, the tweaker summarised his reasons as well.
 
Instead of advising the captain and the ace spinner to sit down and sort things out, Babb just mouthed, “That’s your business.” With extraordinary promptness, he immediately telephoned Lord’s to pass the news. And the MCC representative he spoke to was as quick to inform the Press agency about Laker’s decision. By the time the off-spinner left The Oval, there were placards around London proclaiming this sensational turn of events.
 
It was the following day that Laker met his agent at his city office, and discussed the matter. By a fortunate turn of events, Denis Compton was present in the room. When Laker told him that he was already regretting the entire affair, the dashing ex-England batsman volunteered to mediate. Laker said that he was ready for discussions, but not prepared to play under a skipper who thought he was a shirker.
 
Compton phoned Billy Griffith, the Assistant Secretary at Lord’s, and suggested a meeting of all the concerned parties. The little committee of Laker, May, Griffith, Gubby Allen and Ronnie Aird met at Lord’s to settle things. However, the deadlock could not be resolved. Laker was insistent that May would have to retract his statement, and the captain was adamant that he would not. The meeting ended in a stalemate with only a slim ray of hope — the two cricketers were asked to discuss the matter and try to have second thoughts.
 
There were subsequent meetings as well, but the situation did not change. According to Laker’s later reminiscences, May was not keen on playing along because he would have lost face. By this time, Laker was almost beyond caring about his ambitions to play in Australia. He was on the verge of saying “what the hell” and chucking it away when May decided to take a reconciliatory step. They met again at The Oval and May said that he had been thinking deeply about the matter and Laker should forget that he had said anything. The off-spinner was glad to accept this olive branch and there were relieved sighs all around the Long Room.
 
Laker did end up going on that nightmarish tour. Even as England were trounced 0-4, he played four of the five Tests and picked 15 wickets at a miserly 21.20 apiece — the most successful England bowler on the tour.
 
However, even then the sparks between bowler and captain did not die down. Citing the arthritic condition of his right forefinger, Laker announced at the start of the voyage that he would be retiring from First-Class cricket after the 1959 season. May and the other members of the management were not amused by the timing of his announcement — on the verge of a very important series.
 
Following this, on the morning of the fourth Test at Adelaide, Laker withdrew from the match. The marathon spell at Sydney had caused the condition of his spinning finger to deteriorate until he could not bend it more than thirty degrees from straight. However, May was furious and, according to Peter Richardson, disappointment masked the captain’s anger.
 
Besides, throughout the tour, Laker clashed with Freddie Brown, the man responsible for his omission in 1950-51 — now the manager of the team. And in 1960, he came out with Over to Me, a book with stinging criticism of both May and Brown and their management during the tour.

Troubled Laker, May & Wardle ensure that England's 1958-59 Ashes tour was doomed long before it began

Johnny Wardle (above) was dismissed by Yorkshire after being selected for the Australian tour. The events led MCC to reverse their decision and leave him out of the final squad © Getty Images

Making us look like idiots
 
May’s pre-tour problems did not end with one spinner. Another man he desperately wanted on the tour was Johnny Wardle. The Yorkshire left-armer had travelled to Australia in 1954-55, convincing May about the merits of unorthodox wrist spin, and bowling steadily throughout the tour. In spite of Tony Lock’s major presence, Wardle was perhaps the better choice for a trip Down Under. In the end, Lock’s five wickets from four Tests in 1958-59 came at a whopping 75.20 apiece.
 
Wardle was in prime form, with 91 wickets in the summer at 15.39 apiece. He was named in the team to tour Australia announced on July 27. And then all hell broke loose.
 
Wardle was 35 and the premier bowler of Yorkshire, at the peak of his career. And that season he was piqued by the decision of the committee to appoint Ronnie Burnet as the captain of the county. The 40-year-old Burnet had no prior experience of First-Class cricket, but he had led the Second XI with some distinction. The committee also asked Wardle to lend the captain the benefit of his immense experience and guide his decisions on the field.
 
A thorough professional, Wardle was severely critical of younger players, often a stickler about the curfew hours and unforgiving when it came to dropped catches. If by some chance he deduced that a muffed opportunity was due to late night and more drinks than recommended, his tongue could lash out in all acerbity. The more spirited of the young men appreciated the wisdom of his actions, but some were terrified of getting under a catch off his bowling. Ray Illingworth later remembered how he had stood his ground in his arguments with Wardle, and went on to benefit immensely from his example. Some others however did not have the same degree of resilience. Mike Cowan, for instance, often ended up in tears.
 
Wardle would also help Burnet with the field and bowling changes – although the spinner was not the only senior pro who thought that the team was carrying the captain. But, with time, Burnett did not take too much notice of him. And almost inevitably the dynamics soon reached boiling point.
 
The crisis was reached during the match against Somerset at Sheffield. Burnet made the same mistake as May and accused Wardle of not trying. Brian Close, who was close at hand, remembered, “I thought Ronnie must be joking. Even if Johnny had hated his captain he would never have gone one to the field and not tried. Johnny was a hundred per cent Yorkshireman.”
 
Much of Laker’s indignation also arose due to the same reason. Although he bowled for Surrey, Laker was a Yorkshireman by birth. One just cannot accuse a Yorkshire professional of not trying. Wardle bristled. He turned on his captain and blurted out, “At the beginning of the season I was asked to give you advice. You’ve taken no bloody notice and, as a result, you are making us professionals look idiots out there.” Considering he had taken six for 46 and two for 29 in an innings win, there was ample cause for his fury.
 
This was followed by a series of articles written for Daily Mail, largely ghosted for Wardle by hack writers, with the spinner hardly giving it a glance. They dwelt at length upon the lamentable decision to appoint Burnet as Yorkshire captain. His grievances, voiced without tact and made fully public, was recipe for unmitigated disaster. Three days after the selection of the team bound for Australia, Yorkshire informed Wardle that they would not be requiring his services anymore after the season.
 
Wardle sought out the Yorkshire club chairman, Clifford Hesketh. His query rang out earnest and painful: “After all the years I have given to Yorkshire cricket, why couldn’t you give me the chance to resign?” Hesketh accused him of not treating the younger players properly and said that he had the wrong attitude altogether for a senior professional.
 
He even charged Wardle of saying, “Yorkshire are only a team of lads, so why should I bother?” When Wardle challenged him to produce the person who had made this accusation, the charge was withdrawn. In any case, Wardle was shattered when he left the ground. Basil Robinson, the brother of former Yorkshire off-spinner Ellis Robinson, was outside the pavilion when Wardle came out and said, “Do me a favour, Basil, walk with me and keep talking. I’ve just got the sack and all the press are waiting for me.” Robinson escorted him past the long bar at Bramall Lane to his car. Wardle was grief stricken as he got in, his face ashen with despair. “Johnny was on the brink of tears,” Robinson remembered.
 

MCC follows suit
 
Brian Sellers, the former Yorkshire captain, was a member of both the Yorkshire and MCC committees. He explained that Wardle’s dismissal was a quick decision and had not been discussed before the Sheffield meeting. He maintained that he had no idea that Wardle would be removed from Yorkshire when he and his fellow MCC members had chosen the left-arm spinner as a member of the team for Australia.
 
When quizzed about the conflicting decisions of Yorkshire and England, Sellers nonchalantly replied, “They are two different things. Wardle may be good enough for England but not for Yorkshire.”
 
However, that was not the end of Wardle’s problems. Soon, MCC invited him to appear before them and explain the articles in Daily Mail. Not surprisingly, Wardle did not have an explanation handy. At the end of the meeting, he was dropped from the touring party as well.
 
Laker himself described the dropping of Wardle from the England team as a panic reaction. The Yorkshire committee had put the MCC under pressure by indicating that they set a higher standard of team-spirit than the national body. In his opinion, “Surely if Yorkshire wanted to do without Wardle, they should have waited until he came home from Australia.” Such a sentiment was echoed by many.
 
However, Wardle himself realised he had made a huge mistake by letting those articles be printed under his name. A few days later, he was a speaker at a meeting at the Miners’ Institute in South Elmsall, near Doncaster. One pitman openly asked him, “Doesta think tha’s been a fooil, Johnny?” Wardle replied, “Aye, I have.”
 
Peter May was visibly disappointed. Wardle was a master dual-purpose spinner on overseas pitches, who had taken 26 wickets at 13.80 on his last tour in South Africa. However, as stated earlier, his Australian odyssey was doomed from the start. Especially in the spinning department.

(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://twiter.com/senantix)