Written by Richard Spiller. Thank you to Surrey CCC for sharing this article.
Talk about Jim Laker and invariably his 19 wickets in an Ashes Test at Old Trafford in 1956 come to mind, a haul which may never be equalled.
Yet the man who has a strong claim to have been the finest off-spinner in the history of the game, a key member of the Surrey side which won seven successive County Championships in the 1950s, already had a string of remarkable performances to his name.
Not least was one which came at the start of that decade, at Bradford Park Avenue on May 31 1950, when he claimed a barely credible eight wickets for two runs in a mesmerising 14 overs. It showed him, according to John Arlott’s account, in the “ruthless destroying vein that was to distinguish many of his subsequent performances”.
A drying pitch offered the perfect surface for Laker, turning ferociously, on a ground he knew well. Laker had been born five miles away in the western suburbs of the city and played his early cricket for Saltaire in the Bradford League.
With it’s forbidding wooden pavilion on top of a steep terrace, Park Avenue was known as the “Bull Ring”, intimidating many players.
Yorkshire had shown little interest in his talents but Surrey took advantage, having been recommended while playing for Catford after settling in south-east London, and soon found themselves enjoying the services of a man who would claim almost 2,000 first-class wickets.
Laker’s Test debut had come in the West Indies on the 1947-48 tour but he was blamed by some – including himself – for failing to bowl out Australia in the following summer’s Ashes Test at Headingley, when Don Bradman and Neil Harvey ensured ‘The Invincibles’ lived up to their name by scoring more than 400 to win the match.
Since then he had been largely ignored but, with no tour the previous winter, England’s selectors attempted to solve their dilemmas by resorting to a Test Trial, one-off matches which the players disliked but which were played intermittently into the 1970s.
Batting first was the norm the days of uncovered pitches but England captain Norman Yardley inserted The Rest – made up largely of the selectors’ view of the best young talent – and saw Trevor Bailey make an early breakthrough before replacing him after 12 overs with Laker.
The off-spinner was one of four players who had travelled up from The Oval, immediately going round the wicket and starting with a double wicket-maiden as first Hubert Doggart and then Surrey colleague Peter May were caught in the leg trap off fiercely spinning deliveries.
Donald Carr followed in similar fashion from Laker’s second over and he had still not conceded a run. But on the train up he had agreed to give Surrey team-mate Eric Bedser one off the mark and honoured the agreement by bowling a full-toss, which Eric pushed to his twin Alec, who had moved deeper at mid-on.
Opener Don Kenyon was next to fall, to a brilliant anticipatory catch by wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans, which gave Laker four wickets for one run.
Unsatisfied by that, he trapped Eric Bedser leg-before before bowling Dick Spooner and Bob Berry for ducks.
The only other run pinched off him was by 19-year-old Fred Trueman, squirting a single off the inside edge and then being stumped down the legside by Evans off Alec Bedser. It was Laker who wrapped up the innings for 27 – described by Wisden as “the lowest total in a match of representative class” – 10 minutes before lunch, snapping up a smart return catch off Les Jackson to complete figures of 14-12-2-8.
“Would this be your best performance?” he was asked by the man from the Daily Express, eliciting the kind of sardonic reply which became familiar to millions of viewers on BBC later on as Richie Benaud’s commentary partner: “Well I haven’t done it right often.”
Arlott praised Laker’s perfect pace and control, adding: “His line was meticulously precise and his combination of length and turn was such hat he often compelled and defeated a full-stretch defensive stroke,” although he added that it was a “farce of a game as a Test Trial”.
Len Hutton’s masterly 85 ensured England made 229 all out in reply and, when The Rest batted again, they were dismissed for 113 to lose before lunch on the second day. This time Laker had to be content with two wickets, finishing with 10-52 from the match, as leg-spinner Eric Hollies claimed 6-28 while Eric Bedser made 30 in seeing his side lose by an innings and 89 runs.
That haul only returned Laker to favour with the selectors briefly. He was dropped after taking a solitary wicket in England’s 202-run victory in the first Test at Old Trafford in a series they went on to lose the series 3-1. And not even 142 wickets in aiding Surrey share the County Championship title with Lancashire proved sufficient to earn him a place on the following winter’s Ashes tour.
Strong competition and the fickle nature of selectors ensured Laker played only 46 Tests. His 193 wickets at 21 suggest he would have played far more in modern times.