Jim Laker enjoyed quiet pint to toast greatest Test return of all time

Jim Laker leads the England team off the field at Old Trafford in 1956 after taking 19 Australian wickets.Jim Laker leads the England team off the field at Old Trafford in 1956 after taking 19 Australian wickets.
Jim Laker leads the England team off the field at Old Trafford in 1956 after taking 19 Australian wickets.
IMAGINE the scenario.

An England player takes nine wickets in the first innings of a Test match.

In the second innings, he takes all 10 wickets.

Afterwards, he stops off at a crowded pub on his way home for a beer and a sandwich.

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In the pub, a throng of people are watching highlights of the game on television.

Everyone is talking about the Test, but no one recognises the hero of the hour in their midst.

The landlord says nothing to him, apart from asking how much further he has to go on his journey home.

The cricketer casually finishes his drink and walks back out of the bar.

It could not happen today, of course.

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Yet it happened to Jim Laker, the Yorkshire-born off-spinner, after the Test against Australia that started at Old Trafford 60 years ago tomorrow.

Laker, who had stopped off in Lichfield on his way home to London to play for Surrey the following day, operated in a world in which there was much less hype and celebrity than there is now, a world in which such a seemingly inconceivable anecdote could be true.

Granted, the patrons of the hostelry in question do not appear to have been the most observant bunch, even accounting for the grainy black-and-white TV footage of the time which might have rendered Laker less recognisable in the flesh.

But there is something rather magnificent about the fact that a man can move undetected in a public place after producing statistically the greatest bowling performance in a first-class match.

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For no one, before or since, has taken more than 17 wickets in a first-class game, with Laker’s 19-90 (9-37 in the first innings and 10-53 in the second) standing out as a sporting Everest.

The reaction of the pub-goers also mirrored the muted reaction of the players and crowd at Old Trafford to Laker’s feat.

There is a wonderful photograph of him here walking off at the end of the game, sweater draped nonchalantly over his left shoulder, as some team-mates clap half-heartedly in the background and others look disinterested altogether, as though someone taking 19 wickets was a commonplace occurrence.

Laker even stopped as he approached the pavilion steps to intimate that Peter May, the captain, or someone else should lead the side off, only to be motioned on.

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But as one spectator remembered: “There was no cheering or shouting as he ran up the pavilion steps.”

Not that Laker, then aged 34, showed or sought any cheering or shouting – not even after bowling England to a win that clinched the Ashes.

On the contrary, he was modest, self-effacing and not given to the sort of gratuitous demonstrations of self-congratulation that we see today, when bowlers showily hold the ball aloft after taking five wickets in an innings, let alone 19 in one game.

Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable aspect as we look back from this distance is not the reality of what Laker achieved at Old Trafford, but that lack of reaction to his achievement .

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Why, you can almost imagine the conversation with his wife when he finally got home .

“How did you get on today, Jim?”

“Oh, not bad, love. I took 19 wickets and we won the Ashes. How about you? Did everything go all right at the launderette?”

Not only do events surrounding ‘Laker’s Match’ belong to a different era, but the performance itself was of its time.

In those days, pitches were uncovered and instances of bowlers taking nine or 10 wickets in an innings were not as uncommon as they are now .

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Although the consensus was that Laker bowled superbly, collecting all his wickets from the Stretford End, he was helped by a poor pitch which the Australians suspected had been deliberately doctored to help England’s spinners.

Years later, Bert Flack, the Manchester groundsman, admitted that he had indeed been instructed by Gubby Allen, the chairman of selectors, to “shave the pitch” before the game.

“Thank God Nasser had taken over the Suez Canal,” Flack reflected in later life.

“Otherwise, I’d have been plastered over every front page like Marilyn Monroe.”

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The pitch was dusty and later rain-affected, but that did not explain another remarkable aspect to Laker’s performance.

For the chances of his Surrey spin bowling team-mate Tony Lock taking only one wicket in the same conditions, that of opening batsman Jim Burke, were astronomical in the extreme.

Indeed, as Laker walked off at the end of the match, Lock trailed behind him looking bewildered, perhaps even bitter after contrasting match figures of 1-106.

“Nobody felt more humiliated than he did,” recalled Colin Cowdrey. Peter Richardson, who opened with Cowdrey and scored 104 as England totalled 459 after choosing to bat, reflected: “The thing is, Laker and Lock didn’t get on very well.

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“The more wickets Jim took, the more annoyed Locky got, and the more annoyed he got the faster he bowled.

“In the end, he was very nearly as quick as Brian Statham. It helped Laker that Locky got so heated up about him bowling so well.”

However, Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack felt there was another reason for Lock’s lack of success .

“What turned the scale was that Laker was bowling off-breaks whereas Lock relied on the left-armer’s natural leg-break, and the Australians at that period were wholly inexperienced in playing off-breaks, especially on a wicket which, heavily marled and almost devoid of grass, might have been designed for an off-spinner.

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“Since the days of Howell and Trumble at the turn of the century, Australian wickets had become so unresponsive to finger-spin that the off-break had virtually disappeared and sides relied on pace and wrist-spin – Gregory and McDonald, Lindwall, Miller and Johnston, or Hordern, Mailey, Grimmett and O’Reilly.

“Against these two types of bowler the essential 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.”

In reply to England’s score, Australia went from 48-0 in their first innings to 84 all out, Laker’s last nine overs yielding figures of 9-16 .

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In their second innings, Australia collapsed from 114-2 to 205 all out on a drying surface, England winning by an innings and 170 runs.

Laker’s 10th and final wicket was that of the wicketkeeper, Len Maddocks.

Video footage shows an off-break trapping Maddocks plumb in front as Laker appeals for lbw.

The umpire raises his finger and Laker is congratulated by Ian Johnson, the Australian captain and non-striker, who shakes his hand while Laker’s team-mates applaud from a distance in understated manner.

Laker takes his sweater from the umpire and simply ambles away from one of the greatest achievements in any sport.