July 1956 and Jim Laker

July 1956 and Jim Laker
Jim Laker's 19-wicket haul against Australia is a Test record that seems likely to stand forever.

Laker's historic feat was attributed to the under-prepared pitch, the Manchester weather and, of course. his talent as a prodigious spinner of the ball – three characteristics which would have been enough to demolish any side, even a bunch of hardened Aussies fighting for the Ashes.

However, the 1956 tourists were a soft target. Laker, himself, admitted after the first innings when his 9-37 had reduced them from 48-0 to 84 all out: "Theirs was a bad batting performance. Naturally I was proud of my return of nine wickets - but it would never have been as profitable if there had been much sanity in the Australian display. The truth is if that, if the Australians had played only half as badly as they did on that black Friday at Manchester, they would have saved the match and, as it turned out, the series."

Australian cricket, run by a repressive and reactionary Board, was in the doldrums at that time. Laker claimed Ian Johnson's side would have been formidable in 'normal' conditions, but they were unlucky to hit a very wet English summer - a bowler's summer. And Laker's calloused finger was making the ball hum through the air. Before the start of the Ashes series, he had bewitched the Aussies with a maestro's performance at the Oval, earning all 10 first innings wickets for 88 off 46 overs. It is possible they never really recovered from that trauma and, if they had, the Laker delivery which did for their ace left-hander Neil Harvey on the Friday at Manchester was as damaging as Shane Warne's ball from hell in 1991.

"I am not being boastful when I express the opinion that this ball won the Test series," he said. "I was lucky enough to bowl an absolute snorter. It pitched on Neil's leg stump and hit the top of off. He stared in disbelief at the pitch. The truth was that I had not turned one as sharply or as quickly in my previous nine overs. It was just one of those things. We went to tea soon afterwards and, during the break, the Aussies must have been talking about Neil's dismissal. At any rate when they came out afterwards they panicked."

It was at that point that Tony Lock grabbed his only wicket, Jimmy Burke edging to slip. Thereafter Laker reigned supreme - leaving Lock bewildered, disconsolate, and doubtful of his own bowling action.

There was controversy over the pitch. Some Australian commentators alleged their team had been ' done' by Lancashire's groundsman Bert Flack and it was only five years ago, in Stephen Chalke's superb book: "At the heart of English cricket" that the truth emerged. Chalke's book was about the life and memories of Geoffrey Howard, a gifted and forward-looking administrator, who was then secretary of Lancashire and, at the age of 92, his recollection of the 1956 shenanigans was as clear as ever.

While attending a Lancashire match at Blackpool and busy making arrangements to fly the team south for another game, he received a call from Flack who told him the Test pitch was 'a bit dry.' Flack added; "I think I ought to give it a bit of water." A little later the phone rang again. It was the England captain Peter May and the conversation went like this:

May: "What's the wicket like?"
Howard: "As far as I know, it's exactly the same as last year (when England and South Africa were involved in a thrilling contest). Bert Flack's just been on the phone. He said he's going to put a bit of water on it."
May: "Oh, don't put water on it."

In the book, Howard admitted: "I should have said 'That's nothing to do with you.' But when you are in the middle of doing something else, you don't think things through. So I rang back to Bert Flack. I didn't tell him not to water it, but I told him what Peter May had said."

The track needed water but did not get any. The Nottinghamshire marl, on which Flack had used a new type of liquid dressing the previous year, failed to knit and. after a weekend of heavy rain, the sun came out strongly on the Tuesday afternoon and turned it to dust, helping Laker to exploit the Aussie weakness against top-class off-spin

Amid all the excitement over Laker's feat, it should be remembered that England batted superbly in that Test. Peter Richardson hit 104 and Colin Cowdrey 80, sharing in an opening partnership of 174. And then the recalled the Rev David Sheppard, much later to become a Lancashire vice-president, scored 113 despite having had only four first-class innings that summer.

Cyril Washbrook was in the England side, his second appearance of the season after a fairy-tale comeback in the previous Test at Headingley. The Lancashire skipper had played well in that game, linking up with May in a match-winning fourth wicket stand to level the series, but in front of his home crowd he fell lbw to Johnson for six. However Godfrey Evans produced a late, valuable flurry with 47 in 29 breathless minutes, twice hammering Richie Benaud over the sightscreen, as England reached an impressive total of 459.

Laker had needed only 68 balls to wreak havoc, finishing with 16.4-4-37-9. Lock had 14-3-37-1. In the second innings, Laker's left-arm leg-spinning team-mate bowled 55 overs without reward. "As the wickets eluded him, so he became over-anxious and lapsed somewhat in control" Brian Statham had sent down only six overs, and Trevor Bailey four, before May turned to the spinners and, of course, there was an outcry from the Aussie Press who raged against the sight of a ball turning so potently in a first innings. Yet, when they batted again, the prize scalp of Harvey had nothing to do with spin or bounce - Laker's first ball to him was a full toss and he hit it straight to Cowdrey at short mid-wicket. "I had dismissed the famous left-hander for a 'pair' in the same afternoon."

For a long while over the weekend, it seemed that rain would save the Aussies. Only two hours play were possible before the final day and Bert Flack and his staff worked frantically to ensure England had a chance to finish them off. "Whatever is said about the preparation of the wicket, there can be nothing but praise for the way the groundstaff got the playing area fit for play on the Tuesday," Laker remarked. But Australia had eight wickets left - there was still a chance of forcing a draw. At first it was very damp, not a speck of dust to be seen, and opener Colin McDonald was oozing defiance. In the afternoon conditions changed dramatically.

"If ever I own a racehorse I think I shall call it Manchester Sun", joked Laker afterwards. "The sun rays on that day got to work on the pitch, dried out the top surface, put some life into the wicket, and enabled us to make sure of retaining the Ashes."

The stubborn McDonald proved that resistance was possible, surviving over five hours and finding a strong ally in Benaud. But Laker snared them both after tea, during which the pitch had dried out even more, and Benaud's dismissal gave him a share of the world record of 17 wickets in a Test with two to go. Time was running out, Lock was trying harder and harder, and the Aussies were desperate. Johnson even appealed, saying he was distracted by wind-blown sawdust. Laker said: "The appeal was disallowed but at least Ian did not lose his sense of humour. He looked up, winked and said: 'Well, at least that's one Trevor Bailey never thought of.'

Laker, who had switched ends with Lock during the match, but had taken all his wickets at the Stretford End was close to bowling 50 overs now and his spinning finger was feeling the effect but a remarkable Ashes triumph was within reach if he could just keep going. Ray Lindwall edged him to Lock, and in his 52nd over he trapped Len Maddocks lbw. His figures were 51.2-23-53-10. England led the series 2-1, and won the Ashes with a draw at the Oval.

After the celebrations, TV and radio appearances, Laker had to drive home. En route he rang his wife twice - "I knew she would be worried in case I celebrated too generously," he said. In fact his celebration consisted of a bottle of beer and a sandwich in a Lichfield pub where black and white highlights of the match flickered on a TV, although no-one recognised the quiet bloke munching away in a corner. Laker got to his St John's Wood home at 2 15 am, welcomed by a possee of photographers. The phone started to ring at 6.30 am as the news of his feat spread around the world. At 9 am he was on his way to the Oval. He was playing again, for Surrey - against the Australians!

If the weather had played its part in England's win, the Aussie captain Johnson understood why. Gesturing towards the Rev David Sheppard, he joked: "It's not fair You've got a professional on your side!"

It certainly seemed that way when the rain tumbled from the heavens on Tuesday night and next day when there was not a ball bowled in England. As far as the lack of pitch preparation, the honourable Geoffrey Howard took the rap. "If anybody was to blame it was me for passing on Peter May's message. The pitch should have been watered."

But nothing should have detracted from Laker's achievement. It was quite simply great spin bowling and his name will always gleam brightest on the Old Trafford honours board.
Colin Evans