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Last Updated: Monday, 31 July 2006, 16:30 GMT 17:30 UK
Laker's triumph 50 years on

By Paresh Soni

Jim Laker
Laker proved a handful for batsmen on uncovered pitches
Fifty years ago today a spinner made Test history - and it might surprise younger cricket fans to learn that the man who did it came from England.

But with all due respect to the likes of Ashley Giles and Monty Panesar, English slow bowlers ranked among the very best in those days and it was opposing batsmen who approached the crease in trepidation.

Australia had every reason to be wary of a 34-year-old off-spinner by the name of Jim Laker in the fourth Ashes Test.

Already established as a world-class performer, the Surrey star had taken 20 wickets in the previous three games.

But it was at Old Trafford he destroyed them with 19-90 as England won by an innings and 170 runs.

It is by some distance the finest analysis in the history of the game and the next best figures - 17-159 by another Englishman Sydney Barnes - were recorded in 1913.

Even Australia leg-spinner Shane Warne, the most prolific bowler in Test cricket, has never taken more than 12 wickets in a five-day match.

And only Anil Kumble, against Pakistan in Delhi in 1999, has matched the feat of taking all 10 wickets in a Test innings.

Laker went into the game in Manchester recognised as a dangerous customer on uncovered pitches and the elements conspired in his favour after Peter May had won the toss and seen England amass 459.

BEST TEST MATCH HAULS
19-90: Jim Laker, Eng v Aus, Old Trafford, 1956
17-159: Sydney Barnes, Eng v SA, Johannesburg, 1913
16-136: Narendra Hirwani, Ind v WI, Chennai, 1988
16-137: Bob Massie, Aus v Eng, Lord's, 1972
16-220: Muttiah Muralitharan, SL v Eng, The Oval, 1998

Two men who played in that game, Trevor Bailey and Alan Oakman, remember it clearly.

Bailey, now 82, told BBC Sport: "The pitch was fine when we were batting - it was playing fairly easily - but the rain made all the difference.

"Australia had never met a wicket like that before because their wet pitches helped seam bowlers rather than spinners.

"On a turning wicket - and this one turned - we were considerably stronger. This pitch was ideal for spin bowling and Jim bowled wonderfully on it.

"He had a beautiful arm-ball which went on the other way and he turned it very sharply. He rarely bowled bad balls and in those conditions was very difficult to face."

Oakman, 76, added: "The story really started taking shape on the last day when the ball started turning as the sun came out.

"Once you've got a very competent spinner on a drying pitch the ball bites more.

"Jim had this loop that got them driving and sometimes bowled quickly. He was also a great spinner of the ball."

In an inspired spell on the second afternoon, Laker ran through the tourists with a spell of seven for eight to give him figures of 9-37 as Australia were shot out for 84.

There is no chance of anyone ever matching what Jim did at Old Trafford

Trevor Bailey

Two days of poor weather appeared to give the visitors hope, and they reached lunch on the final day on 112-2, but Laker again routed them to record 10-53 off 51.2 overs.

"When batting on that wicket you had to take the bat backwards after rather than thrusting it forward, otherwise the ball was going to fly off to one of the short-legs," Bailey explained.

"Jim produced a beautiful bit of bowling and the Australians thrust out a bit too firmly."

While recognising the magnitude of his late friend's achievement, Bailey believes it was partly down to the failure in the game of another Surrey spinner, Tony Lock.

The left-armer's figures of 1-37 and 0-69 look mediocre by comparison and former Essex batsman Bailey insists: "If we'd had another slow bowler at the other end, Laker wouldn't have got 19 wickets.

"If Johnny Wardle (the Yorkshire left-armer who was often overlooked in favour of Laker) had been bowling at the other end, Jim couldn't conceivably had got 19 wickets because Johnny would have had at least three or four.

"Tony Lock got so cross that he wasn't getting any wickets that he was bowling faster and faster.

"So in actual fact he bowled as a seam bowler who never turned the ball. If he had slowed down he had to get wickets but his reaction was to simply skid the ball through.

Jim Laker receives the two balls with which he claimed his 19 wickets at Old Trafford
Laker will always be remembered for the 1956 Old Trafford Test

"Any spin bowler who was prepared to spin the ball was going to take wickets but Tony hardly beat the bat, while at the other end it was turning square."

Ex-Sussex all-rounder Oakman, who took five catches, said: "The harder Locky tried the less he looked like getting a wicket - he didn't even have a catch dropped or a stumping missed.

"When Jim was coming up to 14/15 wickets we realised something special might be happening but at the same time we kept thinking Locky must surely get a wicket somewhere along the line.

"The more wickets Jim took the more annoyed Tony got because the pitch was the same at both ends.

"We went off the field afterwards and Jim went out onto the balcony to hold up a glass of Lucozade - he was sponsored by them - to the crowd and photographers.

"By the time he came back into the dressing room Locky had gone, he was so upset and deflated."

Despite that, Bailey is in no doubt about where Laker, who died in 1986 at the age of 64, ranks among the finest spinners produced in this country.

His 193 Test wickets came in only 46 matches, making him England's second most successful slow bowler after Derek Underwood, who finished with 297 victims from 86 Tests.

"He was the best off-spinner we've ever had by a very long way and the finest off-break bowler I've ever seen," Bailey, who took 132 wickets and scored more than 2,000 runs in 61 Tests, enthused.

"How would he compare with the modern English spinners? Well he turned the ball so that would make him unique.

"And there is no chance of anyone ever matching what he did at Old Trafford - we don't play on wickets like that anymore.

"Jim thrived on conditions in this country but also bowled pretty well anywhere in the world - he was a beautiful bowler.

"I'd seen it all before the Old Trafford Test when he took eight for two for England against the Rest at Bradford in 1950.

"I went up to him and said 'Jim that was a rather expensive spell' and he replied 'Yes it was because I had to give one to (Surrey team-mate) Eric Bedser to get him off the mark!'

"He was a magnificent bowler and could exploit those conditions better than anyone I've ever seen."

SEE ALSO
Classic Ashes matches
13 Jul 05 |  England
Happened on this day - 31 July
31 Jul 02 |  Funny Old Game


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