Catch Me if You Can

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

Records are made to be broken.

That is certainly true of sport. In some ways it is almost the point of sport. Feats that appear unmatchable can appear vulnerable when a new champion emerges: Roger Federer’s twenty Grand Slam wins is a case in point. Jack Nicklaus’s eighteen majors once seemed susceptible to a threat from Tiger Woods, who currently has fifteen. Nicklaus’s record looks safe for a while. Third in line is Walter Hagen, with eleven: he played between the wars. That just shows how good you have to be to be great. The most astonishing thing about Nicklaus is that he came second nineteen times; Arnold Palmer is next with ten.

Cricket, like baseball, is a statistician’s dream come true: there are so many numbers. As with golf, success at the highest level is not solely dependent on supreme athleticism and physical fitness. This is particularly true of batting and spin bowling. Of course batsmen will score more runs, more quickly, than their forerunners. Cricket’s most famous number, 99.94, is unlikely to be challenged, however.

This, as (almost) everyone knows, is Don Bradman’s Test batting average. Australia’s current miracle man, Marnus Labuschagne, is next with 63.43 (that will go down). Go figure, as they say.

The problem with stats is that flukes occur. On the Australian tour of England in 1953 the left armer Bill Johnson, a rabbit of Watership Down – worthy provenance, who rarely batted higher than number eleven, averaged 103. He scored that number of runs in seventeen innings and was out once. (The story goes that this was orchestrated by his mischief-loving captain, Lindsay Hassett, to irritate Bradman.) Of course this could never happen in Test cricket. But there are still quirks. The Trinidadian, Andy Ganteaume, surely either the luckiest or the unluckiest man in Test history, played one match, for the West Indies against England in 1947-48. In that match he had one innings, and made 112. So he has a better average than The Don. But the stattos say that doesn’t count, because you have to have played a minimum number of innings. And what is that minimum? Fifteen? Twenty? It muddies the waters.

But there is one cricket record that one can say with something like absolute certainty, will never be beaten or equalled. That is the England off-spinner Jim Laker’s record of taking nineteen wickets in a match. 

I say “match” because, although Laker accomplished his feat in a Test match, nobody else has done it in a first-class match. There are two instances of eighteen wickets in a first-class match, one in 1837, the other in 1861, which, to be honest, don’t really count. There have been 23 instances of a bowler taking seventeen wickets in a first-class match, oLy two of which occurred after World War Two. The most recent was, remarkably enough, in 2019, when Hampshire’s Kyle Abbott took 17 for 86 against Somerset. The other, equally remarkable in its way, occurred in 2004, when the Australian-born Canadian all-rounder, John Davison (who made what was then the fastest hundred in World Cup history against the West Indies in 2003) took seventeen wickets against the United States in Fort Lauderdale. In Test cricket the English master pace bowler S F Barnes took seventeen wickets against South Africa in Johannesburg in 1913-14.

The 1956 Ashes series came during a rare period of dominance for England, who, under the shrewd and ruthless leadership of Len Hutton had won the two most recent series between the sides, in England in 1953 and Australia in 1954-55. Hutton had now gone but England remained a formidable outfit. Australia were going through what is always referred to as a transitional phase. There were four survivors of the great “Invincibles” of 1948: the captain Ian Johnson, the formerly fearsome pace duo of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, and the great left-handed batsman, Neil Harvey; but only Harvey had his best years ahead of him.

Laker’s part in England’s successes had been modest. Born in Yorkshire he qualified for Surrey after the war and made his Test debut against the West Indies as early as 1947-48. He failed to establish himself, however, despite consistent success for Surrey. He had a very rough time against Australia in 1948. At Headingley, in the fourth Test, Australia were set 404 to win, on a turning wicket, and got there for the loss of three wickets; Laker took 0 for 93 (the 18-year old Harvey had scored a hundred in the first innings. In 1953 he played three Tests and took nine wickets, but four of those came in the final innings of the crucial final Test at The Oval when his Surrey “spin twin” the left-armer, Tony Lock, took five. England won and regained The Ashes after a gap of nineteen years. Neither Laker nor Lock toured Australia in 1954-55. But there was never any real doubt about Laker’s quality. In 1950 he took eight for two for England against bThe Rest (all out for 27) in a Test trial at Bradford.

1956 was an exceptionally wet summer, after a very dry spring, Spin bowlers dominated and the Visitors, who had limited experience against orthodox off-spin, struggled. By the time the first Test started at Trent Bridge they had failed to beat a single county. In fact the tourists had lost to a county team for the first time since 1912. This defeat came in the match against Surrey at The Oval in May. The Australians batted first and made 259. Laker bowled 46 overs and took 10 for 88. Surrey made 347 and then bowled the Australians out for 107, Lock taking seven for 49 in 31.1 overs.

Notwithstanding this, the tourists performed pretty well once the Tests started. They fought hard to secure a draw in a rain-affected match at Trent Bridge; Laker and Lock shared ten of the thirteen Australian wickets to fall. Australia then won the second Test at Lord’s by 185 runs. The match was a triumph for the great all-rounder Miller, who took five wickets in each innings.

When Ron Archer had England reeling at 17 for three on the first morning of the third Test at Headingley it really began to look as if The Ashes might be unexpectedly changing hands. But England’s captain Peter May (101) and the recalled Cyril Washbrook (98) stopped the rot. England’s 325 proved enough to win by an innings. This Time the spin twins shared 18 wickets (Laker 11, Lock seven). 

By this time the Australians were thinking that surely it was time they came across a hard, fast wicket; their best bowlers were Miller, Lindwall, Archer and the left-armer Alan Davidson. Their wish definitely did not come true in the fourth Test at Old Trafford.

May won the toss (he won four out of five). The wicket had nothing in it for Australia’s pacemen. England were completely untroubled and scored with almost indecent haste for the 1950s. They closed the first day on 307 for three, Peter Richardson making 113 and Colin Cowdrey 80. On the second day, David Sheppard completed a hundred and Godfrey Evans rounded things off with a rollicking 47 in 29 minutes. England made 459. Off-spinner Johnson and leg-spinner Richie Benaud shared 94 overs and took a combined six for 284. That doesn’t read “unplayable”. That having been said, puffs of dust were observed as early as the first afternoon. Rex Alston, in his book on the series described the first day’s play as “exhilarating…, spoilt somewhat by the fear that the wicket would not last.”

Australia were batting by 2.30 on the second afternoon; Laker and Lock were on by 3.10. Half an hour later, by which time the openers Colin McDonald and Jim Burke had added 43, they changed ends, Laker operating from the Stretford End (from where he was to take all his wickets). Almost immediately McDonald was caught by Lock at backward short leg off. Laker, who bowled Harvey for nought in the same over. Australia went into tea on 62 for two.

With the first ball after tea something happened which, in hindsight, could be described as almost sensational. Lock bowled it to Burke and induced him to edge it to Cowdrey at first slip. It was to be Lock’s only wicket of the match.

A sensational collapse ensued. Australia slid, or rather hurtled, from 62 for three to 84 all out. Ken Mackay, Benaud and Johnson joined Harvey with ducks. Laker took seven for eight off 22 balls and finished with nine for 37 off 16.4 overs.

There was just over an hour’s play left when McDonald and Burke came out to start Australia’s second innings. After half an hour McDonald retired hurt with a knee problem, to be replaced by Harvey, who immediately hit a full toss from Laker straight to Cowdrey at midwicket. Harvey thus “bagged a pair”; there is a famous photograph of him tossing his bat in the air in frustration. Australia closed on 53 for one.

The weather returned to 1956 normal on the Saturday, when only about 45 minutes’ play was possible. Burke was caught by Lock at short leg. Macdonald returned and when play concluded Australia had reached 59 for two.

The bad weather continued through the rest day, Sunday into Monday, which was wet and windy. Macdonald and Ian Craig continued. Some 25 overs were possible in utterly miserable conditions. Australia closed on 84 for two (McDonald 25, Craig 24).

So it all came down to the final day. At least the weather was better – cool but dry, although play was held up for ten minutes at the start because of overnight rain. The Australian pair batted with great skill and resolution and were still together at lunch. Now there were just four hours to survive.

But then, during the interval, something happened that, as Alston put it, “spelt disaster for Australia”: the sun came out. Today’s cricket watchers, used to pitches that seem pretty much the same wherever and, up to a point, whenever they are, will not appreciate the joys and perils of uncovered pitches. 

The consequence here was speedily revealed. In his first over after lunch, delivered to Craig, Lock made two balls turn and lift sharply, much more venomously than anything earlier in the innings. Soon afterwards Laker deceived Craig with his flight; like a number of Australians, Craig went back when he should have gone forward. He was out for 38. His stand with McDonald had lasted four hours 20 minutes. Australia were now 114 for three.

As happens so often, a long partnership was followed by a flurry of wickets. Mackay – who bagged a pair – Miller and Archer all fell without scoring. Benaud, who had made a wonderful 97 in Australia’s victory at Lord’s, then joined McDonald and provided some more resistance. At tea, Australia were 181 for six, McDonald 89 and Benaud 15.

But straight after tea, with Laker’s second ball, the fatal blow was struck: McDonald was caught by Alan Oakman at backward short leg. His 89 had taken five and a half hours. As Alston said, “[s]econd only to Laker as the hero of the day was the cheerful, courageous Colin McDonald.”

Australia were 181 for seven. Now the focus was on Laker. Could England win, and secure the urn? And could Laker achieve the unprecedented feat of securing all ten? Benaud hung on for another twenty minutes and was then bowled. Johnson appealed, not against the light, but against the sawdust, which was apparently blowing in his eyes. But play continued. At 5.20, Lindwall was caught by Lock at short leg. The second ball of Laker’s 53rd over hit Len Maddocks on the front pad. Laker and the whole of Old Trafford appealed. Frank Lee raised his finger. England had won, and The Ashes were safe. Laker had taken ten for 53. Lock had taken nought for 69 in 55 overs.

Laker had 19 for 90 in the match.

It was unprecedented and surely unrepeatable. Yet there is a degree of irony in the title to this piece. Grandstanding was not Laker’s way. Watching the so-called celebrations after each wicket is intriguing; a polite handshake at best compared with the barely controllable hugs and kisses of today (both styles out of bounds of course in the world of COVID-19). After the game Laker drove back to London – Surrey were playing on Wednesday – and stopped for a break in a pub. Nobody recognised him.

A necessary corollary of Laker’s taking 19 wickets, and as extraordinary in its own way, was Lock’s taking one. Lock was a fine, aggressive left arm spinner, barely inferior to Laker. Laker took 193 wickets in 46 Tests at 21.24. Lock took 174 wickets in 49 Tests at 25.28. Old Trafford was just one of those inexplicable things.

Laker took a further seven wickets in the final Test at The Oval so that he finished with 46 in the series. So he broke Barnes’ record of 17 wickets in a Test but not his record of 49 (in four matches) in a series.

In a little masterpiece of an essay in Wisden 2013, the writer and former Derbyshire batsman Peter Gibbs wrote about an encounter with Barnes when the great man was in his 90s. The subject of Laker came up.

“Laker?” said Barnes, “Those pitches in ’56 were a travesty. Money for old rope… Nobody got all ten when I was bowling at the other end.”

I would rather conclude with Johnson’s comment after the Old Trafford Test. The Australians had felt growing resentment as the match progressed because of perceived shortcomings in the preparation of the wicket. But Johnson himself was always diplomatic. At the end he said “When the controversy and the side issues of the match are forgotten, Laker’s wonderful bowling will remain.”

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