19 for 90 (1957)

Laker's wonderful year

Neville Cardus

Against the Australians in 1956, J. C. Laker bowled himself to a prominence which might seem legendary if there were no statistics to prove that his skill did indeed perform results and deeds hitherto not considered within the range of any cricketer, living or dead.

No writer of boys' fiction would so strain romantic credulity as to make his hero, playing for England against Australia, capture nine first innings wickets; then help himself to all ten in the second innings. Altogether, 19 for 90 in a Test match. If any author expected us to believe that his hero was not only capable in one chapter of a marvel as fantastic as all this, but also in another chapter, and our earlier chapter, bowled a whole Australian XI out, 10 for 88, the most gullible of his readers would, not without reason, throw the book away and wonder what the said author was taking him for.

Yet as far back as 1950 Laker was hinting that he possessed gifts which on occasion were at any moment likely to be visited by plenary inspiration and accomplish things not only unexpected but wondrous. At Bradford, five miles from his birthplace, Laker, playing for England v. The Rest, took 8 wickets for 2 runs in 14 overs--a feat which probably the great S. F. Barnes himself never imagined within mortal bowler's scope--or even desirable. Against Nottinghamshire at The Oval in 1955, Laker took 6 wickets for 5.

Between 1947 and 1953 he did the hat trick four times.

Obviously the gods endowed him in his cradle with that indefinable power which from time to time generates talent to abnormal and irresistible achievement. And he has done his conjurations--they have been nothing less--by one of the oldest tricks of the bowlers' trade. Not by the new-fangled swing and not by googlies or Machiavellian deceit by flight through the air, has Laker hypnotised batsmen into helpless immobility, but by off-breaks of the finger-spin type which would have been recognised by and approved by, cricketers who played in Laker's own county of Yorkshire more than half a century ago. He really follows the great succession of Yorkshire off-spinners--from Ted Wainwright, Schofield Haigh, not forgetting F. S. Jackson, to George Macaulay, reaching to Illingworth of the present day.

Laker's actual finger spin probably has seldom been surpassed on a sticky or dusty wicket, in point of velocity and viciousness after pitching. I can think only of Ted Wainwright, Cecil Parkin and Tom Goddard who shared Laker's ability to fizz the ball right-handed from the off-side. There was more temper in Macaulay's attack than there is in Laker's, more vehemence of character. But for sheer technical potentiality, often for sheer actual spitefulness, Laker's off-spin must be regarded as entirely out of the ordinary, and very much his own.

Any great performer needs to be born at the right time. If Laker had begun to play for Surrey in the 1930's, when wickets at The Oval and on most large grounds were doped and rolled to insensibility, he might have made one or two appearances for Surrey, then vanished from the scene. Or maybe he would have remained in Yorkshire where pitches were never absolutely divorced from nature and original sin.

Laker was clever, too, to begin playing cricket and bowling off-spin after the alteration to the lbw rule dangerously penalised batsmen who had brought to a fine art the use of the pads to brilliant off-breaks pitching off the stumps and coming back like a knife--as Cecil Parkin's frequently did. Laker has been quick to adapt his arts to the deplorably unresourceful footwork of most batsmen of the present period; moreover he has, with the opportune judgment of those born to exceptional prowess, taken advantage of the modern development of the leg-trap.

On a good wicket, his attack naturally loses sting. His tempting slowish flight enables--or should enable--batsmen to get to the pitch of his bowling. He thrives on success in perhaps larger measure than most bowlers. He likes, more even than most bowlers, to take a quick wicket. There is sometimes an air of indolence in his movements, as he runs his loose lumbering run, swinging his arm slowly, but with the flick of venom at the last split second. At the end of his imperturbable walk back to his bowling mark he stares at the pavilion as though looking for somebody, but looking in a disinterested way. He is entirely what he is by technique--good professional technique, spin, length and the curve in the air natural to off-spin. He does not, as Macaulay and Parkin did, assert his arts plus passion of character and open relentless lust for spoils and the blood of all batsmen.

He is the Yorkshireman, at bottom, true enough; but Southern air has softened a little the native and rude antagonism. Even when he is on the kill on a wicket of glue there is nothing demonstrably spiteful in his demeanour; he can even run through an Australian XI in a Test match, as at Manchester in his wonderful year and seem unconcerned.

His bowling is as unassuming as the man himself and on the face of it as modest. That's where the fun comes in; for it is fun indeed to see the leisurely way Laker sends his victims one after another, as though by some influence which has not only put the batsmen under a spell, but himself at the same time. Somebody has written that all genius goes to work partly in a somnambulistic way. Jim Laker is certainly more than a talented spinner.

© John Wisden & Co