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Jim Laker magical record stands test of time

Published: Monday, July 24, 2006, 23:53 [IST]
 
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London:Cricket fans argue over statistics with a passion even mathematicians struggle to match. But, when it comes to bowling, one set of figures has stood above all others: 19 for 90.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of England off-spinner Jim Laker's Test match record return, achieved against Australia at Old Trafford - where the current England side will be playing Pakistan in the second Test.

Not even Muttiah Muralitharan, who is presently netting most other records for off-spinners, has yet topped Laker's haul and if, for all the overs he bowls for Sri Lanka, he cannot do it then it is hard to imagine who might.

Laker's record was made up of a first innings nine for 37 before, in an achievement comparable to Roger Bannister's sub four-minute mile, he became the first man to take all ten wickets in a Test innings with 10 for 53 when Australia batted again.

No-one else has taken more than 17 wickets in a first-class match, let alone a Test.

At no stage did any of Laker's fellow bowlers ease off, least of all his Surrey team-mate Tony Lock, a fiercely competitive left-arm spinner.

Australia had been given warning of what to expect when Laker took 10 for 88 against them for Surrey earlier in the season.

But some were prepared to downgrade his Old Trafford return, claiming the pitch had been 'doctored' in his favour.

Such suggestions upset Laker, who died in 1986 aged 64, to the end of his life and he cited a comment from Australia great Don Bradman, then retired, that the pitch was "flat and slow with plenty of runs in it," as proof that he had earnt his wickets.

However, unlike present-day Tests, pitches were then uncovered and when a rain-affected surface was later dried by sunshine, as happened at Old Trafford, conditions for Laker were ideal.

"I don't think they had a price from the word go," Trevor Bailey, now one of just three England survivors from the game, along with Peter Richardson and Alan Oakman, later told The Times.

"The most remarkable thing was not that Laker took 19 wickets but that Lock took one. The more wickets Laker took, the more Lock tried and the faster he bowled. Jim just carried on putting the ball on the spot," Bailey explained.

Lock's competitiveness was evident when Richie Benaud, later to become one of Australia's greatest captains, was trying to waste time on the final day by 'gardening' around his crease.

"Lockie picked up the ball and threw it at 100mph into Godfrey Evans's gloves," Benaud told a 50th anniversary dinner at Old Trafford last week. "Then he said 'tap that down'".

That didn't stop Lock from later becoming captain of Western Australia in the late 1960s, when a young swing bowler called Bob Massie was breaking into the state side.

And in 1972 Massie marked his Test debut by taking 16 for 137 against England at Lord's - the nearest anyone had then come to Laker's record, although India leg-spinner Narendra Hirwani later topped Massie's debut best with 16 for 136 against West Indies at Madras (now Chennai) in 1987/88.

But neither man marked their efforts in such low-key fashion as Laker, who 'celebrated' by himself with a pint and some cheese sandwiches in a pub on the way home, undisturbed by his fellow customers.

Five decades on and the tributes are somewhat more lavish with the recently published "19 for 90 Jim Laker", a book chronicling the match and the story behind it, by British cricket writer Brian Scovell.

Laker, who later became a BBC television cricket commentator, would probably have disapproved of all the fuss.

He rarely got carried away on air, at least, although there was a telling moment during the 1981 Ashes when England's John Emburey went down the pitch to drive Australia's Ray Bright at Old Trafford.

"What a joy to see a batsman use his feet against the spinner," Laker said. It was a 'joy' few Australians had savoured 25 years earlier.

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