July 21, 2006

A historic feat is 50 years old

By H Natarajan

Digging into my library last week, I fished out an old VCD that had some of the finest sporting moments of the century that just went by. One of the clips was from an old Ashes series where the bowler appeals for lbw and gets a reply in the affirmative from the umpire. It’s the end of the Test. The bowler, without ado, takes his pullover from the umpire, accepts the extended handshake of the non-striker and walks off the field with the rest of his team mates. Was it just another day in the office for the bowler? Well, not quite.

The bowler in question is Jim Laker and the moment in time was the then unparalled feat in Test history of a bowler claiming all 10 wickets in an innings. The complete underplay of emotions amid one of the defining moments in cricket history was symbolic of that pristine past. It’s a past that stands Polar opposite to the times now when bowlers go into a war dance after capturing even completely unpretentious batsmen like Courtney Walsh or Glenn McGrath.

Laker’s feat in the Old Trafford Test will be 50 years old on July 31. Most of us living were not even born or were far too young when the great Surrey off-spinner re-wrote cricket history. Mercifully, cricket has copious literature and audio visuals to feast on such unforgettable moments.

The Englishman’s haul in that Test was a monumental 19, having captured nine in the first innings. Quite incredibly, he had got all 10 in an innings against that very Australian team in the tour match at Kennington Oval earlier that summer – a match Australia lost by 10 wickets to Surrey. However, in contrast to the one at Manchester, the Oval wicket had little help for the bowlers, with half of Laker’s dismissals coming from balls that failed to turn.

Even till this day cricket connoisseurs wonder how Tony Lock got just one wicket for 106 runs while Laker got 19 for 90 on a track that so overwhelmingly favoured spin in the Manchester Test. But in the tour match at The Oval two months earlier, Lock got a chance to bowl in the second innings from the end Laker did all the damage in the first innings and ended up with 7 for 49. Interestingly, Lock, too, took all ten in the innings that season – a match against Kent in which Laker did not play!

Let’s go back to “Laker’s Match”. Australia and England came into the fourth Test at the Old Trafford at 1-1. England captain Peter May won the toss and chose to bat first. Centuries by opener Peter Richardson and David Shepherd and useful contributions from Colin Cowdrey, Peter May and Godfrey Evans helped England post a total of 459.

The Australian openers, Colin McDonald and Jim Burke, added 48 for the opening wicket before McDonald was caught by Lock off Laker before the close of play on the second day. There was no indication what was to follow the next day. Australia lost the rest of their nine wickets for just 36 runs with none of the other batsmen getting into double figures. Laker got seven wickets for eight runs in 22 balls as Laker finished with 16.4-4-37-9 – a new record in Tests. The only wicket that escaped him was that of Jim Burke who was caught by Colin Cowdrey with the first ball after the tea break.

Following on, Australia ended play on Day Two at 53 for 1, a deficit of 322 runs. The infamous Manchester weather threw a wet blanket over the proceeding over the next two playing days. Less than two hours possible in which time Laker had Burke caught by Lock. Australia were 84 for 2, still 291 behind, at close of Day Four.

Survival was difficult against a combination as potent as Laker and Lock and on a pitch aiding copious spin. McDonald, who had top-scored with 32 in the first innings, emerged as the highest scorer again with 89 in the second. (Interestingly, McDonald had top scored in both innings in the match against Surrey where Laker had taken all ten earlier in the season. The Australian had scored 89 and 45 then.) When Laker had Ray Lindwall caught by Lock (the umpire taking ages to give his decision), he had another nine wicket haul in the Test. But unlike in the first innings, he now had a great chance to get all ten in the innings. Laker made history when he trapped last man Len Maddocks leg before to help England win by an innings and 170 runs and retain the famous urn.

When Laker return home, he was greeted by his Austrian wife, who had very little understanding of cricket. She had taken hundreds of telephone calls and innocent asked her husband: "Jim, did you do something good today?"

Laker had a phenomenal series with two brilliant performances on either side of the Old Trafford Test. He had taken 5-58 and 6-55 to give England an innings and 42-run victory in the third Test at Leeds and followed up his 19-wicket Ashes-retaining effort in the fourth Test at Old Trafford with figures of 4-80 and analysis of 18-14-8-3 at The Oval as Australia escaped defeat in a truncated Test. Laker finished the series with 46 wickets (avge 9.60), three short of the record of 49 wickets that Sydney Barnes got against South Africa in 1913-14.

An arthritic finger forced his exit from the game. Laker brought an end to his first class career. His final tally was 1,944 wickets at 18.41 in 450 matches. He got 100 wickets in a season as many as many as eleven times.

In over 1800 Tests played 130 years, Laker’s feat of a bowler capturing all ten wickets in an innings has been matched just once – by India’s Anil Kumble on February 7, 1999 against Pakistan. Kumble’s slicked through the entire Pakistan line-up in one amazing spell of 21.3 overs, conceding 49 runs.

Among the spectators was Richard Stokes. On a business trip to India from Germany, he made it to Kotla after the luncheon break to see Kumble get his Perfect Ten. So what’s so special about this man? Forty three years earlier, when Stokes was just ten years old, he had accompanied his father to Old Trafford to see Laker take Test cricket’s first first-ever ten in an innings by a bowler!

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