An unforgettable character

Ted Corbett remembers Peter Laker, once a leading cricket writer for Daily Mirror and journalism’s finest practical joker.

If I may borrow a phrase from every schoolboy’s first essay, there are many different types of sports writers.

There is the serious man, searching for an exclusive that will put the world to rights but inclined to be pompous. There is the tabloid man, dependent on his sports editor for the right line — often to fit a headline. In addition there is the foot-in-the-door fellow, who may barely be able to string a sentence together, but who will find the right man to provide the appropriate set of quotes and claim that is the new sports writing.

Finally we have the guy who thinks that a few stats are all he needs to produce a story.

Peter Laker, a traditional reporter, did not fit into any of these categories throughout the 25 years he was the leading cricket writer on the Daily Mirror, then the greatest newspaper in the world.

When he died recently, aged 87, but still easily mistaken for a man in his mid-forties, Peter was remembered, incredibly, as my profession’s finest practical joker. The fact that he was tall, athletic and blond made it all the easier to fool his victims.

Let me give you one personal example. When I was a newcomer to the cricket circuit, he rang me and asked if there was any way he could offer guidance to a youngster about to make his first trip to Australia.

He did, in fact, give me good advice for more than half an hour, but in the last sentence he could not resist the temptation to lead astray the new lad.

“Don’t forget to bring an overcoat,” he said. “Not a lot of people realise just how cold the evenings are Down Under.” Happily I knew the Laker reputation and left my overcoat at home. Five years later he was hiding my coffee cup and at the same time suggesting we could both do with a coffee.

He never gave up his jokes but those of us who travelled with him learnt to accept the laughs and enjoy his non-stop trickery.

Long before I met him Peter had played tricks on his team mates — he appeared for Sussex a couple of times in the 1940s. And when I played alongside him for Press teams in Australia he was still a considerable batsman and a writer about table tennis as well as cricket for the Mirror.

He had a major triumph when he disguised himself to deceive an important Australian writer into believing he was a French fan but some of his great moments were in fooling a Yorkshire writer Dick Williamson.

Williamson was a character too; a traditional Yorkshireman, loud and very, very, sure of himself. He was totally bald so he never removed his trademark trilby, his bald head was full of stats, facts and figures in the days when computers had hardly been invented and when CricInfo was a dream in the head of a lad still at primary school.

Any sports editor wanting to know who had scored the most successive goals in the old Division One, who was second to Bradman — well, almost everyone, of course — or who was the eldest living Test match hero, would phone Williamson of Bradford, as his byline announced him and the answer would be on his desk in a few minutes.

Dick, a friend from my days in provincial journalism, once allowed me a glimpse of his inner sanctum but that was the source of his earnings and even I never saw inside the thousands of tiny envelopes that held his secret files.

Even Dick fell for the Laker deception.

Another young writer had reported a tour of Australia and in the middle of that trip fell in love. Back home he brooded about what might have been and suddenly one morning — without warning — he climbed aboard a jet plane and rushed off to meet the object of his affection.

She scorned his advances and this magistrate, this lay preacher, this writer of books about the British countryside had to go home, beg forgiveness from his wife, reclaim his job and face his bewildered friends.

The following summer Williamson asked in his strident voice in a crowded Press box: “Whatever happened to that damn fool who went rushing off after an Aussie lassie,” and was astonished and embarrassed to be tapped on the shoulder by the man he was asking after.

The next morning Laker, pretending to be the young man, rang Williamson and threatened libel actions, claims for enormous damages and all sorts of revenge.

He kept Williamson worried for three months but eventually someone told Dick it was a joke. All three of us met, by chance, in the Leeds Press box — with both Williamson and Laker trying to give me their version of the tale that had been the talk of the newspaper world.

Finally Williamson, a man with a short fuse, ordered Laker to shut up. “Peter, you know nothing about this,” he said. “I know you have played a few jokes in your time, but this one was nothing to do with you so keep your nose out of it.”

Williamson has been dead for many a year and he never found out how Laker had tricked him although I guess when they meet in heaven Peter will be bound to reveal the truth.

I hope so. I liked both these characters who made those old days so entertaining and hate to think that they would be anything but friends.