Down memory lane

No bowler since July 1956 has ever equalled Jim Laker’s achievement of taking 19 wickets in a Test match. I dare hazard a guess that no bowler ever will.

The years between 1953 and 1959 were the halcyon days of English cricket: the era when Peter May’s men were on top of the Test tree and records fell with monotonous regularity before the bats of May, Cowdrey, the spin of Laker and Lock, and the pace bowling of Trueman, and Statham.

Significantly, I entered it in my diary as “the season in which I almost played in off-spinner, Jim Laker’s 19-wicket, record-breaking match at Old Trafford. I came so close to joining ‘big Jim’ in the Valhalla of all bowlers and, but for a persistent blood blister underneath the thick skin on my left heel, I must have been one of the spectator-players who watched as the Surrey man went on to statistical greatness in the space of one amazing 1956 afternoon, by capturing 19 Australian wickets for 90 runs.

As I recall, I was on my way back from my heel injury when I called in at my Northamptonshire county club, fully anticipating the summons to join the Test squad to be awaiting me. I was therefore taken aback to discover that the only letter waiting for me was a short note informing me and the Northants secretary, Colonel St. George Coldwell, that my attendance at Old Trafford would not be required. The powers that be had decided to play the third Test on the back of two full-time spin bowlers Jim Laker and Tony Lock, one part-time off-spinner, Sussex’s Alan Oakman plus the medium-pace of Trevor Bailey to supplement the pace of Brian Statham.

The selector’s message was loud and clear: the omission of Yorkshire paceman Freddie Trueman and myself indicated that Old Trafford was to be a spinners’ game. The batting was boosted with the recall from county retirement of Cyril Washbrook, a former Lancashire and England opener.

Cambridge University’s Right Reverend, David Sheppard, a tireless worker amongst the underprivileged classes of London’s East End, the erstwhile suffragan Bishop of Woolwich and Liverpool, returned to the fray to add another batsman capable of scoring 3000 runs a season to the line-up. Before the toss, unsurprisingly won by England, David Sheppard appeared on the players’ balcony in his ecclesiastical uniform occasioning the remark from the Australian captain, Ian Johnson, that perhaps the game was unfairly biased in England’s favour — since God seemed to be on the Pommies’ side!

The Old Trafford pitch was as bare as the Great Sandy Desert. It needed just a few camels and several mahouts to complete the desert illusion! As the match and the England innings began, each ball which pitched raised a cloud of dust, turned acutely and kept an unreliable height. Australian batsman after Australian batsman bent the knee to Laker’s off-spin. Surrey’s Tony Lock, a great left-handed spinner in his own right, had to content himself with a single victim.

No bowler since the last day in July 1956 has ever equalled Laker’s achievement of taking 19 wickets in a Test match. I dare hazard a guess that no bowler ever will. Or that if he does, I shall not be around to witness the feat.

It seems extremely unlikely that cricket will ever throw together a raging turning pitch, a spin bowler of near genius and a large pinch of luck. Perhaps I should content myself with being at Old Trafford in July 1956, and at Auckland in New Zealand in 1955 when the full-strength Kiwi Test team was dismissed for 26, the lowest score in the history of the game.

There’s another record which will not be broken for a long time! It was a game in which I was rested with figures of two for 10! I was deemed to be too expensive a bowler!