Book of the Week: A fitting tribute to the genius of Laker

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The Independent Online
Jim Laker (Andre Deutsch, pounds 17.99) by Alan Hill

MUTTIAH MURALITHARAN'S 16 for 220 at The Oval was the fifth best bowling analysis in Test history, so a biography of the man who returned the best, 19 for 90 with England at Old Trafford in 1956, is well-timed.

Jim Laker was a tall, strong, usually affable Yorkshireman whose off- spinning for Surrey played a principal part in bringing seven successive championships to The Oval in the Fifties. In much of that decade he would have been regarded as the world's best of his type.

Alan Hill has biographies of Hedley Verity and Johnny Wardle in his CV, so he knows which bells to ring. He is especially good on Laker's background, helped greatly by Lily Laker and the family, and has turned up a few surprises.

Laker was a 19-year-old Barclays Bank clerk when he volunteered for the Army in 1940, a batsman who bowled for his Bradford League club, Saltaire. In the Middle East he discovered he could turn the ball prodigiously on matting. Tales of prowess reached Yorkshire, who knew him as a trialist, but after the war they had no room for another off-spinner.

His able and fiercely possessive mother died at the same time. Laker went to live in London with an Army friend and began playing for Catford, whose president was a Surrey stalwart.

He found The Oval then class-conscious, but settled into an emerging and hugely talented young team. He had played for England for two years, but first made an impact on the national consciousness when he returned to Bradford in 1950 to achieve a sensational bowling return in a Test trial, atttracting the media by taking figures of 8 for 2. "Have you done this before?" a non-cricketing reporter asked. "Not very often," was Jim's laconic reply.

After his even more sensational feat of 19 Australian wickets in 1956, he was driving home at a time when there were no motorways and little television.

He stopped for a break in a Midlands pub. While sipping a beer and munching a sandwich he heard everyone talking of his bowling. No one recognised him.

His spinning fingers were often left raw and bleeding, and in the fiercely competitive ambience of the Surrey dressing room he clashed with an austere and ambitious captain, Peter May. He also clashed with the establishment over a book (there was nothing salacious about it, concentrating mostly on sensible comment). He then joined Essex briefly and, for a second time, rejected an invitation to return to Yorkshire.

He finished his career as a highly respected television commentator, successfully using his voice, as well as a depth of experience, to communicate his great love for the game and its players. His knowledge, experience and dry wit made his company a delight. This, surely, is the best of Alan Hill's biographies.