Book review: Jim Laker: A Biography - Tricky man, trickier bowler

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The Independent Online
THERE HAS been a steep decline in English spin bowlers. They are not exactly extinct just yet, but they are not exactly breeding either. This is partly because when they were about in abundance they were not properly preserved. It was as if they were so plentiful that their true value could not be assessed.

If Jim Laker was around now and in his twirly prime only a madman would leave him out of the England side. The selectors in the early Fifties apparently thought almost nothing of it. By the time he was 34 he had played in only 24 Tests, fewer than half of those for which he was available.

He was overlooked for two tours of Australia and considering the off- spinning cannon fodder that England have not been ashamed to have accompanying them there in some of the tours since, this is less an oversight than a crime.

Laker, of course, had the most famous of revenges, against the selectors, against Australia, against anybody else who doubted his capacity, by taking 19 wickets for 90 runs in a single match for England against Australia, in 1956.

It was the most sensational bowling performance of all time, it is still the first statistic that young boys and girls, coming fresh to the game, are told. While it may be a wild prediction to say that it will never, ever be equalled nobody has come close either in the hundreds of years before Laker's great day or in the 42 since.

He took nine wickets in the first innings, all 10 in the second, the Aussies were routed and the Daily Express headline next day said: "Ten Little Aussie Boys Lakered In A Row". Jim Laker's Match will never be forgotten.

That single performance was an unanswerable response to critics. "At Old Trafford, Jim Laker was the supreme inquisitor, who was finally released from the shackles of criticism," as Alan Hill puts it in his biography of the off-spinner (Andre Deutsch, pounds 14.99). Hill is not afraid to try to turn a slick phrase in the way his subject turned a cricket ball.

It is a thorough and admiring examination, not short of objectivity but always mindful of Laker's status in the game. He was born illegitimately in Yorkshire, his mother not finding it practicable in those days to divorce her husband, and his father deserted home when the boy was barely a toddler. His mother, a teacher, ensured he went short of nothing - "he was doted on with the fervour of someone receiving an unexpected blessing".

This might explain why he became not only an outstanding bowler (though his early promise before war service was as a batsman) but an occasionally awkward so and so. For several years, he was considered something of a loner in the dressing-room at Surrey, the county where he pitched up in the late Forties when Yorkshire could find no room for him.

He was a droll fellow of a few words in team with their fair share of extroverts. His spinning partnership with Tony Lock was among the most potent the game has known but they were not great buddies. In later life they rubbed along better and indeed Lock, who took the 20th wicket at Old Trafford and was pretty angry at the time that it was only one, later expressed regret that he had done so.

If Laker was a man of few words who could be wary of friendship, he also spoke his mind. He wrote an angry autobiography towards the end of his career which saw him banned from The Oval and stripped of MCC honorary membership. These honours were later restored when he became a respected, but still droll, commentator on the game for BBC Television.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that he was as incisive a commentator as he was a bowler but he formed, with Richie Benaud, another formidable partnership. Who, precisely, could say the least? Some of the young coves in the box now should have listened to him. But, still, as Hill's book should remind us, we need off-spinners more than we need commentators.