Great Test Matches XV - England v Australia, Old Trafford, 1956

2008 Dec 23 by DreamCricket

Great Test Matches XV - England v Australia, Old Trafford, 1956

By Gulu Ezekiel

More than 50 years after the feat, Jim Laker's astonishing figures of 19 for 90 in the Old Trafford Test match of July 1956 still evokes a sense of jaw-dropping awe.

Cricket is one of the few team sports in which individual records count for so much-its distant American cousin baseball is another. And while almost all of cricket's more famous records of yore have been equaled or beaten over the years, Laker's is unlikely to be ever matched as long as the game is played.

It would take 43 years for another bowler to take all 10 wickets in a Test match innings-Anil Kumble against Pakistan in New Delhi-but none can conceivably hope to match the legendary England off-spinner's match figures of 9 for 37 and 10-53. What is more, this was no one-off or fluke. For earlier in the season the same bowler had taken all 10 for 88 while playing for Surrey against the hapless touring Australian squad. In the previous Test at Headingley he had claimed 11 wickets and finished with 46 in the series at the measly average of 9.60 as England clinched the 'Ashes'.

England batting first at Old Trafford amassed 459 with centuries by Peter Richardson and David Sheppard.

Even after five decades, the surviving Aussies claim they were set up by a dodgy pitch prepared to favour spin. That may have been the case and the weather too conspired against them.

But how then can one fathom that while Laker was creating havoc in the Australian ranks, the fiercely competitive left-arm spinner Tony Lock-who had himself taken all 10 in a county match for Surrey days before the Manchester Test-could manage just one.

To rub salt further into the indignant Aussie wounds, their spinners, 'offie' and captain Ian Johnson and leg-spinner Richie Benaud could claim just four and two wickets respectively, both bowling 47 overs in England's only innings. Openers Colin McDonald and Jim Burke started off confidently in response to the home side's challenging score.

It was with the total on nine and after seven overs of pace had been delivered that Laker was brought on and eight runs later, it was spin from both ends with Lock into the attack.

There had been neither any signs of panic from the opening batsmen nor any major turn from the pitch for the two spinners till then. Indeed it was not until his eighth over that Laker struck, having McDonald caught by Lock in the leg-trap for 32 with the score reading 48.

Neil Harvey survived just three balls before being bowled for a duck by Laker at the same score.

Lock followed up with the wicket of Burke, caught by Colin Cowdrey at slip for 22 and Australia were now 62 for three.

Then inexplicably and astonishingly, their next seven batsmen crashed in a heap for the addition of just 22 more runs, all to Laker's mesmerisingly accurate bowling. He had taken seven wickets for eight runs in the spell for figures of 16.4-4-37-9. Skittled out for 84, the demoralised Australians were asked to follow on. And though their second innings was a distinct improvement on their first effort, 205 all out was just not good enough.

McDonald top scored again with 89, though his innings was interrupted as he had to retire hurt early on with an injured knee.

This brought in Harvey who fell first ball to Laker, thus ending the Test with a 'pair'. Harvey flung his bat into the air in disgust at himself as Laker moved inexorably towards the record.

Thunder showers severely curtailed play on the third, fourth and fifth days with the result that Australia's second innings, which had began late on the second day, stretched to the fifth.

After Burke was dismissed for 33, the returning McDonald and Ian Craig took the score to 112 for 2 by lunch on the final day. Australia with eight wickets in hand needed to bat out the next four hours to save the match.

But Manchester's notoriously wet weather was not enough to save the Aussies this time. Jim Laker saw to that.

Craig was lbw for 38 and Ken Mackay also completed a 'pair' with Keith Miller and Ray Archer following without opening their accounts.

McDonald hung on grimly and with Benaud for company, they took the total to 181 for 6 at the tea interval before Laker came back refreshed after the break. The opening batsman's vigil lasting 337 minutes ended when he was caught for 89 and that was the beginning of the end.

Lock took the catch in the leg trap that accounted for the wicket of Ray Lindwall that gave his Surrey teammate his 18th wicket, the most in a first-class match. And when Laker had Len Maddocks leg before an hour before the end of the Test, England had achieved victory by an innings and 170 runs and Laker had gained sporting immortality at the age of 34.

Lock in fact bowled one over more in the match than Laker, 69 to 68. Yet his only wicket was that of Burke. It was a blow to his pride and something he could not live down for the rest of his life.

Today looking back at the footage of the Test and the photos of Laker walking nonchalantly off the field at the end of the match, one cannot but be struck by his calm and relaxed manner and that of his teammates as they applauded him into the pavilion. Perhaps the enormity of the feat had not sunk in yet with the players of both sides seemingly in a state of shock.

For the next 30 years, till his death in April 1986 Laker would be asked over and over again to recount those memorable days at Manchester. It was as if those not privileged to be present could scarcely believe such a feat to be possible.