It is sixty years to the day since the final day of the fourth Test of the 1956 Ashes. That day, England’s Jim Laker set a record which may never be beaten; he took 19 wickets in one match. The remaining Australian batsmen was dismissed by Tony Lock as England won by an innings and 170 runs. This was one of the few Ashes thrashings the result of which has almost been forgotten. The match will only be remembered for Laker’s 19-90.
The Jim Laker 19: 60 Years On
Due to the fact that there is always someone else bowling at the other end, it is very difficult for a bowler to take more than half of a team’s wickets, let alone all but one of them. Laker took 9-37 in the first innings as Australia were bowled out for 84. In the second, he took all ten wickets for 53 runs. Almost as impressive is that he conceded only 53 despite bowling more than 51 overs. The day that someone equals or beats his record is unlikely to come in professional cricket.
The Jim Laker 19 forms part of what was once a Holy Trinity of imperfect cricket records. The highest Test batting average remains Don Bradman’s scarcely believable 99.94—the other record which may never be beaten—and before Brian Lara’s 501 not out for Warwickshire against Durham in 1994, the highest individual score in first-class cricket was Hanif Mohammad’s 499 for Karachi against Bahawalpur in 1959.
Unfortunately, the available footage of the 19 wickets is incomplete and unclear. It is a tragedy that the 1956 series is not available in full for all to see, as his performance deserves to be used as an example of spin bowling at its very best. It seems that Laker was close to unplayable both in that match and the whole series. He took 46 wickets in the five matches—the second most in a Test series after Sydney Barnes’ 49 in only four Tests in England’s tour of South Africa in 1913-14.
Why Laker was so unplayable
There are surprisingly few first-hand accounts of either innings. Richard Stokes, who was present for both Laker’s second innings effort and the only other ten-wicket haul in Test cricket, Anil Kumble’s in 1998 against Pakistan, said of the 1956 match: “I cannot recall all the dismissals, but I can tell you the crowd was really excited and there was a lot of noise.”
Laker, an off-spinner, bowled from around the wicket to the right-hander, flighting the ball across the batsman’s eye-line at varied pace and getting the ball to turn back into the stumps. The footage isn’t very clear, so it’s hard to tell how much he spun the ball. What is very clear is that the batsmen couldn’t cope with his bowling.
This match was not a one-off—he took 193 Test wickets at an average of just 21.24. But one huge advantage that Laker and many other spinners before him, such as Sydney Barnes, had over modern-day twirlymen is that the pitches were much less predictable. Nowadays spinners still have subcontinent dust bowls on which to cause havoc, but outside of Asia pitches offer little assistance. Back then, “minefields” were more common. Pitches were often uncovered and the bounce could be very uneven. This meant that, from the very first day of each Test, bowlers had a huge advantage.
This is not to discredit Laker in the slightest. His was one of the greatest individual performances in cricketing and sporting history and his place as a legend of the game is most deserved. One cannot take nearly 2000 first-class wickets purely by relying on bad pitches. But the quality of today’s pitches which will make it almost impossible for anyone to come close to matching this astounding feat.