CW Specials: My Close Encounters with Cricketing Greats – Part VII: Kersi Meher-Homji
It was the fifth and final Ashes Test in January 1983 in Sydney with Australia leading 2-1. I could not believe my eyes, nor my luck when I saw the legendary English off-spinner Jim Laker sitting on my left just outside the Press-box.
Wow, the great Jim Laker himself, the English icon whose lyrical 19 for 90 has stood the test of time, sitting next to me! Although 60 and graying, he looked very much like his photograph of 1950-51 when he had toured India with the Second Commonwealth team.
As I was living in a small village 120 km away from Bombay in early 1950s, I could not see any matches. But even at eleven I was developing into a cricket fan and was collecting photos of famous cricketers, Laker’s included. So seeing him in person 33 years later was almost electrifying.
Tallish with an earnest look, Laker is a legend of the game. He was one of all-time great off-spinners whose record of taking 19 wickets in a Test has remained untouched. No other bowler has taken more than seventeen wickets in a first-class match, let alone in a Test match. This record could remain unique as nowadays cricket is a batsmen’s game played on covered pitches.
Should I interview him, I debated with myself. When will I get an opportunity to sit next to him? He will refuse for sure but what’s the harm in asking. He agreed but with a condition, “Only five minutes.”
When I quibbled about it he retorted, “If you are a good journalist, five minutes should be ample.” We ended up talking for hours! Abrupt at first he oozed friendliness the more we talked.
I started off with the July 1956 Manchester Test against Australia when he took 9 for 37 and 10 for 53 as England won by an innings and plenty. In the previous Test in Leeds he had pouched 11 Aussie scalps. Thus he had vanquished Australian batsmen 30 times in two Tests within 18 days in July. He went on to capture 46 wickets in the series at an amazing average of 9.60 as England retained the Ashes.
“How do you explain it?” I asked. “How come the other great spinner, the left-handed Tony Lock took only one wicket to your 19 in that magical Manchester Test?”
He mused for a few seconds and replied, “Don’t ask me! Locky and I may play together for 100 years and it would never happen again. It was a good toss to win and we made over 450 runs with centuries from Peter Richardson and David Sheppard. Then it rained and as wickets were not covered those days we had an ideal spinners’ pitch. Lock bowled extremely well but without luck. It was one of those inexplicable things.”
Wisden 1987 explained later, “Ten wickets in an innings, more than any other achievement in cricket, must contain a large element of luck: however well a man bowls, the odds must always be that his partner will pick up a wicket. In this case these odds were heavier than usual because Lock at the other end was, on such a wicket, as great a spinner as Laker and he bowled superbly. What turned the scale was that Laker was bowling off-breaks whereas Lock relied on the left-armer’s natural leg-break, and the Australians at that period were wholly inexperienced in playing off-breaks, especially on a wicket which, heavily marled and almost devoid of grass, might have been designed for an off-spinner.”
The English press headlined that Australian batsmen suffered from a new epidemic: “Laker-itis”. True, for Aussie batsmen it was an infectious disease!
As Laker and I were reminiscing the Manchester Test of 1956, England’s opener Chris Tavaré and Allan Lamb were bowled by Geoff ‘Henry’ Lawson for ducks in the 1983 Sydney Test and the score was a pathetic 3 for 24 in reply to Australia’s first innings total of 314.
My 12 year-old son Jehangir was jumping with joy at the fall of Tavaré and Lamb for zilch and said loudly, “We’ll win, Dad.”
“Don’t be too sure, young fellow, we beat you in the Melbourne Test last week”, Laker joined in. Who says Laker was unfriendly? Can you imagine him talking to a 12 year-old?
“But that was by only three runs. We beat you by eight wickets in Adelaide and by seven wickets in Brisbane”, Jehangir replied as he softly continued with his own running commentary of the Sydney Test.
“Your son sure knows his cricket,” said Laker, looking impressed. “What’s his name?” I told him. The five minute deadline he had given me had exceeded hours ago so I hastened with my questions.
“No need to ask, the 1956 Manchester Test was your most memorable match, correct?” I asked.
“Not quite,” he replied, appearing very relaxed, forgetting that he had given me a time limit as we chatted for hours in between cups of coffee and his reporting the match to BBC.
“My best stint was in an unofficial test at Brabourne Stadium in Bombay in December 1950. I was disappointed when omitted from the squad to Australia that season. So when invited to join the Commonwealth side to India under England’s Les Ames I agreed readily. In that test India collapsed on the first morning for 82, medium-pacer Fred Ridgway claiming four wickets and I took three. Six batsmen made ducks! We piled on a big score of over 400 runs. India fought back through Vijay Merchant scoring 60 plus while Polly Umrigar and Vijay Hazare hit centuries.”
“Marvellous batsmen, this trio. Still with heat and humidity in the 90s, I did get through fifty overs in a day and completed 64.5 overs in the innings to finish with five for 88. This I always believed to be my best ever bowling spell as it helped us to win by 10 wickets on a batsman’s pitch.”
“In the match against Services at Dehra Dun on that tour, our first six batsmen were declared out lbw. They were not happy. I went in at no. 7 and escaped. I was bowled first ball!” he recalled with a nostalgic smile. But I top-scored in the second innings [61 runs in 45 minutes] hitting three sixes and six fours and the Commonwealth team won by a big margin.”
From Dehra Dun in 1950 we moved down memory lane to Old Trafford, Manchester in 1956. That was the Year of Laker as England retained the Ashes. In seven first-class matches against Australia that summer Laker bagged 63 wickets at an average of 10 which included a record 46 at 9.60 in the Test series. He captured 10 wickets in an innings twice that season against Australia, once for Surrey (10 for 88 at The Oval) and once for England (10 for 53) as mentioned before.
This remains the only instance of a bowler taking 10 wickets in an innings twice in a single first-class season.
“Who was the best batsman of your time?” I asked.
“Don Bradman, without a doubt. I was only eight when I saw him score 300 runs in a day in the Leeds Test in 1930. Eighteen years later I bowled to him in Test matches. Among Englishmen the best three were Denis Compton, Len Hutton and Peter May – superb batsmen all.”
His list of all-rounders included Garry Sobers on top followed by Richie Benaud, Keith Miller, Ian Botham and Imran Khan.
James Charles Laker was born in Frizinghall, near Bradford in Yorkshire on 9 February 1922 but played for Surrey in county cricket. He had started as a batsman and a fast bowler but switched to off-spin when 21. It was B. B. Wilson who, at indoor nets early in the war, suggested that he should change to off-spin while serving in the Middle East and having the chance of playing Army cricket with a number of distinguished players. He followed Wilson’s advice.
According to Wisden 1987, “He [Laker] soon made his place secure in the Surrey side in 1947 and headed their bowling averages. At the end of the season he was picked for the largely experimental MCC side which Gubby Allen was taking to the West Indies and was one of the few successes among the untried players.”
He made a sensational Test debut in the Bridgetown Test of 1948, taking 7 for 103 and 2 for 95. “But in the second innings I was brought down to earth when Ernest ‘Foffie’ Williams belted me for 6,6,4,4 off my first four balls”, he recalled with a smile.
From Bridgetown in January 1948 to Melbourne in February 1959 (when he captured 4 for 93), the legendary off-spinner had taken 193 wickets at 21.24 in 46 Tests.
“Has cricket changed much since your playing days?” I asked.
“It’s a different game now , much more defensive. Slow bowlers mostly use containing technique rather than attack or flight the ball to get wickets”, he opined. “The current England team in Australia has three off-spinners which is a joke. Slow left-arm orthodox bowler Phil Edmonds should have been included.”
Laker was then involved in cricket as a journalist, broadcasting on BBC and writing for Express and Wisden Cricket Monthly. “For BBC I sometimes share the mike with India’s former wicket-keeper Farokh Engineer.”
Laker was one of five Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year in 1952, New Zealand Cricket Almanack’s Player of the Year 1952 and BBC Sports Personality of the Year 1956. His ghosted autobiography Over to Me published in 1960 created strong reaction as he had criticized his captain Peter May among others. It offended the authorities at Lord’s and The Oval and they withdrew his honorary membership of MCC and Surrey. Some years later these were restored. Though outspoken, he was always fair.
“Thank you for your time, Jim Laker, an absolute pleasure to talk with you,” I said at the conclusion of our chat. “Anything you would like to add?”
“My idea of a match to watch would be Australia’s Ray Lindwall bowling from one end and India’s left-arm spinner Bishan Bedi from the other. I wish Bishan well for his Benefit this year.”
That was the end of our “five minute” interview which went on for hours. But it was so exciting that it did seem like five minutes.
I mailed him the interview which was published in The Times of India (30 January 1983) along with my letter of thanks and what a joy to receive his reply. He ended the letter with “We will give the Australians a good hiding this summer!” That letter preserved for over 30 years is reproduced below.
True to his prediction, David Gower’s Englishmen beat Allan Border’s Australians three-one in 1985, twice by an innings. This made up for England losing the Ashes in Australia two years earlier when I had spent nostalgic hours with the amiable cricketing giant.
Jim Laker passed away on 23 April 1986 aged 64 in Putney, London. His ashes were scattered at The Oval cricket ground. At the time of his death he was Chairman of Surrey’s Cricket Committee. His passing was a personal loss to me. He will be remembered for more than just his 19 for 90 Manchester magic.
His 193 wickets remained a Test record for an England off-spinner till Graeme Swann went past him in 2012. India’s leg-spinner Anil Kumble is the only other bowler to take 10 wickets in a Test innings, 10 for 74 against Pakistan at Delhi in February 1999. Kumble had match figures of 14 for 149.
According to the esteemed John Arlott, the voice of BBC’s Test Match Special, “Laker was a good bowler on all types of wickets. He spun the ball viciously and ran through sides on turning pitches at the lowest possible cost. On good wickets, whether in cool England or in tropical conditions, he could bowl over after over of perfect length and line. On those, he set the batsmen puzzles of length and flight… His daughters loved him, his wife Lily adored him, and if he took a quizzical look at the world, he missed very little. To work with him and to be accepted by him was something of an accolade and admission to a school of cricketing thought that was sometimes quite bewildering in its depth.”
England’s all-rounder Trevor Bailey recalled the perfect balance and rhythm of Laker’s action. “He was so grooved that he could have run in to bowl blindfolded.”
Jim Laker’s hand-written letter
A scribbled note after being welcomed by a huge pile of mail on my return from three weeks in New Zealand and the US.
Thank you for the cutting which will add to my collection.
I really enjoyed my stay in Sydney though obviously not as much as Jehangir! He is a great little fellow but tell him we will give those Australians a good hiding this summer!
All good wishes,