“And it’s Australia, bowled Laker.”

It’s probably the oldest entry in the book of sporting cliches: records are meant to be broken.

Yet, every now and then, a performance so unique comes along that you would not hesitate betting your bottom dollar on, for never being broken. England’s Jim Laker taking NINETEEN wickets in one Test match is likely never to be matched, let alone be broken, as long as cricket is played.

The bowlers to take all wickets in an innings

Player Overs Mdns Runs Wkts Econ Opposition Ground Match Date
Laker (ENG) 51.2 23 53 10 1.03 v Australia Manchester 26 Jul 1956
Kumble (IND) 26.3 9 74 10 2.79 v Pakistan Delhi 4 Feb 1999
Courtesy: ESPNCricinfo

Sure, you can point to the fact that Anil Kumble picked up all 10 wickets in one innings, 43 years later. In fact, 17 men have (as of July 2020) picked up nine wickets in one innings. Any one of those instances could have been a 10-for, right?

But picking up all but one of the 20 possible wickets in a Test match is a feat so unique that it has not been achieved in the history of all first-class cricket, let alone at the highest level.

Bowlers to take 15 wickets or more in a Test

Player Overs Mdns Runs Wkts Econ Team Opposition Ground Match Date
Laker 68.0 27 90 19 1.32 England v Australia Manchester 26 Jul 1956
Barnes 65.3 16 159 17 2.42 England v South Africa Johannesburg 26 Dec 1913
Hirwani 33.5 6 136 16 4.01 India v West Indies Chennai 11 Jan 1988
Massie 60.1 16 137 16 2.27 Australia v England Lord's 22 Jun 1972
Murali 113.5 41 220 16 1.93 Sri Lanka v England The Oval 27 Aug 1998
Briggs 33.3x4 16 28 15 1.24 England v South Africa Cape Town 25 Mar 1889
Lohmann 25.3x5 11 45 15 2.10 England v South Africa Port Elizabeth 13 Feb 1896
Blythe 38.3 10 99 15 2.57 England v South Africa Leeds 29 Jul 1907
Verity 58.3 23 104 15 1.77 England v Australia Lord's 22 Jun 1934
Hadlee 52.3 13 123 15 2.34 New Zealand v Australia Brisbane 8 Nov 1985
Rhodes 30.2 3 124 15 4.08 England v Australia Melbourne 1 Jan 1904
Harbhajan 80.1 26 217 15 2.70 India v Australia Chennai 18 Mar 2001
Courtesy: ESPNCricinfo

Controversy around the pitch

England were on the backfoot against Australia at the start of the 1956 Ashes. After a draw in Nottingham, on a lively Lord’s wicket, the visitors posted a big win to take a 1-0 lead. Heading into the third Test at Headingley, England’s best option of wrestling back the momentum was to let their Surrey spin duo of Tony Lock (left arm finger-spin) and Jim Laker (right-arm off-spin) dictate terms. Sure enough, they combined to take nine wickets in each innings (total of 18 wickets in the match) to dominate Australia.

Naturally, heading into the fourth Test at Old Trafford in Manchester, the pitch was under focus.

“Bradman wouldn’t have lasted on that pitch,” is how one Australian — Len Maddocks — who played in that match described the 22-yards that was offered by the Old Trafford curator.

“Looking back on it, I still believe the English administration cheated. But not the England players; they played the game perfectly well, according to the traditions of the game, and they weren’t responsible for the conditions,” said Colin McDonald, the man who top-scored for Australia in the second innings with a remarkable 89 when no other visiting batsman crossed 40 in the entire match.

England won the toss and made the most of the best batting conditions, smashing more than 300 runs in one day. With 459 on the board, the hosts would have been confident of winning on a pitch that would deteriorate but no one could have predicted what came next.

Or maybe not.

Going back a few months, Laker had ripped through the Australian batting line-up in a tour match for Surrey. Former Australia captain and commentator extraordinaire Richie Benaud recalled 50 years later:

“Looking back on it... at the time anyone who had thought about omens, they’d go back to that Surrey match. When Jim Laker took 10/88 (against the touring Australia side) and Tony Lock got no wickets bowling round about the same number of overs. If you throw forward to Old Trafford, I suppose in your worst dreams you might think it could happen again.”

Indeed, Laker picked up nine wickets in the first innings with Lock accounting for one of the openers. The ball of the innings, and perhaps the entire match, was reserved for Australia’s best.

Neil Harvey, regarded as Australia’s best batsman at that time, said: “Much has been said about the Warne-Gatting ball — an unplayable delivery. Well, I must admit that the ball that Jim Laker bowled me, at Old Trafford in 1956, was just as good as Shane Warne’s.”

Indeed, with Laker bowling around the wicket, the ball drifted in towards the left-handed batsman and turned sharply to go on and rattle the off-stumps. A dream off-spinner’s dismissal. A little while later, Laker went on a spree, taking seven wickets for eight runs in 22 balls

With Australia blown away for 89, England enforced the follow on. But, hey, it’s a match in Manchester and that meant rain had to make its presence felt. Large part of day four was washed out and when they came out to bat on the wet uncovered wickets, the ball was reportedly not gripping as much. Suddenly during the course of the second innings, there was hope for Australia to save the match as McDonald defied the English spinners.

Alas, after a good first session on the final day of the Test, the sun came out in the lunch break and dried the pitch up. Laker, then, went to work.

Once McDonald’s partnership with Ian Craig came to an end, Laker took little time to wrap up the innings. Wickets tumbled left, right and centre.

And all the while, it was also an interesting battle between the two England bowlers. Much as the pitch was criticised, it was arguably the same for both spinners, and yet only one man seemingly made the most of it. Lock’s inability to get more than one wicket in that match is, perhaps, as incredible as Laker picking up the other 19.

Alan Oakman, who took six catches in the match, said: “In the first innings, when Jim was getting wickets, Lock was applauding. In the second innings, when Jim got his wickets, Lock folded his arms. He was a bit downcast I think.”

And that is what truly makes Laker’s achievement extraordinary. He was not the only strike bowler capable of exploiting the nature of the pitch.

As Australia batsman Harvey said: “We haven’t seen it since, and I don’t think we’ll ever see it again.”

Truly, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement.

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