x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Laker's 19 owed much to weather

It was a combination of torrential downpours followed by scorching sun that helped Jim Laker to his place in sporting immortality on this day 53 years ago.

There is nothing quite as unpredictable as the English summer; just the other day we awoke to the garden dripping like an Amazonian rainforest but by late afternoon it had been baked dry by the searing heat. It was exactly this combination of torrential downpours followed by scorching sun that helped Jim Laker to his place in sporting immortality on this day 53 years ago.

The 1956 Australian side who arrived to try to regain the Ashes were not one of the strongest to leave Down Under, but few expected their capitulation to the spin of Laker in the fourth Test at Old Trafford. After taking nine for 37 in the first innings, the Surrey sorcerer took all 10 Australian wickets when the tourists followed on - the first bowler in history to achieve the feat - to finish the match with figures of 19 for 90. The Ashes were duly retained as the Aussies cried foul over the Manchester pitch, which they claimed had been doctored for Laker's destructive wrist.

Their grievance, it has to be said, was not without substance. After two days of heavy rain followed by bright sunshine, the Lancashire groundsman Bert Flack had been on the point of watering the baked pitch on the morning of the first day when England's captain Peter May sent word he would prefer it to be left exactly the way it was. The dusty wicket would prove the perfect surface for Laker's spin, but the England batsmen showed that it could also reward patience when they made 459 in their first innings, thanks largely to an opening partnership of 174 from Peter Richardson (104) and Colin Cowdrey (80).

Australia started well, reaching 48 without loss until Laker's nine-wicket haul sent them tumbling to 84 all out on what became known as "Black Friday". "It was a bad batting performance," Laker admitted. "Naturally I was proud of my return of nine wickets - but it would never have been as profitable if there had been much sanity in the Australian display. The truth is if that, if the Australians had played only half as badly as they did on that 'Black Friday' at Manchester, they would have saved the match and, as it turned out, the series."

Another weekend of incessant rain offered hope to the Australians when they followed on, and only two hours of play were possible on the Monday, during which Laker captured the wickets of Jimmy Burke and, more importantly, the peerless Neil Harvey. With eight second innings wickets standing and the series tied at 1-1, the Ashes might well have been returned to Australia's possession for the first time since 1953 but for Flack's unfailing efforts on England's behalf. "Whatever is said about the preparation of the wicket, there can be nothing but praise for the way the ground staff got the playing area fit for play on the Tuesday," Laker admitted.

With opener Colin McDonald and Ian Craig thriving on the damp pitch, Australia survived until the lunch interval when the vagaries of the English summer provided one final twist to the drama. "If ever I own a racehorse I think I shall call it Manchester Sun," said Laker with a smile. "The sun's rays quickly got to work on the pitch, dried out the top surface and put some life into the wicket." McDonald single-handedly defied Laker for more than five and a half hours, but when he departed for 89, shortly after tea, Australia collapsed to an innings and 170-run defeat.

After a late night of celebrations, Laker drove south to his home in London, arriving at 2.30am. Just four hours later, he was up again and on his way to play for Surrey at The Oval. Their opponents? Australia, of course. rphilip@thenational.ae