#HeroesOnMyWall is a series in which our own Anindya Dutta shares the joy that his collection of Cricket Autographs and Photographs gives him. As author of Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling, Anindya knows a bit about the art of Indian spin. Here however, ahead of The Ashes, it’s England’s greatest ever spin twins, Jim Laker and Tony Lock that he recalls.
Heroes on My Wall Series: The Spin Twins – Laker and Lock
2844 first class wickets at a cost of just over 19 runs is a staggering enough statistic. Add to that another 1944 scalps at 18.41. Then throw into the mix the fact that 3108 of the 4788 dismissals were engineered while the two were bowling in tandem for Surrey. Together they formed the greatest spin duo the world has ever seen. Their names were Tony Lock and Jim Laker. This is their story.
Summer of 1956 – Old Trafford: The Jim Laker Show
Sometimes it’s better not to start a story at the beginning but at a defining moment in it. This, in the Laker-Lock tale, was to occur in the summer of 1956. The Aussies were in England to play a 5-Test series, determined to take back the urn that had remained with England for three long years. The first Test at Trent Bridge was drawn, and the visitors won the second Test at Lord’s by a convincing 185 runs. The campaign was well on its way.
The Aussie joy was however short lived, as the English came roaring back at Headingley to win by an innings and 42 runs. Equally worrying was the success of the English spin duo of Jim Laker and Tony Lock, who had established complete dominance over the Aussie batsmen, taking eighteen of the twenty wickets on offer.
The teams came to Old Trafford, all squared for the series. Not unreasonably, the Aussies suspected that the Old Trafford pitch would be a turner, despite the British newspapers predicting a true pitch that would favour fast bowling.
Martin Williamson narrates this story in a 2015 ESPN Cricinfo article:
‘Australian suspicions that the pitch had been prepared for the England spinners were confirmed years later when Bert Flack, the Manchester groundsman, said on the day before the start he had been instructed by Gubby Allen, the chairman of England’s selectors, to shave the pitch. “That’s stupid,” Flack replied. “The match won’t last three days. The surface is not that well-knit.” After pondering for a few minutes, Flack did as he had been ordered and immediately covered the pitch to prevent the press from seeing what he had done.’ The press, as they say, have been had.
Peter May, the England captain, took one look at the pitch, and decided to drop Fred Trueman from the line-up. The pitch gave no hint of having any demons in it for the first two days and England’s first innings ended at 459. Even at the start of the Australian innings, as the visitors cruised to 48 without loss, there was no hint of what was to occur.
At that stage, May switched ends for Jim Laker, a man who spun the ball viciously with his fingers, and whose forward snap of the wrist ensured purchase from the surface. Laker was also a master of the geometry of spin. He used the angles of delivery from both over and round the wicket, throwing in subtle changes in trajectory. The result was devastation like never before witnessed in a Test match. It was as if the 34-year old off-spinner, at the peak of powers, was laying mines on a field where no batsman was equipped with a detector.
Colin McDonald handed a sharp chance to Lock, unable to keep down a ball that took off a good length. Neil Harvey watched with disbelief as Laker’s second ball to him pitched on the leg stump, spun prodigiously, and dislodged the bail from the off stump. As Aussie captain Ian Johnson was to lament later, ‘trapped on a stinker, the fellows were angry and the batting blew up.’ Lock got Jim Burke caught the first ball after tea, and then began the Jim Laker Show, a performance that was to continue for the rest of the Test match.
Richie Benaud was victim to a peculiar idiosyncrasy of Jim Laker. Laker would never bowl without a fielder in a position that was very unusual for top level cricket of the time, between mid wicket and the long on boundary, a position called the cow corner. It was a term that had originated at Dulwich College where there was the corner of a field containing livestock on that edge of the playing area. In trying to hit his way out of trouble, Benaud holed out to Brian Statham, who, long relieved of his bowling duties, had been despatched to the cow corner.
Laker then wrapped up the tail, Godfrey Evans stumping Ron Archer with his effortless ‘bail flick’ down the leg side. Australia, from 48 without loss, were all out for 84. In his last nine overs, Jim Laker had taken 9 wickets for 16 runs, with the last 7 wickets coming one of every 3 balls.
The demoralised Aussies followed on, and in the second innings, Colin McDonald showed tremendous application to score 89 in the 337 minutes that he spent at the crease against unplayable spin bowling from both ends. The wicket was now literally crumbling from constant rain and drying. Despite the multiple interruptions, much to the batters’ disappointment, Laker lost neither focus nor his line and length.
He started the slide on this occasion by dismissing Neil Harvey for his second duck in two hours, and then ran through the England innings while Lock kept the batsmen quiet at the other end with his unerring accuracy. By the time the Australian innings ended at 205, Jim Laker had claimed all 10 second innings scalps and become the only man in both First-Class and Test cricket to bag 19 wickets in a match.
There is a postscript to this Laker performance that merits retelling.
By the time Laker finished with the press and his well-wishers, it was past 8pm. On the way home he stopped in at a packed pub near Litchfield where the TV was replaying his feats on a loop to much cheering and expressions of joy. But in the days before cricketers became celebrities, no one recognised the man sitting in one corner. “My celebration dinner consisted of a bottle of beer and a sandwich,” he said. “I sat in the corner of a crowded bar while everyone talked about the Test. No one spotted me. Beyond asking me how far I had to go, the landlord said nothing.”
When Picking Lock was England’s Key to Success
While the Summer of ’56 may have been about Jim Laker, his spin-twin at the other end of the 22-yards didn’t always play the supporting role as he had so ably done at Old Trafford. Very frequently, in the long years they operated in tandem, Lock was the Hamlet to Laker’s Horatio.
When red-headed Tony Lock made his first appearance at The Oval in 1946, he brought to the 22-yards a fiery, competitive temperament that would outlast his hair. Micky Stewart summed up Lock’s nature and contribution when he spoke about his former teammate a few years ago: ‘He gave his heart, body and soul to his team. If I had to pick the one player of all the stars in Surrey’s side of seven successive championships, the one who gave us the most, it would have to be Locky.’
While he started his career as an orthodox left-arm spinner, Lock’s early winter practice sessions at a low roofed indoor school in Croydon caused him to lose his loop. He turned into a bowler with a quicker ball that made unsuspecting batsmen take evasive action, and wicket keepers jump. With the rip he gave to the cherry, his was a style that was very effective on the most unresponsive wickets. Making his debut against India at Old Trafford in 1952, Lock didn’t get a chance to bowl in the first innings as Trueman scuttled India out for 52. When the visitors followed on, on a pitch that gave nothing to the spinners, Lock picked up four wickets with his quick darting deliveries.
The faster ball was however a poisoned chalice. While it fetched him over a thousand first class wickets, it also got him called for throwing in two successive Test series in England and the West Indies. He took a break in 1954 to remodel the action, and announced his return in 1956 by taking all ten Kent wickets in a county championship game. The following year he picked up 11 for 48 against the West Indies at the Oval, getting Soberts twice and both Weekes and Worrell in the second innings, spinning England to a decisive innings victory. Laker played foil to his spin partner, picking up five. Lock was devastating the next few years picking up 49 wickets over that summer and the one that followed. Two years later he toured India and Pakistan and bagged 32 scalps, wishing he could take the pitches back to England.
Twin Heroes on My Wall
If there is a common thread that binds the dominance of Surrey and England in the 1950’s and early 60’s, it is surely the dual presence of Laker and Lock. They didn’t always get on well off the field, but on it, they combined to deadly effect against the greatest batsmen of the age.
Laker and Lock took 3108 wickets as a pair for Surrey and scalped 367 for England. They spun a web against some of the greatest players of spin Test cricket has seen. Garry Sobers, Frank Worrell, Beil Harvey, Everton Weeks, Clyde Walcott, Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad, no one was immune to their wiles. Together, they ushered in an extended age of rare dominance for Surrey and English cricket.
The Summer of 1956 may have long passed, but every time the Ashes come around, invoking Laker and Lock adds to the romance of a contest that remains unparalleled in world cricket. At a more personal level, every time I raise my eyes from my desk, they come to rest on two of the greatest #HeroesOnMyWall – Jim Laker and Tony Lock.