“Jim, are those your best-ever figures?”
Express writer Pat Marshall poses the question to Jim Laker after the England spinner took 8-2 in the first innings of the 1950 Test trial.
Words: Richard H Thomas
Perhaps a silly question, but if the same question had been posed six years later Laker would have had to say: “No, they aren’t actually – I took 9-37 and 10-53 against the Aussies”. In 1950 though, Laker was still establishing himself and hadn’t pulled up too many trees aside from nine wickets on debut against the West Indies.
Trials can be contentious, especially if the talent is reluctant. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (to Arsene Wenger), Terry Venables (to the Football Association) and Jeff Beck (to the Rolling Stones) are among those to have said they “don’t do auditions”.
Every year until the mid-70s though, it was auditions for everyone, as selectors decided that pitting ‘England’ v ‘The Rest’ was the most expedient way of establishing their best XI. ‘The Rest’ were contenders rather than incumbents and had more to gain than those already playing for England. No wonder they were unpopular. John Snow once demonstrated his contempt for the whole process by bowling an over of off breaks to Geoffrey Boycott, followed by an over of bouncers.
Pat Gibson suggested that in those days “England had rather more cricketers capable of playing at the highest level than they have now,” but despite the trials sorting “the wheat from the chaff”, it was unlikely that the selectors learnt much. In the 1950 match, Len Hutton turned out for England, though what the selectors felt they needed to learn about a man with 10 Test centuries (including a double and a triple) is rather moot. When ‘The Rest’ had first use of a damp wicket, however, they did learn something unequivocal: that their second-stringers were no match for Jim Laker.
Even the New York Times could see that that Laker had made the game “a farce”. For chairman of selectors Bob Wyatt it was a bad couple of weeks. At the Manchester Test against West Indies he was awoken from his slumber on the eve of the last day to find a well-oiled Bill Edrich being helped to bed by the night porter shortly before breakfast.
The debacle in Bradford though, was perhaps even more galling for home supporters. Denzil Batchelor wondered how Yorkshire, who had bred him, had also overlooked him. Laker though, remained matter-of-fact. “I was able to drop the ball on a length from the very first and I could see it turn and lift immediately,” he explained, perhaps wishing for something equally soggy at The Oval. Had he not made a deal on the journey to Bradford allowing Surrey teammate Eric Bedser one off the mark, his figures would have been even better. A 19-year-old tearaway named Trueman was responsible for the other run, off the inside edge. In the second innings Laker dismissed David Sheppard and Peter May but was profligate by comparison – he went for almost three an over as ‘The Rest’ at least passed three figures.
Laker was ambivalent about the whole thing, much as he was six years later when he looked almost embarrassed at taking 19 at Manchester, stopping off unrecognised at the pub before explaining it all to his wife who hadn’t heard about his feats. He conceded that Bradford had been a big waste of time and that it had just been “one of those days.” He had more of them than most.