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Jim Laker in Print

jim laker

Jim Laker was a great bowler. He may or may not be the finest off spinner to have played the game, but a return of 193 Test wickets at 21.24 certainly makes him a candidate. Whatever the outcome of that discussion is Laker will always be a cricketing legend given that his achievement of taking 19 for 90 against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956 remains unchallenged and, almost certainly, will remain so in perpetuity.

It was hardly surprising when, following that remarkable performance, publishers rushed to sign up the man who had enthralled the nation, and it was Frederick Muller Limited who secured the rights to publish Laker’s autobiography. In the 1950s Mullers was one of the leading publishers in that field also, at various times, publishing books in the names of Colin Cowdrey, Trevor Bailey, Tom Graveney and Bill Edrich. Today there is no trace of the company’s imprint, although its lineage can be traced through to Penguin Random House.

Spinning Round the World appeared in 1957. There is nothing remarkable about the content of the book and, with Laker having been the subject of three posthumous biographies, there are no compelling reasons for anyone to seek out a copy today. That said there is one chapter that remains of some interest, the final one, where Laker looked forward in order to speculate as to what cricket in the year 2000, forty three years on from when his book was written, might be like. There are a number of predictions that have proved a little wide of the mark, but overall Laker’s vision of the future was a prescient one.

The second book from, nominally, Laker’s pen appeared three years later, published once more by Frederick Muller. It is therefore now sixty years since Over To Me hit the nation’s bookstores. The season before its publication, 1959, had been Laker’s last in a long and successful career for Surrey and England. During the previous winter, 1958/59, he had, for the first and only time, toured Australia with England and had played his final Test matches.

By the standards of the time the book was a sensation and its contents caused such a furore that Surrey severed their links with Laker and his honorary MCC Membership was withdrawn – it was to be 1967 before those privileges were restored. What was particularly controversial about the book were the criticisms that Laker made of his Surrey and England captain, Peter May, and the manager of the 1958/59 tour, Freddie Brown.

Laker had been incensed early in the 1958 season when, to his mind, May accused him of not trying in a County Championship fixture. There then followed a difficult period for the Test selectors when, as a result of his skipper’s slight, Laker withdrew his indication he would be available for the forthcoming Ashes Tour. Neither man ever really backed down although a compromise was eventually found that enabled Laker to tour. The initial part of the book spells out in far from gentle terms Laker’s grievance on the subject.

Having won the previous three series against their old rivals England had been expected to do well in Australia. In the event an ageing English team was easily beaten by a much younger Australian side. This was the series of the great throwing controversy and that, coupled with the failing team spirit of the England side, contributed to the defeat. Laker did as well as could be expected in the series, taking 15 wickets at just 21 apiece, but he was angered by the tour management over their attitude towards his fitness and the greater part of the book sets out his thoughts on the tour and its management in rather more forthright terms than was considered appropriate at the time.

Back home in 1959 Surrey’s remarkable run of seven consecutive county championship victories came to an end and Laker had further concerns about May’s captaincy, on the relatively rare occasions when he was available, and his treatment by the club generally and Over To Me concluded with another dig at Laker’s former employers regarding the season.

Those against May and Brown were not however all of Laker’s grievances by any means. It does, looking back, seem strange that between his debut and his last Test in Australia in 1958/59 Laker missed almost as many Test as he played in. He was particularly disappointed not to have been selected for Australia in 1950/51 and 1954/55, the more so that the off spinning options the selectors went for on those occasions were, respectively, a 19 year old Brian Close and Glamorgan’s Jim McConnon. In the event Close played in one Test and took 1-28, and McConnon was not selected for any of the Tests on Len Hutton’s triumphant tour.

In Over to Me Laker is also less than complimentary about some of his other contemporaries. In terms of looking forward to a captain beyond May he wrote of Cowdrey, at the moment I don’t think much of his captaincy. He does silly things of the sort that no Test captain can possibly afford. He described Ted Dexter as a poor man’s Trevor Bailey. Laker’s disillusionment with amateurs was perhaps predictable, but he was no less unkind about Denis Compton whose punctuality he criticised and who he did not consider to be especially bright, a perhaps surprising judgment to pass on a man who had played a not inconsiderable role in bringing about the partial rapprochement that paved the way for his making the trip to Australia in 1958.

Another fellow professional to be criticised by Laker was the Yorkshire slow left arm bowler Johnny Wardle. Never an easy man to get on with, Wardle was sacked by Yorkshire in 1958 due to comments he made about his amateur captain at Yorkshire, Ron Burnet. Laker described Wardle as selfish, and giving an immense amount of trouble to his captain, as well as questioning his courage when batting against fast bowlers. 

Having, as a result of his sacking by Yorkshire, missed out on an invitation to tour in 1958/59 Wardle nonetheless travelled to Australia, with a ghost writer, in order to report on the series. Also present amongst the press corps were two other former players, Bill Edrich and the South African off spinner Hugh Tayfield. The latter Laker effectively described as a cheat and he was deeply critical of both Tayfield and Edrich (Wardle was specifically excepted from this one) on the basis that despite reports on the matches appearing with their bylines they did not actually bother to watch any of the cricket. 

In a strange sideshow Monty Garland-Wells, public schoolboy, Oxford Blue, former Surrey captain and a solicitor, suggested to Edrich that what was written about him was libellous and a complaint was made. Edrich’s book on the same 1958/59 series was also published by Frederick Muller, and that perhaps is part of the reason why, the complaint having been received, an apology was made, Edrich’s legal costs paid and the offending words removed from a reprint of Over to Me. Certainly by twenty first century standards it is difficult to see how anyone can seriously have thought the words used were defamatory.

There can be little doubt that the contents of Over to Me represented Laker’s thoughts on the various subjects it deals with. He did, however, recognise that he had made mistakes and in an unusual step he, effectively, apologised for what he had written in the foreword to a book he subsequently published regarding the 1961 Ashes Series. Without seeking to lay the blame for the controversial passages elsewhere Laker did give the explanation that he had not spent sufficient time with the ghost writer who actually prepared the book. That said, as one would expect from a straight speaking Yorkshireman, Laker did not seek to disassociate himself from what was actually said in his name, merely the manner in which it was articulated.

As to whether Over to Me is worth reading half a century on rather depends on the extent to which its subject matter appeals. For anyone approaching the subject of Laker for the first time he has, as indicated, been the subject of three biographies published in 1989, 1998 and 2006 by Don Mosey, Alan Hill and Brian Scovell respectively, all of which give a much fuller picture of the man, his life and times than this snapshot. All of them deal with the Over to Me controversy albeit not in the greatest of detail. If you choose to go beyond one or more of those three widely available books and search around for a copy of Over to Me you will be faced by a book which, perhaps inevitably, is interesting more by virtue of the events that followed its publication than its contents which, to modern eyes, seem sour, but essentially unremarkable. 

There are, there can be no doubt, interesting insights from time to time in the original book but there is certainly nothing in Over to Me that those interested in the history of the game, or in Laker himself, will not be able to learn elsewhere. Personally my thoughts on completing the book were to wonder what all the fuss was about coupled with the impression that Laker seemed not to have enjoyed his time in the game at all, something which surely, given the magnitude of his cricketing achievements, cannot have been the message he wanted to convey.

Who was the ghost concerned? The man it was not, and who it had been hoped would do the job, was Ron Roberts, a respected and immensely capable cricket journalist who was destined to die at the tragically young age of 38 in 1965. In the event the job was entrusted to Christopher Ford, primarily a writer on Rugby Union and Music for The Guardian and later The Times. As far as I am aware Over to Me was his only cricket project. I have not been able to establish who ghosted Spinning Round the World, nor indeed Laker’s book the following year, The Australian Tour of 1961.

The book on the 1961 series was the only tour account that Laker ever wrote and indeed it would be another 18 years before another book bore his name. For those interested in the era it is worth buying for the foreword alone, and the first chapter contains an interesting digression on the subject of Tony Lock’s benefit, the then highly topical throwing controversy as well as weighing in with Laker’s views on Tom Graveney’s split with Gloucestershire. That apart Laker sets the scene by looking at the thrilling series that had just ended between the visitors and West Indies before telling the story of the five Ashes Tests, a series won 2-1 by Richie Benaud’s Australians. Much more careful this time round there was nothing controversial in Laker’s descriptions of the Tests, and indeed he had clearly changed his mind about Dexter’s abilities.

As a retired player Laker acquired a number of business interests, so much so that he was able to resume his playing career, playing thirty matches for Essex between 1962 and 1964 as an amateur. He wasn’t quite the force he had been, but 111 wickets at 21.32 demonstrated that as he passed his fortieth birthday Laker was still a fine bowler.

No further writing bearing Laker’s name, other than in newspapers and magazines, appeared until 1979 when Hamlyn published A Spell From Laker. The book is not dissimilar to a coffee table book, albeit in a slightly smaller format. Profusely illustrated the book is divided into a number of chapters several of which deal with specific grounds, with others covering a diverse range of cricketing subjects including a couple of Laker’s favourites, Tony Lock and the vexed question of benefits. The verdict in Wisden Cricket Monthly was a straightforward one; for people who want to know how he talks, how he thinks and what he thinks, this is, simply enough, authentic Jim Laker.

In 1985, a year before his untimely death, Laker’s last book appeared. Although a more than capable writer in his own right Laker chose to share the writing duties with his long time Express collaborator, Pat Gibson. Cricket Contrasts is an unprepossessing looking little book but despite that is an excellent read. Unlike some of his contemporaries Laker was happy to accept that modern heroes might be as good as or even better than the giants of his era and the greater part of the book is devoted to a series of head to head comparisons.

In the book Laker also gives an account of three famous Tests, ’his’ match, Jessop’s match in 1902 and Botham’s in 1981, before going on to compare various features of the game in his time to the (then) current state of cricket. Subjects there include Yorkshire, South Africa, the limited overs game and the way cricket is reported. There are a few autobiographical elements as well including some entertaining stories about his being coached by Emmott Robinson as a youngster

If it were not for the enduring fame brought about by his 19/90 Jim Laker would be remembered today primarily as a commentator and his avuncular but clearly expert descriptions of Test and limited overs cricket for BBC television through the 1970s and early 1980s. He was still ‘in harness’ when he died at the age of 64 in April 1986 as a result of complications arising from surgery on his gall bladder.

As indicated since Laker’s death Don Mosey, Alan Hill and Brian Scovell have all written biographies of a man from who, had he lived for longer than he did, would undoubtedly have produced a fascinating autobiography. All three of the books are well worth reading but, perhaps inevitably given that he had the work of his predecessors available to him, the best is that of Scovell who, as a young journalist in the 1960s, had assisted Laker with some of his newspaper work.

Comments

He also wrote a book “One-Day Cricket” in 1977 (I saw a copy in a second-hand bookshop a few days ago, as it happens).

Comment by AndrewB | 10:16pm BST 21 July 2020

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