By V Ramnarayan
His autobiographical “Over to Me” was not a book meant to inspire a young cricketer. It was a continual rant against his skipper Peter May, manager Fred Brown and other cricket personalities of the time, but I read it from cover to cover because at age ten I was already an ardent fan of his bowling.
Jim Laker was my role model as an off-spinner. I never saw him in flesh and blood because he did not play Test cricket in India, never watched him in action elsewhere in the world, because we had no TV then, leave alone satellite telecasts. My only acquaintance with him was via radio broadcasts in the voices of Norman Yardley, John Arlott, et al, and photographs.
His immaculate bowling action captured by still cameras was forever etched in my mind. I had a perfect image of his easy run-up, high-arm action, viciously spinning fingers, and perfect follow-through imprinted permanently in my mind’s eye. Growing up in a complex of three independent houses with no compound walls separating them, I never walked between them, always bowling imaginary but unplayable deliveries in my hero’s action, getting imaginary batsmen bowled, caught or leg before innumerable times every day. Years later, I was to admire his dry, laconic wit as a no-nonsense broadcaster, but reading about his incredible cricket exploits (193 wickets in 46 Tests at an average of 21.24, an economy rate of 2.04, a strike rate of 62.3,best innings figures of10.53, best match analysis of 19/90) in real time gave me a high never equalled afterwards.
A Yorkshireman by birth, James Charles Laker started his career in his home county as a batsman, but by the end of it, he had been acknowledged as arguably the best off-spinner of all time. It was Surrey that recognised his bowling potential, and invited him to join the county staff, after a sore 'spinning finger' had prevented his playing a 'trial' match for Essex.
What made Laker such a great spinner? According to John Arlott, English cricket's golden voice, "There have been off-spinners though few - who spun the ball as much as Jim Laker; some of them had comparable control. But no one has ever matched him in those two departments and had also, such a quality of intelligence.
"Physically economical of energy, he walked back six paces to his mark and came in up a short-stepping run which he deliberately varied from ball to ball, changing its pace or number of steps, a subtlety which made it difficult for the batsman to time his approach.
"Without any apparent change of action he bowled a topspinner and a ball which ran away a little off the pitch but, equally dangerously and far more unusually, he could and did, control the width of his break."
Often a batsman would find Laker's first ball pitched on a length and turning relatively mildly. The next ball would look innocuous enough, quite easily defended. Nothing much would happen off the next ball either, and the batsman would, if he did not already know Laker, conclude that here was just another off spinner.
The next delivery would look no different from the earlier ones but bite, turn, hurry through and hit his stumps even before his bat came down.
Laker was a good bowler on all types of wickets. He spun the ball really viciously and ran through sides on turning pitches at the lowest possible cost. On good wickets, whether in cool England or in tropical conditions, he could bowl over after over of perfect length and line. On those, he set problems of length and flight.
Like all great spinners, he achieved flight by spinning the ball hard.
The ball left his hand and travelled towards the batsman in a perfectly controlled parabola, thanks to the spin imparted by strong and determined fingers that gave the ball and themselves - a fair rip. The flight of the ball was tantalising. Like a mirage that fools a thirsty traveller until he gets there, the Laker delivery was almost always not there for the batsman when he reached for it in defence or attack. Listen to John Arlott again: "He paid a painful price for his bowling. Like most men who spin the ball really hard, he often wore away the skin from the inside of his index finger. If he bowled on, it would harden, a corn would form and then, as it grew too hard, it would tear away, leaving the flesh exposed once more. (He) lacked the unusually long fingers of the savage off-spinners and to gain a similar degree of purchase, he had to take a grip which stretched his first two fingers to an exceptional and painful extent."
As a result, Laker's fingers became distorted and he developed an arthritic condition that ended his career sooner than expected. Yet, in only 46 Tests, he took 193 wickets at the meagre average of 21.23.
This is what a young spin bowler can learn from a great spin bowler like James Charles Laker or our own great slow bowlers. When you are told to flight the ball, it doesn't mean you toss the ball up in a gentle arc. Buying wickets doesn't mean giving away free runs. The idea is to fool the batsman into believing that free runs are to be had. And that, you can do, only if you genuinely spin the ball, only if you tear the skin of your finger by rubbing it hard against the ball to make it spin like a top, only if you practise so long and so purposefully, that in a match, good line and length are automatic, and you have the confidence to try variations at will. If you have never had spinning finger problems, you have never had blood oozing from that finger, you have never spun the ball. Forget spin bowling then, and switch to something easy like batting!