“Imagine a winning run off the last-ball in a Test match via a leg-bye and it has happened just once in the history of Test cricket”.
The atmosphere was absolutely electrifying at Kingsmead, Duban. Under the fading light and incessant drizzle, one of Test cricket’s most thrilling finishes took place way back in 1948. With three balls left and England’s ninth-wicket pair out in the middle, any one of four results remained possible, with a draw or a tie as much on the cards as a victory for either side, the unforgettable match was eventually decided off the last ball.
The summer of 1948 didn’t go pretty well for England. Don Bradman in his last Test series bludgeoned the English, which in turn dented their self-confidence to a great extent.
England flew to South Africa in search of confidence and team spirit.
A year earlier, England had defeated South Africa comprehensively on home soil and were again favourites to clinch the rubber. But how well England can recover from the heavy defeat against Australia remained a moot question. This was England’s first tour to South Africa for ten years.
The first Test was played at Kingsmead, Durban.
It was a four-day affair.
There had been three debutantes both from England and South Africa in this Test match, including England’s captain George Mann, whose father, Frank had also led England in a Test series in South Africa 26 years back. South Africa were captained by Dudley Nourse in the absence of regular skipper Alan Melville, who was ruled out due to an injury.
Bedser and Gladwin halt South Africa’s progress on Day 1
Dudley Nourse won the toss and, aware of the thunderstorm forecast on the second day, elected to bat on a track which was, to say at least, unpredictable. The humid atmosphere was suitable for swing bowling and thus, Alec Bedser and Clifford Gladwin’s bowling proved lethal and of course, they were aided by some brilliant England fielding.
The South African openers departed early, but a solid partnership of 51 runs for the third wicket between the debutante Bruce Mitchell and captain Dudley Nourse ensured stability. As the partnership started to look threatening for England, Dudley Nourse fell to an amazing one-handed catch taken Alan Watkins at short-leg off the bowling of legspinner Doug Bright for 37. No sooner had Nourse placed a ball to leg, Watkins quickly dove to his right and with one hand, inches from the turf, grasped the catch. Then a brilliant throw from Cyril Washbrook ran out Wade and dented the South African confidence further.
England were back in the game!
Bedser and Gladwin burst into the scene with some superlative bowling display. They swung the ball late on a track where the ball kept low and the bounce was uneven as well. Only the debutante Denis Begbie and OC Dawson were able to put up some resistance, but the rest of the South African batsmen failed miserably.
The South Africans were all out for just 161 runs. Bedser and Gladwin finished with figures of 4 for 39 and 3 for 21 respectively. Wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans and Denis Compton, fielding at backward short-leg, held five catches between them.
England dominate on rain-curtailed Day 2
Only three hours of play was possible due to a thunderstorm on the second day. But England were in supreme command as they finished the second day with 144 for 2. The South African fast-medium pacers could hardly make Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook sweat as they scripted up a 50-run partnership in fifty minutes.
To stop the fluency of the English openers, Dudley Nourse unleashed his spinners – Tufty Mann’s left-arm slowers and Athol Rowan’s off-breaks pinned down England’s fluency. Mann removed Washbrook and the debutante RT Simpson too fell to Mann as his 13 overs on the second day fetched just 15 runs. Len Hutton had batted in a commanding fashion to reach a solid 81 by stumps while Denis Compton was not out on 17.
Dramatic Day 3
The third day was a dramatic one. The runs were hard to score and before bad light stopped play, 19 wickets fell for just 199 runs. Mann’s changed-decision regarding the rolling of the pitch was instrumental in making the day a dramatic one.
After an inspection in the morning, Mann suggested for the pitch to be rolled to repair the damage caused the storm. But he changed his mind as the Wisden said, “But he changed his mind before the ground staff arrived, and by delaying the rolling till just before the start ensured that the pitch would not improve.”
By the time heavy roller was introduced a dry crust had formed on the surface and as it was rolled over, it crumbled which meant that the track became highly favourable for the slow bowlers.
Dudley Nourse immediately brought on his spinners. Mann and Rowan bowled unchanged for the last two hours of the England innings. They made the ball, turn viciously and generated enough lift. The wickets kept on falling, but one man remained firm and composed. Denis Compton, who was dropped earlier, exhibited high profile technique and patience to counter the spinners and went on to script a dodgy but productive 72.
England were all out for 253. Mann picked up six wickets for 59 runs while Rowan fetched four wickets for 108 runs.
The South African start to the second innings was cautious. The openers seemed watchful enough but Wright’s legbreaks gave England the first breakthrough. Wright accounted for the scalp of OE Wynne and pretty soon, Jenkins removed Rowan. Dudley Nourse and Mitchell got involved with the repair work. Nourse did not roll the pitch and decided to tackle the English leggie Wright on his own. Wright was suffering from a lean patch, but at the right time his form had picked up – he made the ball talk.
Nourse and Mitchell added 45 runs for the third wicket. England needed a breakthrough. Alec Bedser came into bowl and fetched the priced scalp of Dudley Nourse. Then, after adding 22 runs for the fourth wicket with Wade, Mitchell was done by a Wright legbreak as the South Africans ended the third day at 90 for 4.
The next day was a rest day and the fourth would become a part of Test cricket’s folklore.
The thrilling Day 4
Wade and Begbie looked confident enough on such a tricky track and dished out an 85-run partnership for the fifth-wicket. Begbie fell two runs short of a half-century and then Wright dismissed Sawson cheaply. Wade then departed for 63, bowled by Jenkins. Athol Rowan was castled by Wright, Mann fell to Compton and McCarthy was bowled by Jenkins as South Africa were all out for 219 and gave England a target of 128 to chase in 135 minutes.
On paper, this target might look simple for the star-studded English batting line-up, but on that track, it was never going to be a cakewalk.
In the dressing room George Mann, the English captain, made it clear about his intentions – he would go for a win even if risks had to be taken. The English openers came out to bat with a positive intent. Their battle would be against the unpredictability of the track and insufficient light. There was no question about appealing against the light though. This was a match that would be fought until the end.
Washbrook was dropped off the first ball he received from Tuckett on the boundary. Tufty Mann, the South African bowling hero in the first innings, dismissed Len Hutton for five. England skipper George Mann promoted himself up the order and came out to bat at number three. No sooner had George Mann got set, a superb slip-catch by Mitchell helped the 19-year-old Test debutante, Cuan McCarthy, to get his first Test wicket. The wicket of George Mann gave McCarthy a huge boost.
Suddenly, McCarthy was in rhythm – his run-up was perfect, he delivered the ball with pace and pitched it on a perfect line and length – the ingredients of a fantastic bowling spell was on offer.
Watkins was done by virtue of sheer pace, Simpson nicked one to EAB Rowan, and Godfrey Evans was castled as McCarthy’s hostility simply left England reeling at 70 for 6. Denis Compton and Roly Jenkins resisted the hostile spell of McCarthy. A partnership of 45 runs was added for the seventh wicket but McCarthy removed both Compton and Jenkins as the Test match headed towards one of the most dramatic finishes in the history of Test cricket.
McCarthy had picked six wickets in the second innings, but they went in vain.
Bowling colleagues Bedser and Gladwin were together for the final eight-ball over as the ninth-wicket partners. The light was appalling and there was drizzle as well, but nobody considered calling off the nerve-wracking action.
Bedser brought the scores level with a single off Len Tuckett’s sixth ball. One run was needed to win and Clifford Gladwin swiped at one of Tuckett’s length balls but missed it.
The two batsmen held a midwicket conference and decided they would run regardless of what happened off the last ball. Again, Gladwin swung and missed. The ball thudded into his thigh and bounced two yards away from him towards Tufty Mann at short leg. Bedser was coming down the wicket like rugby’s wing three-quarter and Gladwin scurried off towards the other end. Tufty Mann pounced on the ball but could not break the wicket before Bedser hurtled to safety to clinch an incredible last-ball victory.
Players from both sides were chaired off the pitch by the excited spectators who could hardly imagine what they had witnessed. Many of the English players in the pavilion missed the winning run because they could not bear to watch.
Imagine a winning run off the last-ball in a Test match via a leg-bye and it has happened just once in the history of Test cricket.
The final day at Durban was a heart-stopping affair and it boosted England’s confidence a lot, who went on to win the Test series by 2-0.