“A great Test … but perhaps the most peculiar one of all time”.
Wisden recorded that RES Wyatt’s side of 1934-35 “could scarcely be regarded as representative of the full strength of England.”
But that was normal in those days. Other than Australia, no other side were thought of as worthy enough to take on the full might of the English team.
There was indeed the great Wally Hammond in their midst in the West Indies, as were certain other stalwarts like Maurice Leyland, Patsy Hendred and Les Ames. But in the bowling department, they really lacked substance. Only two of them would go on to be named to reckon with and they too were at the very beginning of their international careers — Ken Farnes and Eric Hollies.
In contrast, the West Indian side had improved rapidly during their few years in the international circuit. Jackie Grant led a collection of extraordinary talents. They included men like George Headley and Manny Martindale.
And when they met at Barbados for the first Test of the series, it turned out to be one of the weirdest Test matches ever played.
Battle in mud
Clouds had closed in over the islands, and it had poured incessantly for the last few days. Conditions were well-nigh impossible for cricket.
And whatever Wyatt lacked in resources, he made up with his luck of the flip. England won the toss and elected to field. On the wicket fast drying into a temperamental monster, Ken Farnes charged in. The ball kicked and shot up alarmingly. At the other end, Big Jim Smith was proving a handful as well.
George Carew went for a duck, Clifford Roach for 9, Charlie Jones for 3 and the elegant Derek Sealy for another blob. Farnes had 4 for 15 and the Caribbean men were struggling at 20 for 4.
George Headley was missed off the edge twice. And then he resisted the English bowlers in those near impossible conditions. Debutant spinners Eric Hollies and George Paine, the former a leggie and the other a left-armer, both were ideally suited for these wickets. The balls left the batsmen, and it was always a lottery.
Hollies removed the Grant brothers, and after a few moments of sunshine provided by Leslie Hylton’s swinging long handle, the fast bowler was stumped off Paine. Headley fell when, after a couple of hours of hard work, he ran down to wicket to find Cyril Christiani in no mood to respond to the call.
Paine removed the tail and the hosts were all out for 102. Headley had got 44 of them.
But as Wyatt and Leyland strode out to the middle, their feet almost sank in the mud pudding of a wicket. Nasty deliveries from Martindale got rid of both. Hendren fell to the same bowler, while Hylton also made balls fly off the pitch.
But there was Hammond. He batted with remarkable poise, almost on another surface. Playing late, seeing the ball to the last moment, he bided his time. Once in a while, that tremendous drive boomed off his blade. The day ended with England on 81 for 5, Hammond unbeaten on 43.
The night brought forth little comfort. It rained all through. The next morning, the ground was littered with small puddles and pools of water. The players sat in the pavilion, morosely watching the efforts to make the outfield and the wicket suitable for play. Ultimately they made their ways into the ground after tea.
The saga of declarations
It took three balls from Hylton. Hammond got a lifter that he fended to the close cordon. Errol Holmes followed suit in a similar way. Wyatt counted in his hand. Three balls, two wickets. One of them Hammond.
He called his batsmen in. England 81 for 7 declared, 21 behind.
Farnes and Smith were itching to go at the batsmen with the wicket at its worst.
This wise move was countered by another. Jackie Grant reversed the batting order. Rolph Grant opened the batting with Hylton.
Big Jim Smith ran in and removed Grant for a duck. Martindale was sent in at No 3. Smith brought one back and trapped him leg-before for a duck.
Puss Achong has often been, rather erroneously, credited with inventing the Chinaman. But he was seldom credited for his batting ability. He certainly was not qualified to bat at No 4 in a Test match. Smith sent his stumps cartwheeling to make it 4 for 3.
Hylton and Christiani batted out the day with some commendable application. At stumps West Indies were 33 for 3, 54 ahead, all batsmen of merit still in the bank.
It rained again through the night. The pitch was submerged when the players arrived in the ground. But the sun started to shine brightly. The pitch dried fast, and a stiff breeze complicated matters even more.
When play began at half past three, it was perhaps the most difficult period for batsmen in this incredible match.
The score had edged along to 40 when Smith struck the stumps of Christinai. Roach walked out, the first front line batsman.
Hylton, who had batted admirably, was next to go, with a ball shooting across the turf to trap him leg before. This fast bowler, who is still the only Test cricketer to be executed for murder, had played boldly for his 19.
Headley emerged, amidst applause and hope. But Farnes sent him back for a duck. At tea, West Indies were 51 for 6.
It looked bad on the card. But one has to remember that the batting order had been reversed. Roach, Carew, Jones, Sealy and Grant were the unbeaten men, and they were all batsmen.
Yet, having faced a few torrid deliveries before the break, Jackie Grant gambled. He decided to let his bowlers loose on the English batsmen when the conditions were at their worst.
He declared the innings. At 51 for 6.
England needed 73 to win.
Well, Wyatt decided to blunt the ploy by reversing the batting order himself. Farnes and Smith, who had terrorised the West Indian batting till now, came in brandishing long handles.
But Martindale and Hylton breathed fire. Smith snicked Martindale at 3. At 7, Hylton got rid of Farnes. Errol Holmes, given the license to swing, launched Hylton into the crowds with a classic slog before being sent back by Martindale.
Hendren and Leyland were at the crease now, the gamble with tail-enders having proven dud. ‘Patsy’ counterattacked in his own signature manner, tonking Hylton for a magnificent six. But when Leyland fell to Martindale, it was 29 for 4, and the match was tantalisingly poised on the razor’s edge.
But now there was the reassuring sight of the great Hammond walking out. Sanity returned to the middle. The bowling and wicket were negotiated with grace and poise, with incredible technique.
Runs were added. Hylton seemed to have been unsettled by the hit-or-miss tactics of the Englishmen. He erred in length, allowing some leeway while Martindale bowled like a demon.
At 44, Hendren pushed forward to Martindale but missed the line. The stumps lay on the ground. Five wickets down. Wyatt himself came in and defended stoutly.
At the other end, Hammond was majestic. His short innings was perhaps more valuable than some of his double hundreds. Ames and Iddon sat tense, padded up in the pavilion. Grant refused to change the bowling, always looking for the next wicket. Hylton was leaking runs, taken for a number of boundaries by Hammond. But he kept bowling.
After 16 overs, England were 69 for 5, a boundary away from victory. In raced Martindale for his ninth over. Two balls were defended. The third was pitched up, in the slot.
Hammond leaned forward, his bodyweight shifted. The drive was thrilling, spectacular. The ball went over extra-cover, and all the way over the fence.
England had won by four wickets. And what a splendid way to bring up the victory.
Hammond walked back with a rare smile, unbeaten on a precious 29. He would have bartered many a hundred for that.
Martindale had figures of 5 for 22, but had to finish on the losing side.
A great Test … but perhaps the most peculiar one of all time.