Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series……
Quote: “’See you tomorrow’ was the popular farewell parting”.
By: Louis Duffus, referring to the 1938-39 Durban Test
There was a time before World War II when there was usually no limit on the number of days of a Test match. It usually depended on the organisers. For example, Tests in Australia were typically played to a result, ruling out the possibility of drawn Tests.
England had three-day Tests to echo the duration of their County Championship matches. This gradually increased to five-day affairs. However, but if the last Test of a rubber was a decider, even England hosted timeless Tests.
The most famous these was the 1938 Oval Test, where England batted on till the third afternoon and declared on 903/7, that too only after Don Bradman twisted an ankle. South Africa adopted the same policy.
West Indies did the same. The Kingston Test of 1929-30 was an example. England scored 849 and batted despite a 563-run lead to set West Indies 836. West Indies finished Day Seven on 408 for 5. Then it rained for two days, and the sides had to mutually agree to a draw, for the tourists had to catch the Changuinola back home.
England were 1-0 up in the 1938-39 series. With the rubber alive, the last Test was scheduled to be timeless. South Africa’s transition to turf wickets had almost been completed by then. Of all venues the tourists played at, only Bulawayo and Salisbury had matting wickets.
But this gave rise to an unusual practice. Wisden commented how “excess of zeal, in the desire to prevent grass not fully ripe for hard wear from crumbling, influenced some groundsmen to water the pitch in the morning before the resumption of play.”
The effort to make turf pitches last long resulted in featherbeds. Only one of the first four Tests reached a fourth innings. In the only decided Test, South Africa played too slow in the first innings and caved in. They changed tactic in the second innings, but it was too late.
In the final Test, the South Africans slept at the wicket after winning the toss. There was not one boundary in the first session. Pieter van der Bijl (whose son Vintcent would later become an outstanding fast bowler) took 45 minutes to score his first run. He yawned his way to a hundred. At stumps, the score read 229 for 2.
Dudley Nourse completed his hundred on the third day (“it was a timeless Test, with no need to get on with the scoring”) – after the first rest day. Alan Melville did not declare. He had no reason to. He let South Africa bat on till the third evening. They scored 530 and got Paul Gibb before stumps.
There was no demon in the pitch when play resumed on Day Four, but South Africa made full use of the overcast conditions. Eddie Paynter and Les Ames got fifties, but England were still short of the follow-on mark at the end of the day.
They eventually fell short, but it did not matter, for Melville decided to bat despite the 214-run lead. This time the openers added 191. Van der Bijl missed out on two centuries in the same Test by 3 runs. Batting in the middle-order, Melville himself contributed with 103. And Ken Viljoen, who had two haircuts done during the Test, got 74.
By the time South Africa were done, in the dying hours of Day Six, England needed to score 696. In between all this, the ticket sales had dwindled after the initial excitement, prompting organisers to offer discounts. Despite that, the first five days had yielded £3,640 – the highest in the history of Kingsmead.
Len Hutton fell for 55 on the seventh morning, and Edrich arrived and took charge. He found support from Gibb, battling a drizzle with glasses on but resolute in defence. England were 253 for 1 at stumps, still a long way to go – but it was still a start.
Amidst all this, England had cancelled their last tour match, against Western Province. Hugh Bartlett, Tom Goddard, and Len Wilkinson, none of whom played the Test, had gone ahead to Cape Town for the match, but there was simply not enough time.
Then it rained, ruling out all of eighth day’s play. This was followed by the second rest day (why didn’t they swap?). That did not keep an utterly disoriented Melville to get dressed – only to be told by a hotel waiter that he had miscounted the days.
Hammond opted for the heavy roller when play began on the ninth day. There was still no demon on the pitch, which, to quote South African wicketkeeper Grieveson, “looked as good as it had on the first day”. “The astonishing pitch came up smiling again on the eighth playing day,” added journalist William Pollock.
England made steady progress, reaching 333 for 1 at lunch – when something unusual happened.
Let me quote John Lazenby from Edging Towards Darkness: “Bill Ferguson, the meticulous Australian scorer, had been reduced to the last five pages of his scorebook and feared he would be unable to record the closing stages of the match.”
Sitting in the pavilion, Hammond had first-hand experience of Fergie’s peril. He later admitted that he had never seen the legendary scorer more agitated.
Gibb was eventually bowled middle-stump by Eric Dalton, for 120. Dalton’s wife later complained how bowling on the unyielding pitch gave her husband nightmares, and how he yelled for leg-before decisions in his sleep.
Hammond appeared after that 280-run stand. Edrich opened up, reaching his double-hundred before tea. He eventually fell for 219, adding 89 with Hammond. England finished the day on 496/3, exactly 200 away.
“The whole team was saying ‘we can win this match’,” Ames later recalled.
Neither Hammond nor Paynter was in the mood of getting bogged down. They found the boundaries and ran hard, and the target looked closer by the minute.
Dalton got both batsmen out of the way, Hammond for 140 and Paynter 75. They went to tea five down, requiring only 42.
And then the skies opened, and no more cricket was possible on the day. The Englishmen were scheduled to catch the 8.05 train to Cape Town, where they would board the Athlone Castle back home. Only one result was possible.
The South African board wanted the Test to commence the next day. They were admittedly not placed well, but a 0-2 defeat would not have been very different from 0-1. On the other hand, there was an outside chance…
The South Africans team certainly believed they could win. Both Nourse and Eric Rowan pointed out how, after rain, the Englishmen might have faltered on an uncovered wicket on a fresh day.
But nothing of the sort happened. MCC declined the offer. Then the South Africans offered to fly the two unbeaten batsmen and the four men left to bat in a chartered aircraft to join their teammates (Hammond actually flew from Durban to Cape Town). But this, too, fell on deaf ears.
The longest Test in history ended in a draw. “Another half-hour or so would have won the match,” sighed Edrich, who had batted so well in the fourth innings. “The weather had the last say, but we were then in with a good chance,” added Ames.
One man who was happy with the result was England manager AJ Holmes. “I’m glad there was no result. It showed that the game was more than victory or defeat,” he told journalist Louis Duffus.
Here is a day-by-day break-up of the Test:
The ten-day (twelve, if rest days are included) exercise in futility hastened the demise of timeless Tests. In Wisden, Norman Preston criticised “over-prepared wickets”.
The Times elaborated how that a contest like this “is null and void of all the elements which go to make cricket the enchanting game it naturally is.”
“Even chess has its limits,” noted The Guardian.
Australia still insisted on timeless Tests if the fate of the series was dependent on the final Test. This was in place for the 1946-47 and 1948 Ashes, but in both cases the series was decided before the last Test, and the exercise was not necessary.
By 1950 they were more or less a thing of the past.