Groundsman 'Bosser' Martin with his roller, standing in front of a scoreboard displaying England's final score in the fifth Test of the 1938 Ashes at The Oval © Getty Images
Groundsman ‘Bosser’ Martin with his roller, standing in front of a scoreboard displaying England’s final score in the fifth Test of the 1938 Ashes at The Oval © Getty Images

A gazillion records tumbled as England’s three-day batting marathon ended on August 23, 1938. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a marathon batting performance that eventually culminated in one of the most one-sided Tests ever.

There is a general notion that Test matches that do not favour the batsmen are ‘bad’. Few pitches, however, have produced cricket as dull as the pitch at The Oval did in the 1938 Test. It was not about the batsmen scoring runs; nor was it the fact that they did not get out: it was more about the fact that they did not even seem to be getting out.

It must be remembered that the Australians had, in their line-up, an all-time great in the form of Bill O’Reilly, and a more than competent ‘Chuck’ Fleetwood-Smith to back him up. They were a good fielding side to boot. Despite the fact that they had lacked a quality seamer, it was ridiculous that England would be able to take their score past 900 and would lose only seven wickets in eight sessions of batting.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t attractive cricket. And it certainly was not a good wicket. It was, however, a cricket statistician’s delight, and more importantly, an Englishman’s delight as Australia were finally given the most emphatic drubbing in the history of the sport.

The build-up

Australia had retained the 1936-37 Ashes almost miraculously — they still remain the only side to have won a series after being down 0-2. When Don Bradman brought his team to England in 1938 there was obviously talks of ‘revenge’, after that heart-breaking 2-3 defeat.

England began emphatically on a flat track Trent Bridge, with Eddie Paynter scoring 216 not out — a new Ashes record by an Englishman at home — and three others going past the hundred-mark. After England declared at 658 for 8, Stan McCabe played an outrageous innings of 232 in 277 balls that could not help Australia avoid the follow-on. Bradman then scored his customary hundred (his fourth in 4 Tests — equalling his own world record), the Test was saved, and all was well with the world.

Come Lord’s, and Hammond lit up the hallowed turf with 240 of the most elegant runs one would ever see going past Paynter’s record in the previous Test. In response Bill Brown carried his bat with a 206 (Bradman scored his fifth hundred in as many Tests, creating a new world record), and at stumps on Day Five, Australia had reached 204 for 6 chasing 315. The third Test at Old Trafford was washed off without a ball being bowled, though it has successfully etched its name in history by being the only Test whose events have coincided exactly with an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Australia now needed to win one of the two remaining Test to retain the Ashes, which was difficult to achieve given the fact that no team had been bowled out for below 400 in the series till then. Enter O’Reilly. The champion picked up 5 for 66 and 5 for 56 to rout England with excellent support from Fleetwood-Smith, who finished with 3 for 73 and 5 for 56. Of course, all that was supported by Bradman’s sixth hundred in six Tests. The tourists eventually survived a Doug Wright scare and ended up winning by five wickets.

With the Ashes already conceded, England made three changes to their side, bringing back a 22-year-old youth from Pudsey called Len Hutton with five Tests under his belt; the experienced Les Ames; and the reliable Maurice Leyland. Out went Charlie Barnett, Fred Price, and an injured Doug Wright.

At the last moment, however, Ames picked up an injury as well, making way for the Yorkshireman Arthur Wood, who made his Test debut five days before he turned 40. He was the fifth Yorkshire player of the side, and between them they went on to score 612 runs and pick up 10 wickets.

Wood was obviously excited at this unexpected reward that had come so late in his career: under the impression that it could well be his last Test, he took a taxi straight from Leeds to The Oval. “Not bad for a professional cricketer then earning some £200 or 300 a year,” Compton later exclaimed.

Australia had no option but to leave out their spearhead Ernie McCormick who had been diagnosed with neuritis in the shoulder. Bradman filled his side with seven batsmen along with a wicketkeeper, which meant that they went in with only three specialist bowlers — O’Reilly, Fleetwood-Smith, and the medium pacer Mervyn Waite, who had gone wicketless in his debut at Headingley. To pack their side with more batsmen Bradman also brought in a debutant — a 22-year old from Sydney called Sid Barnes.

The pitch was a belter to suit the timeless Test.The wicket seemed absolutely lifeless, and Bradman’s face possibly dropped when he lost the toss for the fourth consecutive time in the series: Hammond had decided to bat.

Day One: Hutton and Leyland scale new heights

The pitch was so flat that it was not a surprise that England scored 347 for 1 on Day One. What was surprising that they had actually lost a wicket. Bradman had brought on O’Reilly after a few innocuous overs from Waite and McCabe: ‘Tiger’ responded immediately, trapping Bill Edrich leg-before for a 59-ball 12. England were 29 for one as Leyland walked out.

It was a surreal spectacle. The 22-year-old was trying to make a mark in Tests whereas his 38-year-old Yorkshire teammate was making a comeback since the previous Ashes a year and a half back. The two men, almost a generation apart, would use the Ashes as a platform to set up one of the biggest partnerships of all time.

Don Bradman (left) watches as Wally Hammond tosses the coin ahead of play on Day One © Getty Images
Don Bradman (left) watches as Wally Hammond tosses the coin ahead of play on Day One © Getty Images

Hutton saw it as a chance to make a mark in the international arena; Leyland saw it as an opportunity to sign off from cricket in style. Hutton was an accumulator by nature, an epitome of concentration who was possibly born to bat on for hours. Leyland, despite his natural combative self, was a sound strokeplayer; but on that day the two of them batted in unison with a single-minded mission in mind — to bat Australia out of the Test. They crawled to 89 for 1 at lunch.

Leyland took his time to settle in, but Hutton was on another plane. Barnett could not gather a ball when Hutton had stepped out to hit Fleetwood-Smith: he was 40 then.Hutton shut out his mind against strokeplay subsequently and decided to grind in. “Poor Ben missed it and was never allowed to forget the fact,” Denis Compton sympathised later.

Despite a 45-minute handicap Leyland caught up with Hutton and they scored their individual fifties almost at the same time: Leyland in 110 balls and 94 minutes, and Hutton in 173 balls and 142 minutes. The torture, however, had just begun.

On reaching his fifty Leyland began to open up, playing the booming drives and fierce pulls that so characterised his batting. By the time Bradman realised he had erred in going into the Test a bowler short it was too late. Fleetwood-Smith’s ineffectiveness meant that O’Reilly had to be bowled and to be preserved.

He tried the leg-breaks of the eager Barnes, but it did not change the mindset of the batsmen. They simply batted on. Hutton reached his hundred first in 254 balls and 212 minutes, equalling his highest score. Leyland followed soon, reaching the landmark in 218 balls and 202 minutes.

A rare chance came after almost five hours of cricket: with his feet tired after almost a day’s batting Leyland fell short of the crease while attempting a single. Waite, however, disturbed the bails in eagerness before Jack Badcock’s throw came in. Barring the two mishaps they had generally been sharp on the field. Wisden wrote: “Although both the England batsmen scored numerous singles on the off side Australia gave a superb display in the field, Bradman inspiring the team with his fast running and clean picking-up.”

Hutton reached his 150 in 362 balls and 331 minutes; Leyland was there shortly afterwards, after batting for 331 balls and 299 minutes. They still carried on relentlessly, and at stumps Hutton was on 160 and Leyland on 156: they had added 318 in even time; England were 347 for 1. The Australian shoulders had started to drop already.

They had already set a new Test record partnership for two batsmen coming from the same state side:

Table 1: Highest partnerships for same domestic side members
Record Batsmen Team Opp Venue Season Wkt Runs Domestic side
Previous D Bradman & A Jackson Aus Eng The Oval 1930 4 243 New South Wales
New L Hutton & M Leyland Eng Aus The Oval 1938 2 382 Yorkshire
Current S Jayasuriya & R Mahanama SL Ind Premadasa 1997 2 576 Bloomfield

Providence had not gone their way. To quote Wisden, “A curiosity of the day’s cricket was that four times a no-ball led either to the wicket being hit or the ball being caught.”

Day Two: Hutton carries on after Leyland’s departure

Rain delayed the start by 25 minutes after the rest day. The downpour, however, somehow managed to improve the wicket rather than deteriorate it. The duo started off from where they had taken off the previous evening and almost immediately set up a new world record partnership for any wicket against Australia.

Table 2: Highest partnerships against Australia
Record Batsmen Team Opp Venue Season Wkt Runs
Previous J Hobbs and W Rhodes Eng Aus MCG 1911-12 1 323
New L Hutton and M Leyland Eng Aus The Oval 1938 2 382
Current L Hutton and M Leyland Eng Aus The Oval 1938 2 382

With it also went the all-time record for England for any wicket:

Table 3: Highest partnerships for England
Record Batsmen Team Opp Venue Season Wkt Runs
Previous J Hobbs and W Rhodes Eng Aus MCG 1911-12 1 323
New L Hutton and M Leyland Eng Aus The Oval 1938 2 382
Current P May and C Cowdrey Eng WI Edgbaston 1957 4 411

Leyland soon went past his previous career-best of 161. The duo added 382 runs in 438 minutes before Leyland was eventually run out completely against the run of play: Hutton drove O’Reilly resulting in a misfield from Hassett leading Leyland to attempt a second run; sensing an opportunity Bradman raced from mid-on and dislodged the bails before Leyland was home.

The Yorkshireman thus bowed out of Test cricket with that innings. It would remain the best score by anyone in his last Test innings for some time.

Table 4: Highest score in last Test innings
Batsman Team Opposition Venue Season Runs
Previous record Reggie Duff Australia England The Oval 1905 146
New record Maurice Leyland England Australia The Oval 1938 187
Current record Seymour Nurse West Indies New Zealand Christchurch 1968-69 258

Cardus had complained during one of the intervals to the veteran batsman: “Even you, Maurice, even you won’t hit the ball and give us some cricket.” The response, as always, was prompt and tongue-in-cheek: “Hey, wait a minute, Mr Cardus, wait a minute — tha’ must remember that ah’m playing for me place in team!”

If there was one batsman Bradman did not want to see at 411 for 2 it was probably Hammond. The English captain walked out and went into an uncharacteristic defensive shell almost immediately and saw Hutton reach his double-hundred in 516 balls and 468 minutes. Hutton went past the record set by Hammond at Lord’s: he still holds the record.

After taking 12 runs off a Fleetwood-Smith over Hammond suddenly went into a shell; it took him 117 balls and 111 minutes to reach his fifty; he got uncharacteristically stagnant, not hitting a single boundary in his last two hours before he was trapped leg-before by Fleetwood-Smith for a 153-ball 59. The pair had added 135 in 141 minutes, and Hutton was already past 250, a landmark that had taken him 616 balls and 563 minutes.

During their wait for close to two days Paynter had told Compton: “Denis, I bet you a pound you and I don’t make ten between us!” Compton accepted the bet.

Paynter eventually walked out, completely exhausted from waiting with his pads on. He misjudged a leg-break from O’Reilly and was trapped leg-before for a duck. Compton recalled what followed: “A minute or two later I had been bowled by, of all people, Mervyn Waite, for 1. I purposely say ‘Mervyn Waite of all people’. You see, this was the only wicket he took in his Test career and he became so proud of his achievement that to this day every time I have arrived in Australia or he in England, he rings me to arrange to buy me a ‘thank-you’ drink.”

Compton fell for one, lost the bet, and England had suddenly lost 3 for 9 in 18 minutes, sliding from an acceptable 546 for 2 to a deplorable 555 for 5. Joe Hardstaff jr, the son of Joe Hardstaff sr and the father of Joe Hardstaff (probably the only three First-Class cricketers in a lineage full of many other Joe Hardstaffs) joined Hutton.

Len Hutton goes about his innings, breaking multiple records on the way © Getty Images
Len Hutton goes about his innings, breaking multiple records on the way © Getty Images

Hutton soon surpassed his highest First-Class score of 271, and still seemed relentlessly hungry for more runs. He found the perfect partner in Hardstaff. His concentration did not waver for a single moment: “I soon realised that Len could play the type of innings that was foreign to my nature. I could not have batted that length of time without having a number of rushes of blood, but he just ground on, unwilling to break his concentration even for one ball,” Compton commented later.

With his concentration never deserting him Hutton eventually went on to register the highest score by anyone against Australia:

Table 5: Highest score against Australia
Batsman Team Opposition Venue Season Runs
Previous record Tip’ Foster England Australia SCG 1903-04 287
New record Len Hutton England Australia The Oval 1938 364
Current record Len Hutton England Australia The Oval 1938 364

Fleetwood-Smith recalled a conversation: “When he was 290, I bowled him a half-pitcher. He could have hit it anywhere for four. But he got over it carefully and steered it away for a single.”

Fleetwood-Smith: That was a terrible ball. You could hit it anywhere for four!
Hutton: Aye, but there might have been a trap somewhere.

Hutton eventually passed the record for the longest innings in Test cricket, both in terms of minutes and balls faced:

Table 6: Longest innings in minutes
Batsman Team Opp Venue Season Runs Minutes
Previous record Andy Sandham Eng WI Sabina Park 1929-30 325 600
New record Len Hutton Eng Aus The Oval 1938 364 797
Current record Hanif Mohammad Pak WI Kensington Oval 1957-58 337 970
Table 7: Longest innings in balls faced (where known)
Batsman Team Opposition Venue Season Runs Balls
Previous record Andy Sandham Eng WI Sabina Park 1929-30 325 640
New record Len Hutton Eng Aus The Oval 1938 364 847
Current record Len Hutton Eng Aus The Oval 1938 364 847
Do note that the number of balls faced by Hanif Mohammad in the above innings is not known.

He kept going, thanks to the consistent encouragement from Hammond and his Yorkshire teammates, Bill Bowes and Hedley Verity, during the intervals. “In the end they were keener on Len attempting to beat Don’s record [of the highest Ashes score] than he was,” Compton later recalled.

Hutton reached his 300 from 718 balls and 662 minutes just before stumps on Day Two. He went to the pavilion unbeaten on that score with Hardstaff on 40. England were 634 for 5.

Hutton later recollected that he was beginning to feel tired when on 250; Leyland had probably anticipated the excitement and anticipation might give the youngster a sleepless night and had recommended the young teetotaller a port and a Guinness. It did Hutton absolutely no good as he tossed and turned with visions of O’Reilly haunting him through the night.

While discussing that night Hutton said: “I could not shut out of my mind the thought of his charging up, ball after ball, as he always did, as though he was going to eat me. My, how that man hated batsmen. What a great competitive bowler. I’ve never played against a better.”

Day Three: Records tumble

O’Reilly began proceedings (“still breathing fire and brimstone as he galloped in”, Hutton later recalled) next morning, determined to stop Hutton from reaching the landmark. Bradman stood right in front of him at silly mid-off, inching closer with every passing ball, determined to lure Hutton into a false stroke. The body language was aggressive enough to suggest that the visitors were on top. They seemed completely unfazed by the fact that they had been thoroughly outplayed by the hosts for two days.

England soon reached 655, which meant that Hutton had been a part of three century partnerships in a single innings. In doing so he became only the fourth batsman in history to achieve this feat.

Table 8: Three hundred-partnerships by the same batsman in an innings
Batsman Other batsmen Team Opposition Venue Season Wicket Runs
‘Tip’ Foster Len Braund England Australia SCG 1903-04 5 192
Albert Reif 9 115
Wilfred Rhodes 10 130
Andy Sandham George Gunn England West Indies Sabina Park 1929-30 1 173
Bob Wyatt 2 148
Les Ames 4 249
Herbert Sutcliffe Bob Wyatt England Australia SCG 1932-33 1 112
Wally Hammond 2 188
Nawab of Pataudi sr 3 123
Len Hutton Maurice Leyland England Australia The Oval 1938 2 382
Wally Hammond 3 108
Joe Hardstaff jr 6 215

Several batsmen have achieved this since Hutton. However, do note that Hutton was the first to do it on English soil, and Hanif Mohammad later went on to have four hundred-partnerships in the innings mentioned above, with Imtiaz Ahmed, Alimuddin, Saeed Ahmed, and Wazir Mohammad. This remains a unique feat.

Hutton went on and past the 330-mark. The entire stadium, full of 30,000-odd spectators waited with bated breath as he inched on towards the landmark. Two more runs happened – he was now only two short of Bradman’s 334.The first 75 minutes of the morning had yielded only 32 runs for Hutton.

Hutton late-cut one from Fleetwood-Smith but Hardstaff sent him back and walked up to Hutton after the ball with the words “no, you don’t, it’s not worth taking a risk now.”

In Len Hutton Remembered, Donald Trelford recollected the exact words said by Howard Marshall during this phase: “The gasometer sinking lower and lower as here comes Fleetwood-Smith running up to bowl. He bowls, and Hutton get a short one. Hutton forces it past silly mid-off where Bradman’s fielding; yes, it is Bradman crouching at silly mid-off. Now here’s Fleetwood-Smith in again to Hutton. Hutton hits him. Oh, beautiful stroke, that’s the record! Well, that was the most lovely stroke, a late-cut, off Fleetwood Smith’s leg-break, which absolutely flashed to the boundary for four runs to give Hutton the record.”

Hutton himself recollected later: “In the end Fleetwood-Smith bowled me a long-hop outside the off stump. Gratefully, I chopped it through the slips and I had done it. Many years later in Australia when Fleetwood-Smith was down on his luck, he came up to me and asked if I could help him a bit financially. I remembered the long-hop in 1938 — and I reckoned that had been worth a fiver of anybody’s money.”

Len Hutton is congratulated by Bill Brown on breaking Don Bradman’s record of highest individual Ashes score of 334 runs © Getty Images
Len Hutton is congratulated by Bill Brown on breaking Don Bradman’s record of highest individual Ashes score of 334 runs © Getty Images

Bradman himself was the first to congratulate Hutton (“slapped on the back”, wrote Arthur Mailey in The Argus) and the entire Australian team followed suit, as did Hardstaff. Hutton had set a new Ashes record:

Table 9: Highest Ashes scores
Batsman Team Opposition Venue Season Runs
Previous record Don Bradman England Australia Headingley 1930 334
New record Len Hutton England Australia The Oval 1938 364
Current record Len Hutton England Australia The Oval 1938 364

Play was stopped mid-over as an impromptu drinks break was called. Mailey wrote: “this is probably the first instance in Test cricket when drinks were introduced during an over without a wicket falling.” One run later Hutton achieved something even bigger, though in 1938 it was considered less significant than an Ashes record.

Table 10: Highest Test scores
Batsman Team Opposition Venue Season Runs
Previous record Wally Hammond England New Zealand Auckland 1932-33 336*
New record Len Hutton England Australia The Oval 1938 364
Current record Brian Lara West Indies England St John’s 2003-04 400*

Hutton carried on, unfazed: he became the first player to reach 350 in a Test, the landmark coming up in 812 balls and 712 minutes. Soon afterwards he became the first player in history to be a part of a 300- and a 200-run partnership in the same innings. The feat has subsequently been emulated by Michael Clarke, who added 288 with Ricky Ponting for the fourth wicket and an unbroken 334 with Michael Hussey for the fifth wicket against India at SCG in 2011-12, and Hashim Amla, 259 with Graeme Smith for the second wicket and an unbroken 377 with Jacques Kallis for the third wicket against England at The Oval in 2012.

Hardstaff, on the other hand, went on hitting the ball prolifically, accelerating after Hutton’s record. Hutton eventually holed out to Hassett off O’Reilly, and was cheered on his way back. The magnum opus had lasted 847 balls and 797 minutes, and he his scoring shots included 143 singles, 18 twos, 15 threes, and 35 boundaries.

The following table shows a breakdown of Hutton’s innings in segments of fifty:

Table 11: Hutton’s innings broken down
Fifty Balls Minutes Strike rate Runs / Hour
0 – 50 173 142 28.9 21.1
50 – 100 81 70 61.7 42.9
100 – 150 108 119 46.3 25.2
150 – 200 154 137 32.5 21.9
200 – 250 100 95 50 31.6
250 – 300 102 99 49 30.3
300 – 350 94 100 53.2 30
350 – 364 35 35 40 20
Total (364) 847 797 43 27.40

Hutton also opened the batting and batted till the team score was 770, which was another new record:

Table 12: Unbeaten till highest team score
Batsman Team Opposition Venue Season Runs Team score
Previous record Andy Sandham England West Indies Sabina Park 1929-30 325 720
New record Len Hutton England Australia The Oval 1938 364 770
Current record Len Hutton England Australia The Oval 1938 364 770

He was also out in the 292nd over, which was the new record for most overs at the crease:

Table 13: Overs at the crease
Batsman Team Opposition Venue Season Runs Overs batted
Previous record Andy Sandham England West Indies Sabina Park 1929-30 325 221
New record Len Hutton England Australia The Oval 1938 364 292
Current record Hanif Mohammad Pakistan West Indies Kensington Oval 1957-58 337 309

It was Wood’s turn now – the man who had possibly been ruing what was arguably the most useless taxi ride in the history of Test cricket. He had to wait the mere matter of 14 hours after he had got off the taxi. As he walked out of the dressing-room Hammond told him that he needed to bat on, since many more runs needed to be scored before the declaration would come. With the scoreboard reading 770 for 6 Wood walked out with the words “aye, I’m just [the] man for crisis.”

The scorecard when Len Hutton was dismissed on 364 © Getty Images
The scorecard when Len Hutton was dismissed on 364 © Getty Images

The next record was broken when England went past their own score of 849:

Table 14: Highest team scores
Team Opposition Venue Season Runs
Previous record England West Indies Sabina Park 1929-30 849
New record England Australia The Oval 1938 903 for 7
Current record Sri Lanka India Premadasa 1997 952 for 6

Hardstaff, having reached his 50 in 113 balls and 92 minutes, now went past the hundred-mark in 236 balls and 192 minutes. Shortly afterwards he bettered his previous Test best of 114.

Wood also joined in the fun and reached 50 on debut in 78 balls and 74 minutes. He added 106 with Hardstaff; in the process England’s became the first one to include four century partnerships. This feat has been achieved seven more times.

Hardstaff reached his 150 in 367 balls and 298 minutes. This became the first occasion when three batsmen went past 150 in the same innings. The only other time it has been achieved was in Kanpur 1986-87 when Sunil Gavaskar, Mohammad Azharuddin, and Kapil Dev scored 176, 199, and 163 respectively.

The pair added 106 before Wood hit one back to Barnes off a full-toss to become his first Test wicket and eventually Hammond declared at tea with Hardstaff unbeaten on 169 and Verity on eight. England had scored 903 for 7 in 335.2 overs and the groundsman complained later about them not making an effort for the thousand-mark.

Then, with the score on 887, a major incident occurred: Bradman himself came on to bowl. The Advertiser (Adelaide) wrote: “Bradman collapsed at the popping-crease and was carried from the field by Waite and Fleetwood-Smith, Ward taking his place and McCabe assuming the captaincy. The accident occurred from the second ball of Bradman’s second bowling spell.”

Hammond could possibly have batted longer but he declared the moment he got to know that Bradman’s injury was serious enough. He did not delay the decision further (what if Bradman had got enough time to be cured?). With Jack Fingleton also pulling out because of a muscle-strain the Australians were reduced to nine batsmen, making the decision a no-brainer.

O’Reilly ended up with figures of 85-26-178-3 while Fleetwood-Smith had 87-11-298-1.Patsy Hendren was in awe of Fleetwood-Smith’s tenacity:”My admiration for Fleetwood has increased tremendously. His final analysis will look dreadful in cold print, but figures will tell an awful lie concerning his bowling merit.”

As things turned out, Fleetwood-Smith set two unenviable records:

Table 15: Most balls bowled by a bowler in an innings
Batsman Team Opposition Venue Season Balls
Previous record George Geary England Australia MCG 1928-29 486
New record Chuck Fleetwood-Smith Australia England The Oval 1938 522
Current record Sonny Ramadhin West Indies England Edgbaston 1957 588
Do note that Bill O’Reilly (510 balls) also went past Geary’s record in this Test.

 

Table 16: Most runs conceded by a bowler in an innings
Batsman Team Opposition Venue Season Runs
Previous record Ian Peebles England Australia The Oval 1928-29 204
New record Chuck Fleetwood-Smith Australia England The Oval 1938 298
Current record Chuck Fleetwood-Smith Australia England The Oval 1938 298

… as did their team:

Table 17: Most balls bowled by a team in an innings
Team Opposition Venue Season Balls
Previous record Australia England SCG 1928-29 1633
New record Australia England The Oval 1938 2011
Current record Australia England The Oval 1938 2011

Hutton, in an interview to The West Australian (Perth), said: “Eight years ago when I was aged 14 I watched Bradman’s 334 at Leeds and little realised that I would have a chance of beating it.”

Accolades poured in. Mailey called it “one of the best played for England.” He added: “The only regret is that it was not made in a match which had a bearing on the destination of The Ashes.”

Charlie Macartney, in an interview with The Courier-Mail (Brisbane), said: “Hutton achieved a wonderful performance. It was an amazing feat of physical endurance and patience. His innings contained remarkably few mistakes … It was a mixture of neat and crude cuts … The only time he left the crease to make a stroke he should have been stumped.”

Bradman wrote: “Throughout the long innings his defence remained utterly impregnable, whilst his shots were correctly made and every ball played in its merit.” Of Leyland’s run out Bradman wrote that he “seemed unlikely to get out any other way.”

Pudsey, Hutton’s city, went wild in excitement. The Argus wrote: “Bells were ringing and drinks were ‘on the house’ at all hotels. Complete strangers shook hands in the streets. Hutton’s mother wept for joy. His father was working on a building estate some distance from his home but relays of friends kept him posted with the latest score. The postmaster was swamped with congratulatory telegrams.”

Alderman Myers, the Mayor of Pudsey, blurted out in excitement: “By goom, it’s costing me summat in telegrams!” Mr Myers had apparently sent Hutton a telegram after every fifty scored by the batsman!

The fan mail had already started to arrive by the third day. The Argus wrote: “It is rumoured that some letters contain marriage proposals, but Hutton refuses to deny or confirm.” Trying for press on the situation, Mailey cornered Hutton after he was dismissed, with George Duckworth listening in.

Mailey: Are you married?
Hutton: No.
Mailey: Engaged?
Hutton (blushing): No, Arthur, I am not interested in anybody. I’m only a baby.

At that moment a huge cheer went on inside the ground. A confused Hutton turned towards Duckworth.

Hutton: What happened? Somebody beaten my record?
Duckworth: No. Don’s bowling now.

The entrepreneur A Whitelaw announced a reward worth £1,000 for Hutton. Eight years back he had gifted the same amount to Bradman when he had scored 334 at Headingley.

Australia, now down to nine men, were up against the daunting task of scoring 704 to save the follow-on as they went out to bat at 5 pm. Given that the Test was a timeless one there was no question of playing out time and saving it: they were up against defeat even before they had come out to bat, and they were aware of it.

The team was psychologically quite down when they came out to bat; Bowes struck in the second over, having Jack Badcock (whose name caused general hilarity among contemporary fans) caught by Hardstaff at silly mid-on. Bowling with serious pace at the other end Ken Farnes had McCabe caught by Edrich at short square-leg for 14. Australia were 19 for 2 after 18 minutes of batting.

Hassett walked out. The diminutive Victorian put up a brilliant display of batsmanship, driving Farnes for two boundaries on the leg-side. Australia, decided to go down fighting, brought up their fifty in 40 minutes. It was too good to last, however, and when Edrich bounced one he hooked straight to Compton at long-leg. Hassett’s 42 had taken him 41 balls and the pair had added 51 in 33 minutes.

Barnes walked out for his first Test innings and played some beautiful strokes. Australia were 117 for 3 at stumps – a mere 786 runs behind – with Barnes on 25 and Brown still around with 29.

Day Four: Australia capitulate

Brown and Barnes began the next day tentatively, but one spell from Bowes dismissed whatever hope there was in the heart of the Australian supporters: he ran through Barnes’s defence (the youngster had scored a 72-ball 41 and had helped Brown add 75 in 68 minutes); Barnett edged one to Woods; Waite was clean bowled; and O’Reilly was caught behind, giving Bowes his fifth wicket. From 145 for 3 Australia had slumped to 160 for 7.

The stark contrast between scorelines of the two sides was unbelievable. Other than Brown, no Australian batsman had displayed the concentration and application of the Englishmen and surrendered meekly to the English attack. Fleetwood-Smith, effectively the last batsman in Bradman and Fingleton’s absence, scored a 20-ball 16 (going past his previous best of 13) with three fours and helped Brown take Australia past 200.

“Neither pace nor spin bowling could disturb the equanimity of Brown,” wrote Wisden. In an effort to bring Fleetwood-Smith on strike Hutton kicked the ball to the boundary when Brown had cut it to the Yorkshireman. Since the effort was intentional, however, Brown was awarded 5 runs and he managed to retain the strike.

When nothing seemed to work Hammond tried the left-arm spin of Leyland. Keeping in tone with the success story of the Yorkshire players in the Test, Leyland struck: Brown was caught by Hammond of the second attempt for a 153-ball 69 with 6 fours. He just missed out on carrying his bat through an innings (though Australia were, technically speaking, two men short).

The last wicket had added 41 in 26 minutes, and the entire innings had lasted only 52.1 overs and 166 minutes. To put things into perspective, Hutton had taken 142 minutes to reach his first fifty. Bowes finished with 5 for 49.

Leading by 702 Hammond could well have batted on, setting the only four-digit target in Test cricket. However, he was probably sceptic about Bradman’s injury: what if he got fit and scored a 600? He had, after all, scored a hundred in each of his last 6 Tests!

Badcock was bowled by Bowes early in the second innings; McCabe was caught behind off Farnes and Bowes trapped Hassett leg-before. Australia’s last hope of going past Hutton possibly faded when Brown holed out to Edrich off Farnes. They were 41 for 4, and required 661 more to make England bat again.

Barnes and Barnett hit out merrily, the former scoring 33 before Verity trapped him leg-before. Waite fell next ball. Barnett flashed his bat hard at everything that came his way, and scored a merry 50-ball 46 with seven fours before Farnes came back to bowl him. Farnes rounded off the innings as Leyland had the last touch of the Test, having Fleetwood-Smith caught.

Farnes eventually finished with 4 for 63 while Bowes and Verity picked up a pair apiece. The Australian innings of 123 lasted only 34.1 overs.

Australia had lost by an innings and 579 runs, setting a new world record:

Table 18: Biggest margin of victory
Team Opponent Venue Season Margin
Previous record England Australia Adelaide 1891-92 innings and 230 runs
New record England Australia The Oval 1938 innings and 579 runs
Current record England Australia The Oval 1938 innings and 579 runs

Hutton became the third batsman in history to outscore an opposition, i.e., “inflict an innings-defeat on the opponents on his own.”

Table 19: One batsman outscoring the opposition
Batsman Team Inns 1 Inns 2 Total Opp Inns 1 Inns 2 Total Diff Venue Season
Bobby Abel Eng 120 120 SAF 47 43 90 30 Newlands 1888-89
Patsy Hendren Eng 169 47 216 Aus 122 66 188 28 The Gabba 1928-29
Len Hutton Eng 364 364 Aus 201 123 324 40 The Oval 1938
Others to achieve the feat subsequently are Bradman, Greenidge, Inzamam, Hayden and Langer

On their way back home Hutton and Compton had to stop at a traffic signal. A car pulled up next to them and a woman asked: “Well done, Len, but why didn’t you score one more — one for every day of the year?”

A shell-shocked Hutton later told Compton: “Denis, tell me, can you ever satisfy a woman?”

What followed?

– Bradman was ruled out for the rest of the tour. Much to his dismay he could not play Amr Bey, the “undisputed champion” of squash, in a bout that would have brought two champions face-to-face.

– The Australians, demoralised by the rout, had a torrid time throughout the rest of the tour: they conceded a 117-run lead to Sussex at Hove and just about managed to save the match.The last match of the tour against HD Leveson-Gower’s XI at Scarborough, however, must have been a déjà vu for the tourists: Hutton scored 73, Leyland 51, and Hardstaff 108; Farnes picked up 3 for 75 in the first innings while Bowes had 5 for 42 in the second. Not to be left behind, Verity picked up 3 for 60 in the match.

– The longest Test was played at Kingsmead a year after the incident. The two Tests put the concept of timeless Tests under serious doubt. In a meeting held on October 12, 1945 the Australian Board announced that timeless Tests would be used in last Tests of series only if it was a decider. It wasn’t needed as both the 1946-47 and 1948 Ashes were decided before the last Tests. The next meeting before the 1950-51 did not even include the question of a timeless Test.

– It turned out to be the last Ashes before World War II. Australia retained the Ashes for the next three series but eventually conceded it in 1953. England were led by Hutton.

– After scoring 270 at MCG, 26 and 212 at Adelaide, 169 at MCG, 51 and 144 not out at Trent Bridge, 18 and 102 not out at Lord’s, and 103 and 16 at Headingley, Bradman did not bat at The Oval. It was already a world record then, with nobody having scored hundreds in more than three consecutive Tests. He took off after the war where he had left off — with 187 at The Gabba and 234 at SCG.

– Australia as good as avenged the defeat in the next Ashes Test at Brisbane, winning the match by an innings and 332 runs — at that time the second-largest margin of victory after England’s at The Oval. It was undoubtedly the greatest turnaround ever in the history of Test cricket.

Brief scores:

England 903 for 7 decl. (Len Hutton 364, Maurice Leyland 187, Joe Hardstaff jr 169*, Wally Hammond 59, Arthur Wood 53; Bill O’Reilly 3 for 178) beat Australia 201 (Bill Brown 69; Bill Bowes 5 for 49) and 123 (Ken Farnes 4 for 63).

In pics: Ashes 1938, 5th Test at The Oval

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42.)