Durban 1938-39: The longest Test ever, a draw after 10 days of play!

That Test at Durban, 1938-39. They had to call the Test off only because — their boat left.

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Len Hutton (left) and Bill Edrich © Getty Images

The longest Test ever began on March 3, 1939. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a Test that lasted for 10 days and still ended in a draw.

“I’m glad there was no result. It showed that the game was more than victory or defeat. It was out cricket.” — Flight Lieutenant AJ Holmes, England Manager to Louis Duffus, eminent cricket writer, after the Test.

“’See you tomorrow’ was the popular farewell parting,” Duffus said later, referring to how the people bade farewell to one another after the end of every day’s play.

The build-up

In Test matches the fifth day is typically considered as a difficult day to bat on, mostly due to the wear and tear it suffers for the first four days. On uncovered wickets in 1939, it was not easy to think beyond a fifth, or at most a sixth day: to think of a Test lasting up to 10 days is probably unthinkable in the era of T20 cricket.

It had happened, though. Let us go back in time to that Durban Test, the last of the series. England were up 1-0 in the series, winning the third Test, also at Durban. The last Test, a timeless one, was supposed to decide the winner of the series. When Alan Melville decided to bat on what was beyond doubt a shirtfront wicket, it seemed that the English bowlers were in for a long, long day on the field.

England had a debutant in Reg Perks. They had also brought in Doug Wright. Hammond had also persisted with the Bill Edrich in favour of the in-form Hugh Bartlett. The decision raised many eyebrows, and it was only later revealed that Bartlett had managed to win over a lady Hammond had been wooing.

Day One: van der Bijl bats through

Melville opened batting with Pieter van der Bijl (father of Vintcent), and the duo remained generally undisturbed on the flat track, though the English bowlers tried really hard. With the pitch offering no assistance, the sky being clear, and time not being a factor in the Test, the South African openers simply wore the English bowlers down with their diligence.

The typically aggressive van der Bijl took 45 minutes to get off the mark; the only chance England had was when Melville was close to being run out, but Paynter’s erratic throw was well shy of the stumps. South Africa crawled to 49 without loss at lunch, and the English bowlers began to run out of ideas. There had not been a single boundary in the first session.

Melville hit the first four of the Test after lunch — that too of a no-ball — as he hooked Reg Perks. Runs began to flow in the second session as both Melville and van der Bijl played their strokes. Then, when Wright bowled a short one, Melville tried to pull him and went back enough to tread on to the stumps. Melville’s 78 had lasted for 200 minutes, and he had hit 5 boundaries.

After losing their first wicket for 131, South Africa went into a shell again. van der Bijl was fortunate on 71 when Wright dropped a difficult chance off his own bowling. Runs came in a trickle as Eric Rowan joined van der Bijl. It was then that van der Bijl took complete control of the match. He hit Wright for 5 fours, eventually taking 22 off the over. He also hit Wright for a huge six that landed on the pavilion roof. However, at this point, Perks was finally rewarded for his persistent line, and got his first Test wicket as he yorked Rowan for 33.

van der Bijl once again got into a shell after Rowan’s wicket, and reached his hundred just before stumps. South Africa were 229 for 2 with van der Bijl on 105 and Bruce Mitchell on 4.

Day Two: Nourse continues the attrition

Wright struck early for England when he trapped Mitchell leg-before. This was when the generally attacking Dudley Nourse joined van der Bijl, and the duo began carried on the way they had the previous day. Only 17 runs came off the first hour, and van der Bijl took 32 minutes to score his first run of the day.

Ken Farnes bowled with hostility; he hit van der Bijl on his body several times, but the pair remained intact as they returned to the pavilion for lunch with the score on 271 for 3. However, immediately after lunch, Perks bowled an off-cutter to clean bowl van der Bijl for 125. He had batted for 428 minutes — the longest Test innings by a South African till date; Ken Viljoen was caught behind off Perks soon, and at 278 for 5, England suddenly saw a glimmer of hope.

Eric Dalton walked out. Nourse showed no intention of scoring quick runs, but Dalton lofted Wright for the first six of the day. He batted with the intent to accelerate, and scored 57 out of a partnership of 90 before Les Ames took a fine diving catch down the leg-side off Farnes. It was then that Hedley Verity, till now an epitome of accurate bowling, came to the rescue of England yet again by helping to put a rein on the scoring rate.

Ronnie Grieveson walked out, and South Africa ended the day on a comfortable 423 for 6, with Nourse on a dogged 77 and Grieveson on 26. In Nourse’s own words, “it was a timeless Test, with no need to get on with the scoring”.

Day Three: Perks takes five

Play resumed after the first rest day of the Test. It had rained the previous night, and everyone was worried that the wicket may have deteriorated. As things turned out, the wicket had not changed a bit, though the first session was windy and overcast. Nourse seemed to have forgotten his batting the previous day, and began to play his strokes early in the day. England, too, looked energetic on the field after a day’s rest.

Nourse reached his hundred in over 6 hours, and the 100-run partnership followed shortly. Perks finally yorked Nourse for 103 — his fourth wicket of the innings. Grieveson carried on, though. Though it was his second Test, this was the first time he was batting; not bothered by Nourse’s dismissal, he drove Verity for four to bring up the 500 of the innings.

Perks eventually ran through Grieveson’s defence, taking his fifth wicket on Test debut; the wicket-keeper had scored 75. Verity, by now able to obtain some turn, took two quick wickets after Chud Langton had hit him for a straight six. From 522 for 7 South Africa were bowled out for 530 — their highest Test score, which was also their longest (over 13 hours). They had scored at 1.96 every 6 balls. Perks had taken 5 for 100, while Verity returned the miserly figures of 55.6-14-97-2 (8-ball overs) on a flat track.

When South Africa’s turn came with the ball, Bob Newson bowled at a nippy pace, and soon had Paul Gibb edging an in-swinger to be caught behind. At 9 for 1, England looked to be in a trouble of sorts when Eddie Paynter joined Len Hutton. The two batted sensibly against Newson, and the players finally came out when rain stopped play towards the end. England were 35 for 1 at stumps with Hutton on 24 and Paynter on 6. South Africa had one thing to worry about, though — Melville left the field with a slight limp.

Day Four: South Africa takes control

The conditions were overcast as Hutton and Paynter resumed batting. The pitch still played well — virtually like a Day One track. The English batsmen played cautiously, and blunted the South African attack with their unflinching temperament. England reached 50 in 2 hours, and then, with the score on 64, the batsmen had a mix-up, and Hutton was run out completely against the run of play.

The English captain walked out. He looked scratchy, especially against Norman Gordon, but survived till lunch, with an anxious Paynter for company. After a few dodgy minutes in the second session, Hammond was stumped off Dalton for 24 to be replaced by Ames; shortly afterwards, Paynter, batting on 46, edged one off Gordon, but was dropped in the slips.

The chance made Paynter lose his confidence even more; he played and missed more than before. Though he ambled to his fifty, Langton trapped him leg-before soon afterwards. The innings had lasted 260 minutes, and there were only 3 boundaries. Two runs later Edrich, continuing with his poor form, was caught at silly mid-off by Dalton off Langton.

Ames, though, grew in stature, playing in the aggressive mode that had always been the characteristic of his batting; he reached his fifty, and taking advantage of Melville dropping Brian Valentine, the two batsmen added 58 in 55 minutes. Valentine fell, though, and was followed by Verity, but Ames took his risks, and at stumps England were 268 for 7 with Ames on 58 and Wright on 5.

Could they save the follow-on?

Day Five: Springbok openers grind on

Langton struck early for South Africa, removing Ames for 84. Wright and Farnes hit a few lusty blows, but England folded for 316 soon afterwards, trailing by 214. Dalton took 4 wickets while Langton had 3.

Since time was not a factor in the Test, Melville decided to bat instead of asking England to follow-on. Since Melville was injured, Mitchell opened with van der Bijl. The pitch, strangely, showed no sign of deterioration even on the fifth day. The South African openers improved on the lead, and seemed to bat on for an eternity. The partnership went past 50, 100, 150… and had almost reached 200 when England finally broke through.

With the score on 191, Mitchell tried to pull Verity, and trod on the stumps for 89, just like van der Bijl had done in the first innings. Edrich caught Rowan brilliantly at silly-point of the same bowler, and in the very next over, van der Bijl was caught at short-leg by Paynter off Wright for 97. Had he got those 3 more runs, he would have been the first South African to score 2 hundreds in a Test. Van der Bijl was visibly crestfallen at his dismissal. South Africa were suddenly 191 for 3. Without any addition to the team score, Nourse hit one very hard to Hammond at mid-off, which the England skipper grassed.

South Africa were 193 for 3 at stumps, leading by 407. Nourse and Viljoen were on a run apiece. A frustrated Wright commented that even if there was any chance of the hard pitch to provide cracks, it was being ruined by overnight rains and the fact that the pitch was rolled every morning to bring it back to its original shape.

Day Six: England left with impossible ask

Farnes had Nourse caught by Hutton at short-leg early in the day. Melville strode out despite his limp, and both Viljoen and his captain began to dominate the English bowling. South Africa scored runs quickly, adding 99 before lunch, which meant that they led by 506 at that stage.

The relentless batting continued after lunch. Despite his limp Melville continued to dominate the bowling with limited footwork, and along with Viljoen, he piled on the runs. Viljoen was dropped by an exhausted Ames off Perks, but Perks had his man as Viljoen chopped one on to his stumps to end the 104-run partnership. Viljoen had scored 74. He would later go on to complain that this was the only Test during which he had to shave twice.

Dalton once again lofted Wright on the pavilion roof, but Wright got his revenge when he took a low catch off his own bowling. Grieveson hung on; Melville scored 103 in 197 minutes before Farnes removed him. Grieveson then rubbed it in further as he shepherded the tail to help South Africa reach 481. Ames was so exhausted by his painful tenure behind the stumps that he relinquished the gloves to Gibb, and stayed on as a fielder instead. Farnes took 4 and Wright 3, and England were left to chase the small matter of 696 for victory.

South Africa’s match aggregate of 1,011 was the highest for them. This still remains their record, way ahead of the 871 they later scored against India at Chennai in 2007-08.

Hutton and Gibb went out to open, but play was called off for bad light after Newson had bowled just a single delivery. On the sixth consecutive day play had to be called off earlier than expected.

Day Seven: Edrich fights back

To everyone’s surprise, the pitch still held good as Hutton and Gibb blunted out South Africa’s attack. Hutton reached his fifty, but then dragged one from Mitchell on to his stumps. He fell for 55, and at 78 for 1, South Africa must have hoped this got over soon.

Hammond promoted Edrich ahead of Paynter and himself, to everyone’s surprise. Not only was Edrich a surprise inclusion, he had also scored only 22 from 6 innings in the series till then. Hammond, though, had kept faith in Edrich: “If you get a couple of hundred we might have a chance.” Little did he know how prophetic his words would turn out to be.

To the dismay of the South Africans, Gibb carried on, grinding the bowlers down with his patience as Edrich began to take control. He drove with panache, playing on-the-rise against pace and smothering the spin with his excellent footwork. He reached his hundred in 193 minutes amidst a mild drizzle, and the South African fielders, for once, looked impatient as the day moved on. Edrich reached his fifty — the 14th of the Test — a new world record. Gibb acted as a perfect foil as the two kept England’s hopes alive.

Meanwhile, MCC cancelled the last match of the tour against Western Province. It would have started on what would have been the eighth day of the Test, and there was no way they would have made it.

England ended the day on 253 for 1 — and for the first time they had actually managed to dominate a day. Edrich had reached 107, while Gibb, finding it difficult to bat with glasses on amidst the drizzle, looked solid with 78. They still required 443 more, though.

Day Eight: No play

It rained on the Eighth Day of the Test, and the exhausted players finally found some relief. After the drizzle gave way to a serious ran, play was officially called off at 2.30. The second rest day of the Test followed afterwards, and the players got sufficient time to take a break.

Melville, though, had got so used to the routine of turning up for the Test that he got ready to go to Kingsmead for the day’s play. It took the hotel waiter to remind him that it was, indeed, a rest day.

Day Nine: England dominate

Hammond had asked for heavy roller, which basically negated whatever wrong the rain had done to the pitch. As Gibb and Edrich went out to bat, they were up against a steep target. Gibb reached his hundred before lunch, and England were on 331 for 1 at lunch, almost halfway to the 696-mark.

Dalton snared Gibb shortly after lunch. The bespectacled opener had scored a marathon 120 in 451 minutes with only two hits to the fence. Hammond walked out, ahead of Paynter; he wasn’t really the man a bowling side wants to see with the score on 358 for 2.

Hammond and Edrich did not let the South Africans get on top of them; Edrich, especially, played some beautiful strokes, and reached his double-hundred before tea. Having had a poor series till then, Edrich made the most of the opportunity provided to him by Hammond. He fell soon after tea, though, as Dalton hit his middle-stump. His 460-minute 219 had included 25 boundaries.

Paynter finally walked out to join Hammond. The pair batted with comfort and remained there at stumps, reaching 496 for 3 with Hammond on 58 and Paynter on 24. The Test had already gone past the world-record match-aggregate of 1,724 runs set by West Indies and England at Kingston in 1929-30. The number of balls bowled had also gone past the 4,244-mark set in the Ashes Test at Melbourne in 1928-29.

They now needed to score exactly 200 more. The England team finally began to believe that they could pull this off, and as per Ames, “the whole team was saying ‘We can win this match’.”

Day Ten: So close, yet…

England set out expeditiously in pursuit of the 200 runs left in order to achieve the impossible. Their pace was stopped by occasional bursts of rain, and there was the small matter of the train scheduled to leave for Durban at 8.05 pm that night in order to catch the Athlone Castle back home.

South Africa bowled tightly and fielded brilliantly, and Hammond and Paynter managed only 39 runs in the first hour. Once they got their eyes in, though, the batsmen increased the run rate, and Hammond — that amazing runner between wickets — ensured that the singles kept coming at a rapid rate. Paynter, meanwhile, scored the 16th fifty of the Test as Hammond approached triple figures. It stood as the world-record for most fifties in a Test till the Australia-West Indies Test at Adelaide in 1968-69 posted a new record with 17.

Hammond soon reached his 21st hundred — one that brought him at par with Don Bradman. England reached 600 for 3, which meant that the target was now less than a hundred. As the sky darkened, Paynter was caught behind off Gordon for 75 with England on 611 for 4.

Ames joined Hammond, and with the rain closing on to them, both batsmen attacked the South African bowlers furiously. It was then that Dalton struck. Dalton had spent several torrid nights during the Test that offered no help to the bowlers, and his wife complained that he appealed loudly for a leg-before in his sleep several times during the Test. He finally had something to cheer for on the placid track. Hammond was stumped while trying to loft him just before tea to fall for 140. Valentine walked out at 650 for 5, and Grieveson missed a stumping off the first ball he faced. England reached 654 for 5 at tea.

It rained down heavily at tea, but stopped soon afterwards, but rained again as the players went out. Play had to be called off for the day.

The South African Board tried to convince the England board for an 11th day; they even asked whether Ames and Valentine (the not out batsmen), and Verity, Wright, Farnes, and Perks (those yet to bat) could stay back as the others left that night; the six could join their team by a special chartered flight.

However, the English board was reluctant, and the Test had to be called off after ten days of contest.

The English team was crestfallen. Edrich complained: “another half-hour or so would have won the match.” Ames added: “The weather had the last say, but we were then in with a good chance.” On the other hand, Nourse felt “our bowlers could have exploited that pitch; anything could have happened”; he was supported by Rowan — “the uncovered wicket could have presented many difficulties to the batsmen.”

A new world record aggregate of 1,981 runs was set in the match, from 5,463 deliveries. Both records stand today, as does the 10 days of cricket. The 16 fifties, as mentioned above, remained a world record for close to three decades. To put things into perspective, 5,463 deliveries outdoes 9 ODIs and 22 T20s.

England’s score of 654 for 5 remains the world record total in the fourth innings. The previous highest was England’s 411 against Australia at Sydney in 1924-25.

What happened next?

The Test went a long way to bring curtains on timeless Tests for good. The Times wrote: “A match without the discipline imposed by time… is null and void of all the elements which go to make cricket the enchanting game it naturally is.” The Guardian mentioned that “even chess has its limits”. Norman Preston had a bash at ‘over-prepared wickets’ on Wisden.

The Australian boards briefly argued that only the final Test in an Ashes series would be played to an end. The English vehemently opposed to the idea. It worked for the 1946-47 and the 1948 Ashes (though in both cases, the last Test was a dead-rubber match). By 1950, timeless Tests had become history.

Brief scores:

South Africa 530 (Pieter van der Bijl 125, Dudley Nourse 103, Alan Melville 78, Ronnie Grieveson 75, Eric Dalton 57; Reg Perks 5 for 100) and 481 (Alan Melville 103, Pieter van der Bijl 97, Bruce Mitchell 89, Ken Viljoen 74; Ken Farnes 4 for 74) drew with England 316 (Les Ames 84, Eddie Paynter 62; Eric Dalton 4 for 59) and 654 for 5 (Bill Edrich 219, Walter Hammond 140, Paul Gibb 120, Eddie Paynter 75, Len Hutton 55).

(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)

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