Len Hutton would make it to an all-time England XI, but this was certainly an unwanted record © Getty Images
Len Hutton would make it to an all-time England XI, but this was certainly an unwanted record © Getty Images

August 18, 1951. Len Hutton, in an attempt to save his wicket, became the first batsman to be given out obstructing the field. Abhishek Mukherjee recollects the incident.

The gargantuan 364 had been a thing of the past, but Len Hutton had firmly established himself as the leading contemporary batsman. The Ashes was yet to be regained, but going into the South African summer of 1951 he had already amassed 4,768 runs at 58.86. 

South Africa started the series with a well-earned victory at Trent Bridge. England, chasing 186, were bowled out for 114 by Athol Rowan and Tufty Mann. Roy Tattersall hit back at Lord’s with match figures of 12 for 101 as England won by 10 wickets, and Alec Bedser’s 12 for 112 gave them the lead at Old Trafford. With rain washing out Day Five, the high-scoring Headingley Test ended in a draw. The series, thus, was still alive when the teams arrived at The Oval.

Jim Laker routed South Africa for 202 before England reached a comfortable 128 for 3. Then Athol Rowan and Geoff Chubb struck before Michael Melle ran through the tail (he finished with 10-6-9-4). Only Denis Compton put up some fight, being last out for 73. England conceded an 8-run lead.

Once again South Africa ran into Laker, who had 6 for 55 to go with his first innings haul of 4 for 64. South Africa seemed to have the upper hand at 106, but they were skittled out for 154, and England were left to chase a mere 163. Hutton and Frank Lowson added 53 for the opening stand in 50 minutes. Then it happened.

The wicket

Rowan, arch nemesis of Hutton, was bowling his off-breaks. He had snared Hutton twice in 1947, five times in 1948-49, and four times in 1951. This included the last three innings of 1948-49 and the first two of 1951, which meant Rowan had dismissed Hutton in five innings on a trot. He had also got him (for 28) in the first innings at The Oval.

The ball spat off a good length, hit Hutton’s glove, rolled up his arm, and went past him. Hutton lost clue of where the ball was headed for, tried to stop it, and missed it completely. The ball did not hit the stumps, and neither did it reach the Russell Endean, crouched eagerly behind the stumps. READ: Obstructing the field: History of the unusual mode of dismissal

But then, Hutton’s swish had prevented Endean from reaching out for the catch. The fielders went up in unison, and Dai Davies did not have any hesitation in giving Hutton out. He was the first batsman to be given out obstructing the ball in Test cricket (fifth in First-Class cricket) and is still the only one to achieve the ‘feat’.

It was unfortunate for the great man, for it was his 100th Test innings — but there was nothing wrong with the decision. Wisden reported: “Hutton did not wilfully obstruct the wicketkeeper, but he wilfully waved his bat, an action which prevented the wicket-keeper from getting to the ball.”

Young Peter May fell next ball, and England also lost Compton and Lowson in quick succession. The score read 90 for 4, but Freddie Brown and Willie Watson added 42. England eventually won by 4 wickets, with Laker hitting the winning boundary. England clinched the series 3-1.

What followed?

– South Africa were 56 for 3 chasing 385 at Newlands in 1956-57. Laker bowled outside off, the ball bounced over Endean’s pad, and he used his hand to shrug it away. It was a bizarre coincidence that Endean became the first batsman to be given out handled the ball in Test cricket. South Africa lost their last 6 wickets for 5 runs and slumped to 72 all out.

Brief scores:

South Africa 202 (Eric Rowan 55, Athol Rowan 41; Jim Laker 4 for 64) and 154 (Eric Rowan 45; Alec Bedser 3 for 32, Jim Laker 6 for 55) lost to England 194 (Denis Compton 73; Michael Melle 4 for 9) and 164 for 6 (Freddie Brown 40*; Geoff Chubb 3 for 53) by 4 wickets.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)