© Getty Images
Len Hutton was the master of batsmanship, but he certainly had not mastered the laws of cricket © Getty Images

August 18, 1951. On the tension-filled final day of the riveting series between England and South Africa, the great Len Hutton was out obstructing the field. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the first and only instance of a batsman getting out in this way in Test cricket.

Battle scars, wounds and martyrs

The battle had been intense for four Tests and three days. The South Africans, written off as pushovers before the series, had fought tooth-and-nail till the very last session.

This in spite of misfortunes — great ones —along the way.

Skipper Dudley Nourse had paved the way for a fantastic victory at Trent Bridge, scoring 208 while nursing a broken thumb. But the innings, a nine-and-a-quarter-hour effort essayed after two operations before the match, signalled the end of his days as a great batsman. He did carry on, braving pain and ignoring doctors till the last ball had been bowled, but his scores in the remaining Tests read 20, 3, 29, 20, 13, 4 and 4. The double hundred had boosted his career runs to 2,867 in 30 Tests, at an astronomical 59.72 per innings. He ended his career after the England tour, and the seven unproductive innings had pulled it down to 53.81.

Besides, the form of the mainstay having deserted his broad blade, South Africa fell away to Roy Tattersall at Lord’s and Alec Bedser at Old Trafford. Eric Rowan’s masterly 236 at Headingley had rallied things around, but rain and spirited England batting had ensured the home side going to The Oval 2-1 up.

There were other cricketers in the side, many of them aging ones, struggling with injuries. And then there was ‘Tufty’ Mann, the left-arm spinner.

At Trent Bridge, the man from Transvaal had teamed up with Athol Rowan weaving a tantalising web of spin, picking 4 second-innings wickets to the off-spinner’s 5, ending with figures of 24-16-24-4. Through the first four Tests, he had wheeled away, capturing important wickets, and steadfastly refusing to give any easy run. At Headingley, Len Hutton and Peter May had piled up hundreds, and Trevor Bailey had stopped just 5 short. England had amassed 505. Mann had sent down 60.5 overs, 23 of them not scored off, capturing 3 wickets for 96.

But tragedy had been waiting in the wings. He had strained his back against Sussex, and on the morning of the fifth Test had difficulty in bending. Soon he was complaining of abdominal pains. Hence, the hardworking tweaker had to sit out, and fast bowler Michael Melle played his first Test in England.

What no one knew at that point was that the illness would necessitate abdominal operation and a delayed departure for homeland… and less than a year later he would breathe his last in a Johannesburg nursing home at the age of 31.

There was one other major, albeit nowhere near as fatal, injury problem. John Waite, excellent wicketkeeper and pugnacious opening batsman, had split the second joint of his right forefinger against Warwickshire. Russell Endean, a genuinely great fielder but nowhere near as assured in glovework, thus crouched behind the stumps at The Oval. It was his debut, making this excellent sportsperson a double international. He had already represented his country in hockey. And through this chancy injury to Waite it came to pass that Endean would be part of the rarest of incidents in cricket history.

The swinging pendulum

The three days of the Test was a seesaw battle of attrition.

The Oval wicket turned from Day One, and Jim Laker licked his lips. The pitch was his backyard, and as the ball turned a yard by lunch, he ambled in with fingers of itchy eagerness. Skipper Freddie Brown, having lost his fourth toss of five, tossed up his leg-breaks.

With Nourse clearly in pain and out of form, the other veteran Eric Rowan was gallant in the way he continued to shoulder the burden of batting. He was the only one to cross 50 before cutting Brown into the hands of Hutton at slip. His brother Athol, more renowned for his tossed up off-breaks, raised his game to match the occasion and got his career-best Test score of 41. But the rest of the batting fell away and the visitors were all out for 202.

Hardly a score to back the objective of returning with the series shared. However, Nourse astutely held back Geoff Chubb, letting the unknown Melle share the new ball with Cuan McCarthy. The youngster had not played against Yorkshire, and hence Hutton and his stylish pupil Frank Lowson had not seen this tearaway. The second ball of his first over swung in and took Lowson’s inside edge to Endean down the leg-side. The move had come off.

Soon, it was slow bowling at one end with Athol Rowan spinning it across the wicket. But the batsmen he had to contend with were Hutton and Peter May.

Occasional classy drives punctuated the masterly defensive techniques, and England looked safe towards the end of the day. At 51 for 1, Rowan ran in to bowl the last over of the day. Hutton went back in his crease, playing defensively, the ball did not turn but straightened. The master opening batsman was struck on his back pad and had to walk back. The late wicket ensured shared honours when stumps were drawn.

It is rather unfortunate to lose one’s wicket to the last over of the day. But Hutton would be involved in a far more curious dismissal later in the match.

A light drizzle on the second morning eased the wicket. Denis Compton capitalised on it, with Willie Watson for company. Two double-internationals at the crease for England. Runs were not easy to get, with Athol Rowan sticking to an impeccable length and Chubb plugging one end up. The South Africans were not ready to give in, no matter what effect the weather had on the pitch. But the English duo batted with relative ease.

The Springbok perseverance did pay off. With the score on a comfortable 128 for 3, Watson was out to a direct hit by McCarthy from backward-point. Partnering Compton did come with its own dangers.

Next, Rowan got Brown caught brilliantly by Clive van Ryneveld in the leg-trap. Laker did not stick around too long either.

The laws of nature dictated that Chubb and Rowan would have to be rested at some point of time. McCarthy and Melle were thus recalled to do their bits with the ball.

And thus Melle, who had been rather cruelly taken off after his initial success, came back to pick up three quick lower order wickets. Compton, in desperation at the sight of the last man Tattersall, walked out to McCarthy, converting his innocuous pitched-up delivery into a vicious yorker. His 220-minute vigil had yielded 73. England were all out for 194. South Africa led by 8. Melle’s figures read 10-6-9-4.

Laker, JC takes his first ten-for

The advantage did not last for too long.

Endean padded up to a delivery from Bedser that came in. Van Ryneveld missed one from Laker that would have crashed on to the stumps. Nourse, playing what was to be his final Test innings, struggled for a while before chopping one from the Surrey off-spinner on to his wicket.

Eric Rowan, once again shouldering the responsibility of batting, and being helped rather generously by the gods of chance, propelled his score to 36 and South Africa ended Day Two on 68 for 3.

The Test match dangled on knife’s edge. The following morning, the tension at the wicket could be sliced with that same knife. For half an hour, Bedser, Brown and Laker sent down their wares, and were solidly defended by Eric Rowan and Jack Cheetham.

With Laker flighting the ball and making it turn from a length, something had to give. Eric Rowan, also playing the final innings of his distinguished Test career, put his left foot down the wicket and tried to swing across the line to the vacant country to the leg. The ball straightened and caught him adjacent to the wicket.

It being a win-at-all-cost Test, the attacking batsman Roy McLean had been preferred over the limpet-like Jackie McGlew. He proceeded to scorch the ground with two boundaries between point and cover off Brown. Next, he swept Laker for four.

In the midst of all this, Brown pulled a thigh muscle, and hobbled off the ground leaving Hutton in charge. A professional at the helm, something that was soon to become officially accepted.

With Brown off the field, the canny Yorkshireman put Tattersall on. Cheetham went for a big on drive off one that straightened and Hutton at slip held the edge.

Soon, Percy Mansell offered no stroke to a Laker delivery that did not turn.

McLean had won the first round, but Laker was a far craftier operator. The ball was tossed up, McLean swept, and Lowson held the catch deep in the leg-side.

The serious batting out of the way at 116 for 7, England were on top. South Africa managed to get a few more through the obstinacy of Athol Rowan and the industry of Chubb. But 154 was much less than what they had bargained for.

Laker with 6 for 55, had taken the first 10 wicket haul of his career. This was half a decade before he would rise to the level of requiring just one innings to achieve such stuff.

England required 163. And after lunch Hutton walked out with Lowson to start his 100th innings in Test cricket.

Obstructing the field

Was it the looming threat of the turning ball that propelled the openers into a fusillade of flourishing strokes against McCarthy and Melle? Or was it that Hutton was inspired by the occasion of his 100th Test knock and Lowson was, as usual, inspired by induction?

It may also be that the memories of his splendid deeds at the ground spurred Hutton on. After all, this was the ground where he had hit 364 against Don Bradman’s men in 1938. In the following Test at the venue, the last before the conflicts stopped play for seven years, he had struck 73 and 165 not out against the West Indians. In 1947, his first innings score against the previous South African team had amounted to 83. Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Bill Johnston had reduced England to shambles of misery in Bradman’s last Test, but Hutton had scored a masterly 30, being last man out in a team score of 53, that too due to a superlative leg-side catch by Don Talon off a genuine leg-glance. In the second innings, England had done better, with 188 to show for their efforts. Hutton had top-scored again, this time with 64. And then the Kiwis had come and had been subjected to an education in the art of batsmanship as Hutton had scored 206. Against the West Indians of 1950, he had carried his bat for 202.

Whatever the reason, Hutton stroked the ball with sublime class, especially through the off-side. Lowson followed his example. The crowd numbered some 25,000, and there could have been more if the football season had not kicked off that very afternoon. The ones who were there were treated to some exhilarating stroke-play. When the bowling was changed, Athol Rowan and Chubb were not spared either.

50 runs were on the board after just 40 minutes. The series seemed destined for a quick and secure win for the hosts. And then it happened.

Athol Rowan bowled from the Vauxhall End. Hutton hit him with disdain towards the leg side. The batsmen ran two as the ball was retrieved from the far outposts.

And now in ran the off-spinner once again. Hutton tried to repeat the shot. There was a flurry of dust and an appeal.

In the commentary box, John Arlott was confused. “Rowan comes in, bowls again. Outside the line of the leg stump. Hutton hooks, misses, there is an appeal for something or the other. There is a certain amount of discussion out there, and… Hutton is out.”

The ball had struck Hutton on the glove, climbed up his arm and had gone up in the air. As it had hovered in the air, Endean had moved around quickly towards leg side to make the catch. At the same time, Hutton had seen that the ball was about to fall back on his stumps. The Yorkshire batsman had swatted at it backhanded, and prevented it from hitting the wicket. It had been perfectly within the rules to do so to protect the wicket. However, Hutton had also succeeded in thwarting Endean from taking the catch. That had made the situation queer for him.

Eric Rowan at silly mid-on, and Nourse, two yards to his right in the leg trap, were two old warriors who had seen everything. They had lodged an appeal to umpire Dai Davies. For a moment, time had stood still. And then, up had gone the finger. The bemused batsman had been informed, “You’re out, hitting the ball twice.”

In the background, expert commentator Arthur Gilligan’s voice was heard on the wireless. “Caught by the wicketkeeper?” he wondered.

“I think he was caught behind the wicket,” Arlott agreed. “There was a long, long pause before it was decided, Hutton looked extremely baffled. It was a long time before he went.”

Hutton was wondering if he had heard correctly. He hesitated at first, and then slowly and disconsolately made his way back to the pavilion.

Gilligan wondered if he was caught at leg-slip.

Umpire Frank Chester had positioned him at point, to escape the slanting rays of the sun and to obtain clear visibility in spite of the cordon of short-legs. Now he called to his partner, “Excellent decision,” and ran towards the scorers. Arlott summed up the situation on the microphone: “Everybody in the ground is baffled.”

Reaching the scorers Chester said, “Obstruction.”

As the operators raised the unfamiliar word on the scoreboard, Gilligan was stunned, “Obstruction!”

Arlott saw light. “It must be. I could not see any catch being made there. The ball was on the ground.”

The two commentators talked about the dismissal, trying to reconstruct what had taken place, and suddenly someone from the box exclaimed, “He is out!

In the confused commotion, May had come all the way to the wicket and lobbed the first ball he faced to Eric Rowan at short-leg.

With that peculiar dismissal of Hutton, the match was alive again. But, even as a crestfallen May walked back, Arlott talked of the previous instances of ‘Obstructing the Field’ in the history of First Class cricket, 1868, 1899 and twice in 1901. “That is certainly the first time it ever happened in Test match cricket. And if it had been put to any of us, we would have said the chances of it happening were a million to one against.”

The rest of the match

The very next ball from Athol Rowan was pushed by Compton in the air. If brother Eric had anticipated the stroke correctly and moved to the right instead of left, the dashing Middlesex batsman would have been out first ball as well. However, it would not have been a hat-trick for Athol. The wicket for ‘obstructing the field’ is not awarded to the bowler.

With wickets falling, Lowson continued to bat with confidence, but more restraint. Compton survived a confident appeal as Lowson and he put on 31. And then the opener turned Athol Rowan square of the wicket, and was caught by a tumbling van Ryneveld in the leg trap. Soon Compton cut Chubb to find the same fielder at gully. At 90 for 4, it was anybody’s game.

In walked captain courageous. Brown decided to throw caution to the wind right from the outset. The first ball he faced went sky-high. Nourse had astutely placed Cheetham at mid-wicket 15 yards from the boundary. He moved a bit late, and with the sun in his eyes, the dark background of the buildings and spectators preventing him from picking the flight of the ball, he misjudged. Nevertheless, he dived and hugged the ball, but it made contact with the ground under his chest.

Brown’s second scoring stroke was at catchable height just out of reach of Eric Rowan. And his third went perilously close to Mansell at slip. He was all at sea against both pace and spin.

However, he managed to survive. England went into tea at 98 for 4, with 65 to get. In these dying stages, how South Africa missed Mann.

After the break, Watson played with plenty of sense, but Brown went after the bowling once again. The strokes went high and in every direction, but never to hand. As a result, in three overs Athol Rowan went for 26, as many as 18 of them to Brown including a six over square leg. By the time Chubb got Watson to edge, supremely important runs had been garnered.

Laker proved to be another stubborn batsman, flashing two perfect cover drives for fours. With Brown throwing his bat around, it looked destined for a quick finish whichever way the verdict lay. When Chubb trapped him leg before for 40, just 12 remained to be scored.

Derek Shackleton was able enough with the bat, and even the last throw of dice in bringing back McCarthy did not help. Finally, with the clock pointing to 40 minutes past 5, Laker turned Athol Rowan to fine leg and ran three. England had won by 4 wickets.

In retrospect

Later, Chester discussed the Hutton dismissal in his autobiography: “There is no doubt at all that Russell Endean, the South African wicket-keeper, would have made a very easy catch if Hutton had not struck the ball the second time. I consider my colleague, Dai Davies, gave a thoroughly good decision. Law 40 states: ‘Either batsman is out ‘Obstructing the field’ if he wilfully obstructs the opposite side; should such wilful obstruction by either batman prevent a ball from being caught, it is the striker who is out.’ … Whether Hutton’s action was wilful or not will be debated for a long time… (he) said he made the second blow at the ball to prevent it falling on the wicket… He had given a catch and his second swat clearly prevented Endean from taking it.”

At the champagne party after the match, Hutton began to account to umpire Dai Davies for his action. According to Jackie McGlew, Davies shook his head, and in his melodious Glamorgan intonation, said simply, “Leonard, Leonard, Leonard!”

Incidentally, the first recorded incident of this sort in First Class cricket was also at The Oval, when Charles Absolom of Cambridge University was out in this manner against Surrey in 1868. Absolom later played one Test for England in 1879, walking in at 26 for 7 after a Fred Spofforth hat-trick and scoring 52. Absolom’s life’s curiosities were not limited to manner of dismissal on the cricket field. He later lived a number of years among the American Indians, and went on to become the purser of a cargo ship. His final dismissal from the field of life was also rather interesting. He was crushed to death by a load of sugarcane in Port-of-Spain.

Thomas Straw of Worcestershire was out in this manner twice, in 1899 and 1901, on both occasions against Warwickshire.

In International cricket, it has happened on six more occasions, every time in a One Day International. Rameez Raja, Mohinder Amarnath, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Ben Stokes combine to form a rather impressive list of men who have succumbed in this way.

Brief Scores:

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

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)