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A highly successful tour by practically the full flower of England's cricketers in 1938-39 gave a great fillip to the game in South Africa. Everywhere the team played before large crowds and, apart from the slow-motion methods adopted by both sides in some of the Tests, the cricket seen was generally of the highest standard.
For the third time in succession, when England and South Africa have met, only one of the five matches came to a definite conclusion, the honours of the rubber going to the team captained by W. R. Hammond by virtue of victory in the third Test. In this way some amends were made for the defeat of England by the side which H. F. Wade led in 1935 - the first victory for South Africa on tour - and the overthrow of A. P. F. Chapman's team in the winter of 1930-31.
Under normal conditions there must have been a second decisive issue, the fifth encounter at Durban being a limitless time affair; but, although prolonged to the tenth day, the match was left drawn. Phenomenal batting and loss of time through rain brought about this remarkable ending. No fewer than 1,981 runs were scored, and, when rain during the tea interval finally stopped play, England, with 654 for five wickets, wanted only 42 for victory.
The first aggregate, a record for all matches, and the second, the highest total in any fourth innings, are likely to remain unchallenged. The necessity of leaving such a match unfinished when so little more remained to be done emphasised the arguments in favour of a set period for playing each match of a rubber. Purely defensive batting and negative bowling to keep down runs reduced this contest to boredom that could only be described as farcical in its final effect of no result. Placing this last test so near the end of the tour proved unfortunate, but, judging from the state of the game, England were practically sure of victory. Certainly South Africa did not suffer any injustice from the abandonment. The duration of this match until the tenth day with the eighth alone completely blank surpassed the hitherto longest, played at Kingston, Jamaica, between England and West Indies in April 1930, when rain prevented any cricket on the eighth and ninth days. The eve of the England team sailing for home saw a finish of that game of patience!
This kind of cricket in the last Test was suggested by what happened in the first two. There seemed reluctance to try and force a victory; Hammond delayed his declarations until South Africa could play for a draw without much fear of failing in an effort to which they were left with no alternative. Bruce Mitchell proved adequate at the patient game necessary to avoid defeat.
Until the fifth Test at Durban, Hammond won each toss, so gaining choice of innings for England eight times in succession. Alan Melville broke the sequence of luck enjoyed by the new England captain, and South Africa made their highest test score - a start to the many records established in this most extraordinary of all matches.
Apart from the unsatisfactory curtain the tour gave unqualified enjoyment. Opinion in South Africa classed the visiting side as the strongest that England had ever sent. Names and performances support this expression of praise. Not once did the team suffer defeat. Exactly half the eighteen matches played were won and of these only the first did not rank as first class.
Beyond question England were superlatively strong in batting. No fewer than six men scored Test centuries. Paynter excelled. He made three, starting with 117 and 100 at Johannesburg and in the third Test his 243, the highest ever hit in a match between England and South Africa, went a long way towards the victory that sufficed to win the rubber. P. A. Gibb, when first batting in a Test match, nearly equaled Paynter's performance by scoring 93 and 106 in the Christmas-tide match, and in the incomplete marathon he made 120 during a stay of seven hours and a half.
Hammond rivalled Paynter with three Test centuries which brought him level in hundreds with Don Bradman at that time, 21 all for matches of this class. Paynter came first in aggregate, 653 to Hammond's 609 - these figures together constituting another record.
Strangest of all that happened in this series of Tests was that Hutton, after establishing his record with 364 at The Oval against Australia in the previous August, did not once reach three figures. Yet his aggregate, the highest for the tour, included five centuries. Still, Hutton pleased South African cricket lovers by his willingness to bat attractively and he always looked the most accomplished player of the party. Faith in Edrich as a Test batsman at last proved well founded, for he contributed 219 to that record fourth innings total after getting only 21 runs in five Test innings on this tour. Ames, besides batting well, raised his Test catches above the record held by Dick Lilley for England.
Valentine and Ames were two batsmen who always played their natural free-hitting game and at the beginning of the tour Yardley created a splendid impression, but after the first Test at Johannesburg, which Hutton missed, Yardley found himself excluded from the Tests, because Hutton, Gibb, Paynter, Hammond, Ames and Valentine were so reliable. For the same reason Barlett did not have an opportunity to show his hitting powers on the big occasions, though half an hour of him at the crease might have finished that last Test.
Naturally, with such prolific scoring in all the Tests, bowlers could not return flattering figures and the least costly wickets were those by Verity at over 29 runs apiece. E. L. Dalton, best for South Africa, was ten runs more expensive. The averages tell the story of the burden carried by the bowlers more eloquently than can words. To explain why Kenneth Farnes, Perks, Goddard, Wilkinson and Wright accomplished so little is impossible. Just the vagaries of cricket and the perfect pitches gave batsmen the upper hand. All through the tour the slower bowlers fared far better than in the Tests and success was spread evenly.
Following the practice adopted in England and Australia, the eight ball over was the rule throughout the tour and the innovation in South Africa gave satisfaction.
Alan Melville, South Africa's new captain, so well known in Oxford University and Sussex cricket, made the most of the talent at his disposal. Bruce Mitchell and Nourse touched the batting form they have shown in England and Van der Byl, with 125 and 97 in the last Test, surpassed anything he did when at Oxford. That match also brought the best performance from Melville - 78 and 103. R. E. Grieveson, who in the last two Tests replaced W. W. Wade as wicket-keeper, helped to dismiss ten men and also showed emphatic skill with the bat. Generally want of forcing power stood out as a weakness in the South African batting.
With regards to South Africa as a cricket country, progress was shown by the prevalence of turf wickets, on which all the matches were played except those at Bulawayo and Salisbury, where matting was still in use. 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. Explanations on the plea of ignorance regarding the laws relating to groundmen's duties and regrets removed any idea of malpractice; in fact harmony reigned throughout a pleasant tour. Towards this agreeable state of affairs the captain and all the visiting team contributed, with none more judicious in all his responsibities than Flight-Lieutenant A. J. Holmes, the manager.
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