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The rest is history

The upcoming Dhaka Test will be the first in seven years to have a rest day. A look at the passing of an international institution

Paul Coupar

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Monks watch a Test in Sri Lanka. They were rather less peacable in 2003 when they tried to prevent play in one © AFP
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No Test match since 2001 has had one, though the 1938-39 timeless Test had two. Tom Graveney, Jeff Thomson and the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson came to grief during one. Over the years, they have made writers rage and Buddhist monks riot. But in the end they were forgotten with barely a whimper.

It is now over 10 years since the abolition of the rest day in English Tests. It seems longer - the blank Sunday already entering the blurred middle-distance of memory, alongside the Scoop bat, the Cornhill Test and the Vauxhall Viva. But why did they stop? What used to happen on them? And did the abolition change the game?

If 1997 was the year of extinction, the English rest day had been endangered for many years. The first Sunday of Test cricket in England was at Trent Bridge in 1981, soon followed by Old Trafford and Edgbaston - where the crowd were treated to Ian Botham's famous 5 for 1. In each case the start was at mid-day, supposedly to allow churchgoing. But at Lord's tradition ruled: no Sunday play and a chilly reception for Botham after he completed a pair with a misjudged sweep.

The same applied at Headingley in 1981. This allowed Botham's infamous eve-of-rest-day barbecue. Held at his Yorkshire home, 40 minutes in a sponsored Saab from the ground, it ended with an elderly woman being pushed round the darkened garden in a wheelbarrow, as England drowned in ale the sorrows of what seemed certain to be defeat. "It was always on a Saturday night or Sunday," recalls John Emburey. "That wasn't necessarily a rest day, actually."

Those early Thursday-to-Monday Tests were an experiment, the TCCB hoping to introduce a second big-attendance day. They were judged a failure. Staff costs rocketed on Sundays and extra gate money did not compensate. By 1984 it was back to Thursday-Tuesday.

But in 1991 the idea was dusted off and since then it has ruled almost entirely. The exception was always Wimbledon men's final day. But by 1997 the new-look ECB's outgoings were ballooning faster than their income. As well as trying to get cricket delisted as a television "crown jewel", they went head to head with the tennis, and the rest day vanished.

So the end slipped by almost unnoticed, largely because the battle had been won by the modernisers years before. But it had been a long slog.

The first barrier was religion: the day of rest, many said, should be just that. In a 1937 issue of the Cricketer, EAC Thomson recalled playing jazz-hat games on a Sunday: "Some of us were sheepish in carrying our bags through the streets. We used to leave them at a railway station cloak-room adjacent to the ground and wait till it was dark before we went home."

 
 
"The abolition of the rest day made it all the more necessary for players to improve their fitness. No one gets out through tiredness any more" Scyld Berry
 

Some players refused to play any form of Sunday cricket, including Jack Hobbs on his Indian trip of 1930-31, and Peter Harvey, who played 175 matches for Nottinghamshire in the 1940s and '50s and the organ in his local chapel. But they were in the minority.

The second barrier was custom. Quiet Sundays were supposedly woven into the fabric of England, a fabric the end of the rest day would somehow unpick. In 1981 Alan Gibson in the Cricketer raged that the Test match, "that symbol of what we used to think of as dignity and majesty", had adopted "the Continental Sunday, simultaneously giving the tradition of England an extra kick in the backside". He was thinking of his Sunday lunch as much as the Church.

The final barrier was the law. The Sunday Observance Act prevented paying spectators attending Sunday sports events. The authorities turned a blind eye to a bucket being passed round at an "unofficial" game. But it was not the sort of Sunday collection the Church approved of - nor the England selectors. In 1969, Tom Graveney drove to Luton to play a benefit game during the rest day of the Old Trafford Test. He made £1000 but lost his Test career. "A miserable way to finish," he later recalled.

By 1968 there was Championship cricket on a Sunday (entrance free, expensive programme compulsory). In 1980 the John Player Sunday League (seen as less objectionable because of its 2pm start) drew in 258,423 spectators, 135,000 more than the total weekday Championship attendance. It was only a matter of time before money overcame morals.


Fishing used to be a popular rest-day pastime back in the day © Getty Images
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Even Gibson covered Sunday county matches in the end - often, as Wisden recalled, "nursing a gigantic whisky, cleverly diluted so that it looked like a half of lager". He bit the bullet for the same reason pros had played Sunday benefit games for decades: he needed the money.

Not that every rest day was a Sunday. England's fifth Test in India in 1951-52 lost the second day because of the death of George VI. A total eclipse had the same effect during the Golden Jubilee Test between England and India in 1980. In 1970 the Lord's "Test" against Rest of the World started on a Wednesday, with Thursday off for the General Election. The match was won by Rest of the World, the election by the Conservatives, captained by Edward Heath.

But what did players get up to on all these days off? It was golf, according to most. "Guys would end up playing golf on the rest day in the middle of a Test, which seemed strange," recalls Emburey. "Or they'd go fishing. It's to get away from the stresses of playing. Some would stay in their room and read. Others would go down to the pool and lie in the sun." Clyde Butts, the West Indian, on the rest day of his Test debut in April 1985, got married, though arguably, for an offspinner in that fearsome West Indies attack, most days were a rest day.

"At Adelaide we went to a winery," continues Emburey, "and some players would have a little bit too much." During the 1974-75 Ashes the vineyard trip succeeded where England failed, by stopping a raw but rapid Jeff Thomson. Thommo had 33 wickets in four and a bit Tests, within a nose of Arthur Mailey's Ashes-series record of 36. Then came Yalumba. Later the same day Thommo tried to play tennis, tore shoulder muscles and missed the rest of the series. He never got close to the record again.

Five years later the Australians led the way in doing away with the effeminate day off. But for many years they had Christmas Day off at Melbourne, the Test starting on Christmas Eve. And, in a curious inversion, commercial pressures led to the scheduling of a rest day in 1995-96: the Test broadcasters, Channel 9, wanted to avoid a clash with the Adelaide Grand Prix.

Elsewhere the pattern was patchy. Sometimes the absence or presence of the rest day tipped a series. In 1994-95, Australia beat West Indies in a seminal contest. After 15 years and 29 series West Indies lost and the Aussie reign began. But it might easily have been different. In the decisive Test, West Indies were battling to save the match and series. They might have managed it but the prayed-for rain fell on the rest day - and the rest is history.

Top Curve
The last rest days in each Test country
  • Sri Lanka (v Zimbabwe): December 30, 2001, SSC, Colombo
    West Indies (v India): March 28, 1997, Bridgetown
    England (v India): July 7, 1996, Trent Bridge
    Australia (v Pakistan): November 12, 1995, Brisbane
    Zimbabwe (v Pakistan): February 17, 1995, Harare
    India (v Sri Lanka): February 11, 1994, Ahmedabad
    Pakistan (v Zimbabwe): December 19, 1993, Lahore
    New Zealand (v England): February 15, 1988, Christchurch
    South Africa (v Australia): March 8, 1970, Port Elizabeth
Bottom Curve

There has been only one rest day since 1997. In December 30, 2001, Zimbabwe's Test in Colombo halted for a Buddhist full-moon celebration. At the same ground two years later agitated Buddhist monks tried to storm the stadium and force an impromptu day off. They were angry at a supposed lack of respect for a well-known colleague, who had died the previous week. They failed, though England probably wished otherwise, after they slithered to defeat in Test and series.

Has all of this had much meaningful effect? It made players less tired, says a veteran observer, the Sunday Telegraph's Scyld Berry, somewhat paradoxically. "Players - pace bowlers in particular - have to be half as fit again. The abolition of the rest day made it all the more necessary for players to improve their fitness. No one gets out through tiredness any more."

Emburey agrees and goes on to say that it did not make much difference to English players' overall tiredness. "The end of the rest day meant you ended up having a day off after the Test. Before, you could play for five days, be pretty knackered at the end of it, finish at six o'clock on the last day and end up driving from Yorkshire to Taunton for a Wednesday county game."

Another big effect has been on the follow-on, or so Mark Taylor believes. The former Australia captain argues that captains are now more wary of enforcing the follow-on and tiring out their bowlers. Both Berry and Emburey agree, as did Ricky Ponting when he spared his attack in the Brisbane Ashes Test in 2006-07. Four years previously the Aussie bowlers were so shot after bowling for two successive innings in Melbourne that they were still knackered as England won in Sydney.

Certainly medical research suggests that more bowlers are injured when tired. But did the rest day really affect this dramatically? According to Emburey, recalling some of the wilder rest-day antics, it rather depended on what you got up to. "You might be more knackered after the rest day than you were before."

Paul Coupar is a former assistant editor of the Wisden Cricketer. This article was first published in the April 2007 edition. Subscribe here

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