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1939

Calling time on eternity

How the Durban game 70 years ago sounded the death knell for timeless Tests

Martin Williamson

March 14, 2009

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Oval groundsman Bosser Martin with his heavy roller at the end of the 1938 Test which England won by an innings and 579 runs.  The endless rolling by what was known as "Bosser's Pet" helped turn the Oval pitch into a bowlers' graveyard, England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, August 24, 1938
Oval groundsman Bosser Martin with his heavy roller at the end of the 1938 Test which England won by an innings and 579 runs. The endless rolling by what was known as "Bosser's Pet" helped turn the Oval pitch into a bowlers' graveyard © Getty Images
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Seventy years ago to the day, the timeless Test was finally grinding to a conclusion. As play was abandoned as a draw at tea on the 10th day, the death notices were already being written for the whole concept of matches being played to a conclusion.

In Australia, Test matches had always been played to a finish without any real opposition, but as groundsmanship and machinery became more sophisticated, pitches began to last longer, and with them so did the games themselves. From 1926 in England, if an Ashes series was in the balance at the time of the final Test, it was agreed it would be timeless.

There was also a change in attitude from the batsmen. Whereas they had traditionally played a fairly natural game, the approach became ultra-cautious, as summed up by Dudley Nourse, who ground out a tedious hundred in Durban. "It was a timeless Test, with no need to get on with the scoring," he said. "My attitude was, the longer we batted, the more runs we would score. That way we should probably win. So I felt they would just have to prise me out."

In Australia in 1928-29, the fourth Test had gone into a seventh day, the fifth Test ended after lunch on the eighth. At least both of those produced results. Two years later the deciding Test between West Indies and England in Kingston was given up as a draw after nine days (although the last two were rained off) as the tourists needed to return home for the start of the English summer.

The absurdity of timeless matches was brought home to the English public at The Oval in 1938. The groundsman, Bosser Martin, had established a reputation for everlasting pitches, produced though a combination of loam and endless heavy rolling. While the match is remembered for Len Hutton's world-record 364 and Australia's ignominious innings-and-579-run defeat, the sheer torpidity of the batting as England made 903 for 7 left the press calling for an end to infinite matches, followed soon after by the same from the MCC.

Durban was the nail in the coffin. The main problem was that the uncovered pitch was exposed to overnight rain between almost every day. Doug Wright, who took 5 for 288 in the game recalled that when it was rolled before the resumption the effect was to "repair any slight damage done during the previous day's play".

While the game trundled on, Nottinghamshire's chairman told members at the club's AGM that the "blighting influence of timeless matches" had to be ended since it was causing county cricket to become increasingly dull as the negative approach permeated down from the top.

In a lead editorial the day after the end of the match, the Times said that "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". It concluded that the Test would go on to be remembered "as a monument of endurance and endeavour" rather than "cricket as it should be played".

The Guardian agreed, arguing that Durban "ought to kill any idea of inflicting such performances regularly on us", concluding that "even chess has its limits".


Dudley Nourse cuts for four on his way to a painfully slow first-innings hundred at Durban. 'My attitude was, the longer we batted the more runs we would score' © Cricinfo
 

A fortnight later the 1939 Wisden was published. Even though the Notes By the Editor had been written months before, they could not have been more apt. "The time limitless match we now believe to be dead," Norman Preston wrote, with a large swipe at the groundsmen and their "over-prepared wickets".

Not everyone was convinced. On the day Wisden came out, a member of the Australian board said it would push for all Ashes Tests in England to become timeless from 1942, arguing Durban and The Oval were "freaks".

The debate was overtaken by events. The war ended timeless matches in England, and as a consequence in all parts outside Australia. The public had warmed to shorter games played during the conflict and there was an acceptance - albeit one that soon faded - that brighter cricket was the order of the day.

In Australia the board met on October 12, 1945 and stated its desire to keep the timeless format for the decider in Ashes series. The MCC made clear that it was against the idea in England.

By the time England toured Australia in 1946-47 the two boards had agreed on six-day Tests with an arrangement for a timeless contest in the decider, as was the case on the return trip in 1948. In both instances it was immaterial as the series was done and dusted long before the final Test.

The pace of life in the post-war world had moved on and as the two boards sat down to negotiate the 1950-51 England tour, after two one-sided Ashes series the idea of a timeless game wasn't even raised.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail rewind@cricinfo.com with your comments and suggestions.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.

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