First Test Match

ENGLAND v SOUTH AFRICA 1948-49

D.W.Begbie, C.N.McCarthy, O.E.Wynne; England - R.O.Jenkins, F.G.Mann, R.T.Simpson.

No greater support could have been given to the contention of cricket lovers that an exciting cricket match can provide as intense a thrill as anything else in sport than by the drama of the final stages. With three balls left any one of four results remained possible. Before Bedser brought the scores level with a single from Tuckett off the sixth delivery of the last over, a draw or a tie could be visualised as easily as a victory for either side.

Gladwin hit at but missed the seventh ball. Then in a mid-wicket conference about the last ball he and Bedser decided to run in any event except the wicket being hit. Few of their England colleagues in the pavilion could bear the strain of watching as Tuckett began his run-up. As he did so the fieldsmen started to run in like sprinters towards the wicket to prevent the single which would win the match. Gladwin went into his stumps, swung his bat, but again missed his stroke. The ball struck his thigh and bounced a yard or two in front of him. From short-leg Mann pounced on the ball, but both batsmen galloped to safety. With Bedser and Gladwin executing a jubilation one-step, hundreds of people invading the pitch and some chairing off their varying heroes, there ended a Test which will provide a rich memory for everyone fortunate enough to have participated or to have watched.

By their superior batting in the worse conditions England deserved to win, but, when an hour from time six England wickets were gone for 70 in the task of making 128, the odds looked considerably in favour of South Africa. Their prospects slumped when, for three-quarters of an hour, Compton and Jenkins fought through the speed attack of McCarthy and Tuckett on a pitch from which the ball at times lifted abruptly and at others skidded through scarcely an inch off the greasy turf. At any time during this partnership England would have been justified in appealing against the light. Equally South Africa would have been within their rights in complaining that the steady rain made the ball too slippery for proper hold. The fact that neither team did so and that to the end South Africa did not resort to what would have been legitimately negative bowling tactics exemplified the grand spirit in which the Test was played. When after the dismissals of Compton, bowled by a shooter, and Jenkins, Bedser and Gladwin came together with 12 runs wanted in the last ten minutes the light was turned almost to darkness, and this probably accounted for a missed catch given by Gladwin from the first ball he received. That was the ultimate blow to South Africa.

Nothing was more unexpected than South Africa's first innings collapse. True, the pitch--the same as used for the notorious timeless Test ten years before--was of such character that at one end the ball went through lower than at the other, and Bedser and Gladwin swung late in the humid atmosphere, but the main reason for England's success was superlative fielding. The catch at short-leg by which Watkins, whose fielding largely influenced his selection, disposed of Nourse, typified a day when everything went right for England and most things wrong for South Africa.

When Nourse placed a ball to leg, Watkins dived swiftly to his right and with one hand inches from the turf grasped the catch as he rolled over. That broke the Mitchell-Nourse stand of 51 at a time when the attack looked to have been mastered. It was the turning point of the innings. Next came a brilliant throw by Washbrook, who from right angles to the wicket threw out Wade. Three fine catches by Evans and two by Compton at backward short-leg off Bedser completed England's joy day. After a single by Hutton, bad light followed by rain prevented further play.

Less than three hours' cricket was possible next day before bad light caused an early stoppage. Then came a heavy rainstorm. In the time available England lost two wickets in getting to within 17 of South Africa's total. Hutton and Washbrook began so confidently against the fast-medium bowlers that 50 came in fifty minutes, but upon the introduction of a slow attack the character of the batting changed completely. On a pitch taking spin and from which the ball continued to go through low, Mann, with left-arm slows, and Rowan (off-breaks) pinned down England's premier batsmen. Mann's two wickets in thirteen overs cost only 15 runs.

Batsmen struggled for runs even more on Saturday, which was full of dramatic incident. Before bad light brought play to an early end for the third day in succession, nineteen wickets fell for 199 runs. An important part in the day's thrilling events was caused by a changed decision by Mann on the rolling of the pitch. After a pre-breakfast inspection, Mann asked for the pitch to be rolled early to repair any damage caused by the storm, but he changed his mind before the ground staff arrived, and by delaying the rolling till just before the start ensured that the pitch would not improve.

By the time the heavy roller was put on, a dry crust had formed on the surface and, as the rolling made this crumble, the pitch became all in favour of slow bowlers. At once Nourse brought his spin attack into operation. Mann and Rowan bowled unchanged for the last two hours and three-quarters of the England innings, in which eight wickets fell for 109 runs. The ball turned a good deal and lifted quickly, but Compton was in grimly determined mood. His innings contained no sparkle, but was worth more than many a double century on turf favourable to batting.

Although England were not so well equipped in bowling to take advantage of the conditions, they dismissed four men for 90 before a stoppage for bad light occurred. In order not to handicap his batsmen still further, Nourse did not have the pitched rolled, but he alone shaped confidently against Wright, who showed a return to form. When play stopped an hour from time it was announced that no resumption would be made that evening, but Mann rightly pointed out the possibility of improvement in the light and the first statement was revoked. Even so, no further play became possible.

South Africa began the final day two runs behind with six wickets left. Fine innings by Wade and Begbie, who added 85 for the fifth wicket, raised their hopes to such an extent that although the innings closed for 129 more runs, England's chances of making 128 to win looked no more than reasonable.

Two hours and a quarter were left for play, but five minutes were lost through a knee injury to Nourse and twelve minutes because of a sharp shower. From the start there could be no mistake about England's intentions; but attempts at big hitting involved risks. Off the first ball he received from Tuckett, Washbrook was dropped on the boundary, and when, after the loss of Hutton, Mann promoted himself in the order, he was missed in the deep. In both instances the fieldsman could be excused for not holding a ball made slippery by the persistent drizzle. A superb slip catch by Mitchell, which helped 19-year-old McCarthy to his first wicket, began a remarkable change of fortunes. McCarthy maintained pace, length and hostility in a splendid spell of eighty-five minutes, in which, by taking six wickets for 33 runs in ten overs, he brought South Africa to within an ace of victory. At no time was he other than difficult to play, but Compton and Jenkins warded off disaster while adding 45 for the seventh wicket. Unfortunately for South Africa, the wet ball presented a severe handicap to their spin bowlers, otherwise England's task might have been even harder than it was.

© John Wisden & Co