"It lasts five days… and you still don't necessarily get a result." So goes the standard jokey explanation of Test cricket to the uninitiated (incredulous Americans usually). The anachronistic qualities of Tests are part of the attraction for some, of course, although the idea of playing on and on without resolution has always been ripe for mockery. As Lord Mancroft quipped: "Cricket is a game which the English, not being a spiritual people, invented to give themselves some conception of eternity."
Never was this more apparent than during the fifth Test between South Africa and England in 1939 - a match quite literally out of time. From Friday March 3 until Tuesday March 14, the teams contested the most infamous draw in history: the "Timeless Test" lasted ten playing days (although one was rained off) and two rest days, encompassing 43 hours and 16 minutes on the field, 1981 runs and 5447 deliveries, and 12 new balls. "It has always puzzled me what the meaning of eternity is," mused the South Africa opener Pieter van der Bijl, presaging Mancroft. "Now I have a good idea."
The rain returned on the tenth day at Kingsmead, with England agonisingly 42 runs short of a world-record fourth-innings chase of 696. There was no option of extending the game any further, as the tourists had to board a train for their two-day, 1000-mile journey back to Cape Town, where the steamboat Athlone Castle was waiting (having already left Durban without them). One of the underlying anxieties that meant England could not delay their departure was the threat of war in Europe; on March 15, the day after the Test was abandoned, Hitler's troops marched into Czechoslovakia.
This is the story meticulously researched by John Lazenby for Edging Towards Darkness, which sets one of the game's great curiosities in its full historical context. Or, as Lazenby puts it, presents "the jarring juxtaposition of play ticking over at the pace of a grandfather clock winding slowly down, while Europe hurtled inexorably towards war". Tragically, three of the players involved would give their lives in the conflict that followed.
While timeless Tests were a feature of the era, usually when the series was on the line, some were beginning to lose faith in the idea. England had racked up 903 for 7 against Australia at The Oval and, although the match only lasted four days, Neville Cardus was among those to pour disdain on the concept, which many saw as a test of endurance rather than of skill. (Australia stood alone in making all of their Tests timeless, which contributed to the remarkable record of there not being a single draw in the country between 1882 and 1947.)
The Durban decider in 1939 was the 99th and last of its kind - fittingly, given its torturous progression and farcical end. Described by Louis Duffus, a South African journalist who sat through it all, as "the father of all Test match freaks", it was a spectacle both compelling and repulsive. The gate receipts of £3640 from the first five days (after which the admission fee was waived) were a Kingsmead record, and people continued to be drawn in. "Despite the fact that the match was considered to have become dreadfully dull, there were always five or six thousand present by the afternoon," Duffus wrote.
Although most thought the Test would be over in five days - and England had a final tour match scheduled against Western Province on March 11 - the rejuvenating effects of rain and the heavy roller repeatedly cast the playing surface anew. After the teams had left, EW Swanton, in South Africa commentating for the BBC, went out to inspect the following morning and confirmed that "the business end of the pitch was still flawless".
The players involved, many of whom gave marathon performances to no end, were almost unanimous in their dissatisfaction (the South Africa wicketkeeper, Ronnie Grieveson, was a notable exception). Bill Edrich, fuelled by desperation and champagne, walked out in England's second innings and blazed 219 - his previous highest score from 11 Test innings was 28 - although that was not enough to prevent him being dropped the following summer. Hedley Verity sent down 766 balls, a number only exceeded on one occasion since. Norman Gordon's tally of 738 remains the most delivered by a fast bowler in a Test.
Gordon, who went on to become the first international cricketer to reach 100 years of age, returned figures of 1 for 256 in what would be his last appearance for South Africa. When the ICC floated the idea in 2011 of returning to timeless matches in order to decide the proposed Test Championship, Gordon's opinion was canvassed. "I bowled 92 eight-ball overs in the timeless Test, which equals 120 six-ball overs, to get just one wicket," he said. "And I hope nobody has to go through something like that again."
So is Edging Towards Darkness a timeless read? Well, yes and no. It is a considerably more breezy experience, and if anything, likely to leave you wanting more. As with Lazenby's previous book, The Strangers Who Came Home, the level of detail is hugely rewarding: Ken Viljoen having his hair cut twice during the match is the sort of anecdote which rightfully makes it on to the dust jacket, but there are other gems, such as Gordon's "lucky coin", which caused Walter Hammond to call incorrectly for the first time in nine Tests as captain, and Bill Ferguson, the MCC scorer, fearing that he would run out of pages in his scorebook.
Almost 80 years on, Lazenby has carefully reconstructed the story of one of the game's most notorious Test matches and a tour that was played beneath the gathering clouds of World War II. "The Durban timeless Test of 1939 was the final gasp of a cricketing epoch, a sparkle of innocence and glamour that disappeared forever," he writes. It may have been a "monstrosity" as far as Cardus was concerned, but the topic remains endlessly fascinating.
Edging Towards Darkness: The story of the last timeless Test
By John Lazenby
£16.99, 310 pages