Although we are these days used to gripes that pitches have become too batsman-friendly, the heyday of groundsmen preparing surfaces to last for days, if not weeks, was in the 1930s. And that arguably reached a nadir at The Oval in 1938 for the final Test of the last Ashes series before the war.
The 1930s saw the last hurrah of timeless Tests - matches that were played to a conclusion, however long it took. Ashes Tests in Australia had always been played to a finish, but in England the practice only started in 1912, and even then only the last Test of the series was designated "timeless".
Given the need to have a playing surface that would last, groundsmen ended up with pitches that offered little other than heartache to bowlers, and there was often criticism of slow play as some batsmen eschewed all risks, knowing they only needed to keep their wickets, however tortuously the runs came. The two captains in 1938 - Wally Hammond and Don Bradman - were exceptional batsmen who could easily run up huge personal scores. In his previous Tests at The Oval, Bradman had scored 553 runs in three innings.
By the fifth and final Test in August 1938, Australia had retained the Ashes thanks to a win at Leeds. Two Tests had been drawn and one, at Old Trafford, washed out completely. But England could still share the series.
The groundsman at The Oval, Austin "Bosser" Martin, had a reputation of being able to produce pluperfect surfaces, aided by a large team of assistants who pulled a massive four-ton roller, nicknamed Bosser's Pet, back and forth all day, almost rolling the pitch into submission. John Woodcock, who watched the match as a boy, said Martin also bound the pitch together with liquid manure and "you could almost smell it from Oval station".
But despite the "timeless" tag, history suggested the game would not drag on. The previous three timeless Tests at The Oval had lasted four days (1926), six days, albeit after one was lost to rain (1930), and four days (1934). In the latter game Australia won by 562 runs.
England had one setback when two days before the match, wicketkeeper-batsman Les Ames injured a finger he had broken during the Lord's Test two months earlier. The selectors summoned the uncapped Arthur Wood from Yorkshire, a week before his 40th birthday. Unable to catch a train, he had to make the journey from Nottingham, where he had just finished a Championship match, by taxi.
The Test started on Saturday, August 20, and around 20,000 paid three shillings (15p) at the gate to gain admission, with a total attendance on the day of around 30,000. Over the four days of the match, more than 100,000 attended.
Hammond won the toss (the fourth successive time Bradman had called incorrectly), and by the close England had run up 347 for 1 with Len Hutton and Maurice Leyland both scoring big, unbeaten hundreds. The Times was in no mood to celebrate. "Any excuse there may be for time-limitless cricket, or any suggestion it should be more common, was exposed for all to see, the affair reduced to a run-making competition and bowlers were regarded essentially as a luxury."
After a well-earned rest on the Sunday, Australia's bowlers resumed on the Monday with a little more success, although England still closed on 634 for 5, Hutton unbeaten on 300. Rather oddly, three England wickets fell in quick succession: Hammond (59), Eddie Paynter (0) and Denis Compton (1) all were dismissed within the space of nine runs. Compton was bowled, which was described as "bordering on the miraculous" on such a pitch. In his biography of Compton, Tim Heald said that Compton, whiling away time as he waited to bat, bet Paynter £1 that the pair would not make 10 between them. Thereafter, normal drudgery resumed. Five wickets had fallen in two days.
On the third day, England remorselessly ground on in front of another sell-out crowd, but the main attention was on 22-year-old Yorkshire opener Hutton. In the morning, where he scored painfully slowly, he passed Bradman's Ashes record score of 334 and Hammond's record Test score of 336. A waiter brought out drinks on a tray to mark the new record. After lunch he passed the record innings at The Oval - 357 by Bobby Abel - and his 13-and-a-quarter hour marathon finally ended when he drove Bill O'Reilly to cover. He had made 364 off 847 balls and hit 35 fours.
England batted on. At 770 for 6, Wood replaced Hutton and scored easily against weary bowlers. When he was dismissed for 53, he quipped that he "was always good in a crisis". He was also said to have sought out Martin and with a serious face said: "Bosser, there's some holes in your pitch." "Holes?" queried Bosser. "Aye. Six - where t'stumps go in,"
Wood was followed by Hedley Verity, and he had not been at the crease long when at 4.25pm Bradman, bowling only his third over, slipped in one of the deep footmarks left by O'Reilly (at a time there were no repairs made once the game had started) and fractured a bone in his ankle. He had to be carried from the field and took no further part in the match.
O'Reilly was unimpressed. "You'd swear I was an opal miner. I was going down and down and down and he stepped into that and was off. And the crowd that came out to cart him off, you'd swear it was an aeroplane disaster. We didn't see him again on the tour. We waved him goodbye as he left the field, never laid eyes on him again until we got on the ship to go home."
Tea followed 15 minutes later and England declared at 903 for 7, another record in Test cricket. Australia's bowling figures made wretched reading but Chuck Fleetwood-Smith (87-11-298-1) and O'Reilly (85-26-178-3) had both bowled well, O'Reilly in particular causing problems throughout. But he fumed at the antics of the eccentric Fleetwood-Smith. "He made peculiar noises in the field," O'Reilly said. "Gee up, Bess… come on Port Melbourne… hi there… and I'd meet him in the middle of the pitch changing over, and I'd rip into him."
Australia, deprived of Bradman ("like watching Hamlet without the Prince" the Daily Telegraph reported) and Jack Fingleton, who had torn a leg muscle while fielding, showed little stomach for the fight and were bowled out for 201 and 123, the game done and dusted before tea on the fourth day. With the last pair in the middle, Fleetwood-Smith skied a ball into the deep. Confident the game was finished, Wood pulled up the stumps for souvenirs and the umpire removed the bails at the bowler's end. Joe Hardstaff dropped the catch and the wickets had to be reassembled. The end came a few balls later. England had won by a record innings and 579 runs.
Although England had squared the series, most newspaper comment centred on condemnation of timeless Tests and the preparation of the Oval pitch. Jack Hobbs in the Star said the match had completely altered his views. "Had Bradman and Fingleton been able to bat and Australia scored 400 or 500 then England would have gone in again, which would have been purgatory to any cricket lover… I do not want to see another in England." Pelham Warner agreed, adding that "the public will not stand for timeless Tests".
Martin, who had been disappointed when Hammond declared, as he hoped to see a total of 1000, came in for criticism. Bob Wyatt in the Daily Mail urged action against "easy-paced, doped wickets", while Howard Marshall in the Daily Telegraph referred to a "trial of endurance" in which "real cricket was knocked out with a wicket so unhelpful to bowlers".
In the 1939 Wisden, the editor warned: "When cricket ceases to provide excitement for the spectator, when it not once but continually allows working days to be monopolised by two or three batsmen, the rest loafing in the pavilion, then it will cease to attract." In the same edition Bradman warned of the adverse effect of what he called "doping" wickets was having.
The final nail in the coffin of timeless Tests came in Durban the following March, when the fifth Test between South Africa and England was abandoned as a draw after ten days. A leader in the Times said that such games are " null and void of all the natural elements that go to make cricket the enchanting game it is". By the time cricket resumed after the war, timeless matches had been consigned to the history books.
What happened next
- Hutton's record lasted until 1957, when it was broken by Garry Sobers who made 365 not out. England's record score was eventually surpassed by Sri Lanka, who scored 952 for 6 in 1997
- "Bosser" Martin retired as groundsman at The Oval in 1940. He had been with Surrey for 51 years and their head groundsman since 1924.
- In 1968, Surrey brought Bosser's Pet, which had been languishing for years behind the scorebox, out of retirement after a summer of lifeless pitches. Chris Martin, now the ECB pitches consultant but who then had just started on the staff at The Oval, said the result was that "the pitches were slower and lower than ever… that roller was never used again and eventually the pitches were dug up and relaid".
- The ICC proposed timeless matches for its still-born ICC Test Championship.
Denis Compton Tim Heald (Pavilion 1994)
Bradman Charles Williams (Little Brown & Co 1996)
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