It began in warm sunshine on Friday, March 3, 1939, and ended in gloom and rain on Tuesday evening, March 14. Billed as a timeless Test, it was abandoned as a draw on the 10th playing day, with England, at 654 for 5, only 42 runs short of what would have been an incredible victory.
Only Australia regularly staged timeless Tests in those days. But for the 1938-39 series, South Africa and England agreed that the fifth Test should be timeless if the rubber was level or one-up. England were one-up, having won the third Test in Durban by an innings.
But no one expected the final Test to go beyond the fifth day. The England team were booked to leave Durban for Cape Town by night train on March 7, for the last tour match against Western Province, before sailing home in the mailship on March 17.
An uncovered, iron-hard pitch, twice revived by heavy overnight or weekend rain, which rolled it out good as new, prolonged the timeless Test. By all precedents the match ought to have ended about the fifth day amid the ruins of a dusty and crumbling pitch.
If the pitch was a batsman's paradise, it was a bowler's nightmare. The perspiring bowlers sent down 5447 deliveries, the equivalent of nearly eight one-day matches by today's standards. England's Hedley Verity bowled 766 balls, nearly a seventh of those delivered in the match. The new ball was taken 12 times.
"Thinking back, my praise goes to the bowlers who toiled on that wicket," Springbok wicketkeeper Ronnie Grieveson told me in Johannesburg. Taking advantage of perfect conditions and the absence of urgency, the batsmen piled up a record aggregate of 1981 runs, notching six individual centuries. Runs came at a rate of 220 a day, rain washing out play entirely on the second Saturday.
If the players didn't expect the match to last, the Imperial Airways (now British Air-ways) flying-boat crews had more faith. South African skipper Alan Melville gave his complimentary tickets to the crew turning round in Durban when the match began. They watched the first day's play and, on reaching Britain after a four-day flight across Africa and the Mediterranean, handed their tickets to the new crew flying south. They arrived another four days later, yet still in time to see the end of the match.
Springbok Ken Viljoen was to remember it as the only time he needed two haircuts during a match.
Australian experience showed that the side winning the toss in a timeless Test usually won the match. So there was undisguised delight on the Kingsmead banks and in the South African dressing room when Melville won the flip for the first time in the series.
Giant-sized Pieter van der Bijl (father of Springbok and Middlesex fast bowler Vintcent van der Bill) set the pedestrian pace, taking 45 minutes to get off the mark, and batting through the first day for 105 not out. But even he was faster than the usually aggressive Dudley Nourse, who spent more than six hours compiling his 103, then the slowest Test century on record.
It was a timeless Test, with no need to get on with the scoringDudley Nourse
"It was a timeless Test, with no need to get on with the scoring," Nourse told me in a chat shortly before his death. "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."
The Springboks batted until Monday for their 530, and when England were dismissed for 316 on the Wednesday, a South African victory loomed. In their second knock the Springboks once again had a century opening stand, reaching 191 before Bruce Mitchell went, followed immediately by Eric Rowan.
With the score still on 191, van der Bijl was involved in high drama. The ungainly opener, who had been battered mercilessly by speedster Ken Farnes, was on 97, within a boundary of becoming the first South African to score a century in each innings of a Test, when he spooned a simple catch to Eddie Paynter from a Doug Wright long-hop. His look of dejection as he plodded back to the pavilion is still remembered.
Abiding memories of the match for Grieveson are his 75 in his maiden Test innings, his stumping Wally Hammond twice, the loyalty of his future wife in watching every ball bowled, "and Pieter's look when he missed his second century".
A mid-innings collapse was averted by Melville and Viljoen, and when the final innings began on Thursday evening England were faced with the colossal target of 696 to win.
The first England wicket fell at 78, just before lunch on Friday. Before that, Hammond took a bold decision. He promoted 22-year-old Bill Edrich, whose best score in his eight previous Tests was 28, from No. 6, to No. 3. Edrich told me on a visit to Johannesburg a few years before his death: "Wally Hammond came into the dressing-room and said jokingly: 'You're going No. 3 this because if you get a couple of hundred we might have a chance'." By stumps Edrich had made a century and England were fighting back.
Rain on the second weekend gave the welcome two-day break. Melville, however, was so accustomed to the daily routine of breakfast at their seafront hotel, followed by a drive to Kingsmead, that he looked around the dining room surprised to see no team-mates in sight.
"They'll be late for the ground if they don't hurry," he complained to a waiter. "But it's Sunday, sir," replied the smiling Indian. There was no play on Sundays in those days.
Eric Dalton, whose legbreaks and googlies reaped him six wickets, told me of the enormous mental and physical strain as the marathon game dragged on. Some nights his wife would hear him appealing at the top of his voice in his sleep. As Dalton did not get a single lbw or caught in the match, his frustration must have been great.
Veteran cricket writer Louis Duffus was fascinated by the Kingsmead regulars, for whom the match became part of life: "Men formed groups and discussed the topics of the day, such as the gathering war clouds, while little bands of women found themselves making remarkable progress with their knitting.
"'See you tomorrow'" was the popular farewell parting," recalled Duffus.
Throughout the cricket world the daily serial at Kingsmead was followed with mounting excitement.
On Monday, play resumed in bright sunshine. Paul Gibb went early after 120 scored in seven-and-a-half hours, but it was not until tea that Edrich was finally dismissed. During the interval a jubilant England manager, Flight Lt AJ Holmes, handed double-centurymaker Edrich a glass of champagne.
"I hear you train on the stuff,' Holmes remarked genially. Edrich gulped a second glass. "I was thoroughly fagged and thought the champagne would get me going again," he recalled. But he was caught at short leg by Norman Gordon for 219 in the first over after tea... er, champers.
Edrich and the Springboks Gordon and Rowan were firm friends by this time, frequently dining together at an Athlone Gardens nightspot after play. A fan obviously spotted them, for he called out during Edrich's marathon innings: "This match wasn't lost at Kingsmead, it was lost at Athlone Gardens". "That remark rather shook Norman and me," Rowan said.
With Edrich's departure at 447 for 3, hope revived for the Springboks, but England ended the day with Paynter and Hammond still together, exactly 200 short of victory with seven wickets in hand.
England wicketkeeper Les Ames, who was on the team selection committee (he confided that out-of-form Edrich was almost dropped for the Test), told me: "No one on the England side even considered we could get 696. But when Edrich scored a double-century, and the scoreboard read over 400 for 2, the whole team was saying 'We can win this match'."
Tuesday was decreed positively the final day, to enable the England team to make the two-day train journey (no plane services then) to reach the Southampton-bound mailship in time. Play began in sultry and blustery conditions, with rain foremost for later in the day.
The fourth-wicket pair remained together till mid-afternoon, when Paynter was caught behind off Gordon at 611. By now the most durable pitch in cricket history was breaking up. Puffs rose as the ball struck bare patches. Storm clouds were gathering too, and the light deteriorated.
Chasing runs in the race against time and weather, Hammond was stumped at 650. Minutes later rain pelted down, providing a dismal and anti-climactic final curtain to a match that was meant to provide a finish.
Down the years there were theories about what might have been. "With Ames and Valentine at the wicket, another half-hour or so would have won the match," Edrich told me. Said Ames: "The weather had the last say, but we were then in with a good chance." Dudley Nourse contended England would have had to cope with a sticky and deteriorating pitch on resumption. "Our bowlers could have exploited that pitch. Anything could have happened," said Nourse.
Eric Rowan supported him: "I have always felt that Wally Hammond made a very shrewd move when, after that heavy rain, he called the game off. Had play resumed, the uncovered wicket could have presented many difficulties to the batsmen."
Perhaps manager Holmes gave the aptest summing-up. Before the mailship sailed he told Duffus: "I'm glad there was no result. It showed that the game was more than victory or defeat. It was out cricket."
Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail email@example.com with your comments and suggestions.
Pieter van der Bijl
South Africa vs England
This article first appeared in Wisden Cricket Monthly