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When time really dragged

England and Kent legspinner Doug Wright recalls a famous and gruelling match in Durban in 1938-39

England and Kent legspinner Doug Wright recalls a famous and gruelling match in Durban in 1938-39

Preparing the pitch at the start of the tenth and final day, © Cricinfo
My most memorable match was the last Test of the 1938-39 tour of South Africa and Rhodesia. This Durban Test was to be played to a finish, and became known as the 'Timeless Test'.
We had had a very pleasant and successful tour, being unbeaten, and winning the third Test. This final Test had created a tremendous amount of interest, and large crowds of all nationalities were expected to see it. It started on Friday, March 3, 1939. Our skipper, Wally Hammond, had won the toss eight consecutive times, so it was hardly surprising that he lost this one. Alan Melville elected to bat.
The overriding factor was the first-class condition of the pitch, which gave the bowlers no help. Further, the light rain which fell most evenings, plus the light roller and the effects of the sun, repaired any slight damage done during the previous day's play. I remember bowling on this 'shirt-front' of a pitch towards evening, and perhaps I just imagined that the ball did turn a little. However, on the following day my hopes of even a slight deviation were dashed. Maybe the wicket on the first day had just a little moisture on the surface, as our two fast bowlers, Perks and Farnes, managed to get some lift with the new ball, Perks bowling extremely well and taking 5 for 100 in 41 eight-ball overs.
The South African innings was opened by Alan Melville and Pieter van der Byl, both of whom had played county cricket. Van der Byl was an Oxford Blue and Melville played for Sussex. With no time restrictions, the batsmen took no unnecessary chances, and it was 45 minutes before van der Byl scored his first single, over three hours before he reached the boundary. Melville, restrained, played a faultless innings of 78 until he stepped on his wicket. The day ended with Bruce Mitchell and van der Byl together at 229 for 2, van der Byl 105 not out after batting for well over four hours.
The second day brought more pretty dour cricket. I soon bowled Mitchell (11), and the next batsman, Dudley Nourse, normally a fine strokemaker, managed, with van der Byl, to add only 17 in the next hour. After a stay of over seven hours, van der Byl was bowled by Perks for 125, his first Test century. Nourse continued to be tied down and after batting for three-and-a-half hours still had only 50 at the end of the day.
It rained quite heavily on Sunday, but the pitch played as well as ever on Monday. Nourse and Grieveson continued to play very slowly till beyond lunchtime. Nourse was first to go, after batting for six hours, yorked by Perks for 103, and Grieveson, who played very soundly for 75, was also a victim of Perks, and the innings closed for 530, made in 13 hours. Hedley Verity, who bowled 55.6 overs, was only hit for his first boundary after the total had reached 500. England opened very cautiously, scoring only 10 in three-quarters of an hour, and play ended shortly after Gibb was caught off Newson for 4, the scoreboard reading 35 for 1. On Tuesday, the overcast conditions seemed to affect the wicket. It may have been the excellent South African bowling and fielding, but, apart from Leslie Ames (84) and Eddie Paynter (62), no-one made many runs, and we totalled 316, leaving us 214 runs behind. South Africa did not even consider asking England to follow on.
The pitch received the usual attention between innings, and the umpires went out again on this the fifth day of a rather farcical match. Van der Byl opened again, this time with Mitchell, and again runs came quietly and steadily. After nearly four hours, 191 had been scored and the openers were still together. Van der Byl was within three runs of his second hundred in the match. Most people were probably dozing in the evening sun -- perhaps thinking of returning home when, suddenly, it all happened -- Mitchell managed to step on his wicket and was out for 89, Rowan, next over, was magnificently caught by Edrich for 0, and van der Byl, in the last over, pushed a catch off me to Paynter at short leg and was out for 97. Three wickets had gone at the same total, and with the score 193 for 3, stumps were drawn for the day with South Africa 407 ahead.
The next day, an outstanding innings of 103 by Melville took their score to 481, leaving England the tremendous task of scoring 696 to win. Ames, the Kent wicketkeeper, kept superbly, letting only seven byes through in 1011 runs. It was about this time that the Athlone Castle was getting ready to steam off down the east coast to Cape Town, on the way home to England. The team had expected to be on board, but as the match was still in progress, arrangements were made to travel by train to Cape Town. The captain of the Athlone Castle, just to let us know he was sailing, sounded three long farewell blasts on the ship's siren as if saying I'll see you in Cape Town.
We usually walked to the ground from the Hotel Royal. By now, we not only knew the way, but many of the shop-keepers and people living on the route. After all, it was the seventh day! A fair amount of good-humoured banter passed between us regarding the 696 runs we needed. No-one gave us the slightest chance.
It could not be said that Paul Gibb was the 'life and soul' of the party, yet he had a great sense of humour, if perhaps at times a little eccentric. He certainly had an enormous appetite and a great fondness for oranges and peaches. His breakfasts during the epic struggle were quite unbelievable, his excuse being that he had to fortify himself for a long innings.
The final innings was opened by Hutton and Gibb, both Yorkshiremen and capable of laying a sound foundation for this massive task. Hutton was a little unlucky in dragging a ball onto his wicket: 78 for 1. I must admit that we were slightly surprised to know that Bill Edrich had been promoted to No. 3, particularly after his rather meagre scoring in the last four Tests. This confidence shown by Wally was more than repaid. Bill and Paul stayed together until the end of the day, when the total was 253 for 1, Bill 107 and Paul 78. It rained on Saturday -- not a ball bowled.
Monday, the ninth day, and once again the wicket rolled out well after rain and sun. At lunch we were 331 for 1. During the afternoon Paul was at last out, after nine hours of patient and controlled batting. He hit only two fours in his 120. We then saw Hammond at his best. What a player he was! Not only did he keep the score moving rapidly, but each shot, so superbly played, gave much aesthetic pleasure. Bill Edrich, who no doubt fortified himself with a slightly different menu from Paul, was out after seven hours 40 minutes, having scored 219, and then Paynter, the little Lancashire left-hander, joined the skipper until the end of the day's play, when the total was 496 for 3.
Tuesday, the tenth day, was the last it was possible to play, as we just had to get that ship in Cape Town. The weather was rather cloudy and rain was forecast. Hammond and Paynter, realising they had to force the pace, played some of the best cricket of the game. Hammond was out, stumped for 120, and Paynter, bowled by Gordon, for 75. With Ames and Valentine together, the weather worsened and with the score at 654 for 5, the threatened downpour burst on the ground and the 'play-to-the-finish Test' was left unfinished. I have no doubt that we would have managed the 42 runs needed to win, but that really didn't matter.
Since then, not surprisingly, there have been no more Timeless Tests!!