THE LONGEST GAME EVER PLAYED
The game started on Friday 3 March and it ended 12 days later, after 43 hours and 16 minutes of play, 1,981 runs, and 5,447 balls. After all that, it still lacked the one thing it was supposed to have – a winner.
Day one, Friday 3 March, South Africa 229-2
Seemed Wally Hammond had the devil’s own luck. He had won eight straight tosses since he became England captain, a streak that started in the summer of ’38 and stretched all the way through the first four Tests of the winter tour of South Africa. Hammond, never the most imaginative of captains, chose to bat each time. In South Africa, this strategy had worked well. England’s batting was strong, South Africa’s bowling weak, and the pitches flat. “Pluperfect”, Jim Swanton called them. England had a one-nil lead, then, leading into the fifth Test. Which meant, according to the regulations drawn up by the boards beforehand, that it would be played to a finish, however long it took.
That made the toss more important than ever. Most predicted that it would start to break up soon enough, and that the match would be over inside five days or so. Hammond’s opposite number was Alan Melville, who had grown so sick of losing the toss that he abandoned the lucky half-crown he had been using, and threw, instead, a three-penny bit lent him by one of his players. As the captains walked out, nine of Melville’s players lined up on the dressing room balcony to watch. The 10th sat inside, recalled batsman Dudley Nourse, “with fingers crossed hoping thus to be of assistance.”
“Melville spun, bent down anxiously to scan the coin, and rose with a smile.” Melville flashed his thumbs up towards his players. “And jubilantly we went in to tell our team-mate that his crossed fingers had done the trick.” Hammond had lost at last. In the minutes before he went out to open the batting, Melville told his batsmen that they should look to “camp on the wicket”, since “the longer we stayed there the sooner the wicket would begin to wear”.
So they did. Melville made 35 runs that morning. His partner, Pieter van der Bijl, made 12. “He never believed in unseemly hurry in any sphere of life,” Nourse wrote of his team-mate. “His speech and his batting both proved him to be patience personified.” England’s attack was led by Ken Farnes, 6ft 6in and, according to Jackie McGlew, “ferociously fast” with it. Farnes recalled Van der Bijl as a player of “great determination and concentration”, “an excellent judge of the ball to leave alone, he was very hard to shift indeed”. And so the crowd of 3,000 or so were treated to what was, wrote journalist Brian Bassano, “a morning of quiet and rather grim cricket”.
The afternoon was at least a little more lively. At 2.25pm, three hours after play had started, Melville hit the first boundary of the day, off a no-ball. At one point,Hedley Verity bowled a spell of nine over for eight runs. Melville eventually fell for 78, but Van der Bijl batted on to the close. “An innings of painstaking defence,” wrote Bassano, “enriched by vividly contrasting passages of attack.” At one point, he snapped, and struck 22 off a single over by Doug Wright. “Then, as if horrified at such a spate of scoring, he retired once more to his slow plodding way,” wrote Nourse, “as though offering an apology to all bowlers thereafter for a lapse from grace and good manners.”
Day two, Saturday 4 March, South Africa 423-6
“Packed trains from other parts of the country streamed into Durban,” wrote Bassano, “where several of the hotels were fully booked.” A crowd of 10,000 was at the ground, where Van der Bijl batted on. His score was 105 at the start of play. And it was still 105, 30 minutes later. At one point Farnes, despairing, set a field of eight men behind the bat, and the ninth close in on the leg side. Not so much an invitation for Van der Bijl to try to drive, as a plea. When that failed, he started to bombard him with short balls instead. Nourse was in himself now. “Van der Bijl was not quick on his feet and since he was slow to move he took the simple and painful course of allowing Farnes’ deliveries to hit him on the hip or body rather than risk the possibility of deflecting one where eager hands were awaiting a catch.”
At one point, Van der Bijl asked Hammond’s permission to leave the field. He reappeared soon after, “much stouter”, “his waist having been thickened with extra padding”. Of course Farnes’ next ball hit him on the leg, and “the crowd laughed as he limped around in pain.” Nourse watched from the other end. “Never once would Van der Bijl wince as the ball hit his body, though he did often rub his side. He would call to Farnes: ‘Cut it out, Ken.’ Whereupon Farnes would grin at him and deliver another in the same spot.” At one point, Van der Bijl asked, “with an obvious touch of annoyance”, “will you please stop it now, Ken?” That, said Nourse, “was the strongest protest I heard him utter.”
Soon after lunch England got him, at last, bowled by an in-swinger. He had made 125 in seven hours and eight minutes, at that point the longest ever played by a South African. Nourse batted on to the close, unbeaten on 77 at stumps. Day three, Sunday 5 March, was a rest day.
Day four, Monday 6 March, England 35-1
It rained right through Sunday night, and on into Monday morning. But, Bassano wrote, “it seemed to make no impression on the pitch other than to settle the dust.” Nourse resumed. The previous year, he had played one of the great innings, 231 on a matting wicket against the Australians, at the old Wanderers in Johannesburg. He had collared both Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O’Reilly, in an innings of wild abandon, rich with “bold on-side strokes” and “blazing square cuts”. Nourse, wrote Louis Duffus, was “almost the only player in the team whose sole aim was to show the bowlers who was master”. His batting “invariably brought a refreshing gust to the drab ordinariness of the innings”.
There were only two occasions that Duffus could remember when Nourse had “played out of character”. And this was one of them. “I took longer over that century than any other I had ever made,” Nourse wrote later. If the manner of it was uncharacteristic, the spirit was in keeping with the man. “Conspicuously unostentatious,” Duffus wrote of Nourse, “he nonetheless carried to manhood the unquenchable dare to demonstrate who was the better man.” Nourse himself wrote: “The only joy in its execution was that I was getting my own back on the bowlers, particularly Verity.” It was a stalemate. Soon after lunch, Verity conceded a four, his first since Friday afternoon. “The spectators bore the snail’s pace with stoic calm.”
Nourse eventually lost patience, and played on, trying to whack Reg Perks’ bowling out of the ground. But his partner Ronnie Grieveson batted on. Grieveson was making his debut. His girlfriend sat through every ball of the match, and he would say later that he was so impressed by her loyalty that he ended up marrying her. South Africa were eventually all out for 530 later that afternoon. “Just think of it,” Nourse wrote, “nearly three days to finish a single innings!”
Day five, Tuesday 7 March, England 268-7
“For most reasons, I should prefer to draw a veil over the final Test match,” Ken Farnes wrote in his journal when the tour was over. “There was so much batting it would be tedious to mention details.” The crowd, by now, had dwindled from the thousands down to the hundreds, and so at the end of play it was announced that admission prices were being reduced for the remainder of the match.
Day six, Wednesday 8 March, South Africa 193-3
The players arrived to find, as they had on days before, and would do again on the days ahead, that the groundsman Vic Robbins was out in the middle with his mule, rolling the pitch flat. Playing regulations stipulated that he could do this each morning if it had rained the night before. “This chap,” Swanton said,” was out there at 5.30 in the morning. In effect the rolling made a new cake, which the tropical sun had dried out by the start of play. The wicket became easier and easier.” England, despite that, were all out for 316, and so trailed by 214.
Melville could have enforced the follow-on, but didn’t consider it for even a minute. “This was an opportunity of piling on the agony,” wrote Nourse, “and making certain of victory by leaving England an impossible total.” So Van der Bijl started all over again, this time in partnership with Bruce Mitchell. “None made unnecessary haste,” observed Nourse. England’s bowlers, exasperated, indulged themselves. Perks delivered from two yards back of the crease, Farnes followed through though he had dropped the ball during his run-up. “As day followed day,” he wrote, “and we trooped in and out of the pavilion, the whole performance became somewhat ludicrous.”
Van der Bijl just kept blocking, dropping the ball down by his feet. He spent half an hour with his score stuck on 47. Mitchell, who Farnes reckoned “must easily win the cup for being the slowest bowler in the game”, batted at a similarly sluggish pace. He trod on his own stumps after spending just under four hours making 89. Van der Bijl made it to 97, three runs away from becoming the first South African to score centuries in both innings of a Test. But he had become so becalmed that when Wright sent down a full toss – “hit it!” shouted Nourse – all he could do was pat it back to the bowler. Two balls later he was caught.
Day seven, Thursday 9 March, England 0-0
Melville was a dapper man. “A gentleman to his fingertips,” wrote McGlew, “sleek, suave, and sophisticated”, the very “personification of grace and charm”. He had studied at Oxford in the early 30s, and spent two seasons as captain at Sussex soon after. He was, McGlew said, “invariably turned out like a member of the landed gentry in the days when having your tailor was de rigueur”. Shirtsleeves buttoned at the wrist, sharp creases in his cream flannels, a fine white cravat knotted inside his collar. In England he had played “with carefree flair”, “a magnificently casual cricketer, popular and a crowd-pleaser, the sort of glamorous amateur who delighted fans.” However, he hardened up after he returned to South Africa. He had been made captain Transvaal, and then of the national team, and the responsibility, as England were learning, had caused him to “adopt a far more serious approach to the game”.
Here Melville had hurt his leg, and so came in at No6, with his team already leading by 458. England now so exhausted that when they dismissed Ken Viljoen, every player on the field “flopped full length on the grass”. Hammond made Paul Gibb take on the wicket-keeping, just to give Les Ames a break. Ames had been behind the stumps while 916 runs were scored, and had conceded only six byes. Melville, merciless, rattled off 103, sprightly, by the standards of the match, in two hours and 40 minutes, and showing something of his old style as he struck three on-drives in a single over by Wright. South Africa were all out for 481, having scored at all of 2.5 runs an over in their second innings. That made it the fastest of the match. At the end of the innings, Verity had bowled 766 deliveries, and England were left facing that “impossible total” of 696.
Day eight, Friday 10 March, England 253-1
That night, Bill Edrich got blind drunk. His batting on tour had been so bad that his form had, so his biographer said, “passed into the currency of musical hall jokes”. He had made 88 in the 11 Test innings he had played, and only 21 runs in five on this tour. A convivial soul, Edrich had “subjected himself to a strict regime of early night and strictly rationed drink and smoking” in an attempt to improve his form. He had made a single in the first innings and now, in the knowledge that it couldn’t get any worse, he decided to break his rule and go to a party given by his old Middlesex team-mate Tuppy Owen-Smith. His team-mates had to put him to bed, and then shake him awake the next morning.
Soon after Edrich got to the ground, Hammond told him he was being promoted up to No3. “This is your last chance, Bill,” Hammond said, “don’t be afraid to go for the ball if you see it.” So he did. When Len Hutton was out for 55, Edrich was in. He hit the first ball he faced for four, and had soon made his first Test fifty. At the other end, was Gibb, “in a state of restless concentration”, adjusting his sleeve, cap, and spectacles, then shuffling his before every ball he faced. “Now and again, between balls that call for no action, he will play an imaginary drive as if to refresh his memory of a stroke that might otherwise be forgotten.” As the day wore on, light drizzle fell. It kept clouding Gibb’s spectacles, and Edrich ended up having to farm the strike to protect him. At stumps, Edrich had 107, Gibb, who had batted through the day, 78.
Day Nine, Saturday 11 March, washed out by the rain
England were, by this point, supposed to be in Cape Town already, where they were due to play a final three-day match against Western Province before sailing home. The game had long since been cancelled.
“By this time,” Nourse wrote, “we had become thoroughly tired of the game and the usual witticisms were replaced by ironic laughter. Most of the joy seemed to have gone out of the game and we played merely because we were compelled to complete a contract we had started.” Ken Viljoen joked that he and his colleagues would be afraid to ask for leave in the future in case their employers referred back to the game. Eric Dalton said that his wife had complained that he had been appealing in his sleep.
Day 10, Sunday 12 March, another rest day
Melville was now so used to the daily routine of taking an early breakfast at the hotel before making the drive into the ground that he came down at his usual hour, and was surprised to find the dining room was empty. “They’ll be late for the ground if they don’t hurry,” he said to the waiter. “But it’s Sunday, sir,” the waiter replied.
Before the match began, Melville gave a pair of complimentary tickets to the crew of an Imperial Airways flying boat, who were making a turnaround in Durban. They had watched the first day’s play, then set off on the four-day journey to Britain. This Sunday the same plane was back in Durban, having been there and back again. The new crew had borrowed that same pair of tickets, and came down to the ground for the denouement.
Day 11, Monday 13 March, England 496-3
This was the day in which the match became the longest ever played, surpassing the Test between England and the West Indies at Kingston in 1930. That game had gone for nine days, plus one for rest, but there had been no play on either of the final two. Now, at last, the players began to feel that the match was reaching a climax. Nourse was sure that all the rain would play havoc with the pitch. “We came to feel there would be fun and games at last,” wrote Nourse. And so there were. Gibb and Edrich carried on batting, on a pitch that seemed to be as “hard and solid and as a rock.” After six hours of batting spread over four days, Gibb finally reached his century, the slowest yet scored by an Englishman. It included two fours. That afternoon, he was finally out for 120. He and Edrich had put on 280 together.
“We knew we weren’t out of the woods,” Nourse noted dryly, “there was still Edrich, Paynter, and Hammond to follow, with Ames and Valentine too.” At tea, England’s manager, Flight Lt AJ Holmes, gave Edrich a glass of champagne. “I hear you train on the stuff,” Holmes said. Edrich polished off two glasses. “I was thoroughly fagged,” he explained, “and thought the champagne would get me going again.” Two balls later, he was caught at short leg for 219.
Day 12, Tuesday 14 March, England 654-5, match drawn
England’s ship, the Athlone Castle, had sailed from Durban six days earlier. They were supposed to be on it, but had arranged, instead, to take the train to Cape Town and board it there. It was due to depart for Britain on 17 March. So, before the start of play, it was announced that this would be the last day of match, as England would have to leave Durban that evening. They needed to score 200 to win, and there was rain forecast for later in the day. “We realised we had to restrict the rate of scoring at all costs,” wrote Nourse, “and allow the batsmen to get themselves out when the weather intervened.” Hammond and Paynter pressed on, unperturbed.
At lunch, England needed another 118, and had seven wickets in hand. “Spectators poured in,” wrote Bassano, “to see the last few hours of this amazing match.” Soon after the interval, Swanton, who was doing a radio broadcast, received a message from an England supporter, tuning in 15 miles down the coast. “Tell Hammond to buck up. The storm has just broken at Isipingo.” When Paynter was out for 75, Jack Holmes ran out with a fresh pair of gloves for Hammond, so he could pass on the message. Hammond started to hit out, just a little too late. The showers started. In the rush, Hammond was stumped and soon after everyone went off for an early tea.
England needed 42 runs, and had five wickets in hand, with two Kent batsmen, Ames and Bryan Valentine, still together. Even as the bell was ringing to call them out for the final session, the rain started again. So heavy, now, that play was washed out for the day. “By the sheer cussedness of things, the game was just then in an interesting stage,” wrote the journalist Bill Pollock. “The players were keyed up, the spectators agog over the drama that might unfold before the final curtain.”
The South Africans suggested that England make alternative travel arrangements, so that play could be finished the next day. They could have flown out the next morning. Hammond, though, had had enough. And so the match was called off. As he said in his farewell speech: “I don’t think timeless Test matches are in the best interests of the game, and I sincerely hope that the last one has been played.” He got his wish.
“The feelings of everyone involved were poignantly summed up by the picture of the lone groundsman collecting the stumps at the end of the match,” wrote Jonty Winch. “The fact that not one player took the least notice of the man and what he was doing reflected the jaded attitude that everyone had towards the match.”