Cricket: The “Timeless Test” that changed the course of Test Cricket
England Cricket Team on tour of South Africa (1939)
South African Team photo. Batting first, they scored a cumulative of 1011 runs in two innings.
Peter van der Bijl playing an attacking shot during his century in the first South African innings
Bill Edrich (England) playing a shot during his double hundred
Paul Gibb (England) edging one past the slip
Norman Gordon (South Africa) playing- the only test cricketer who lived till 100
The final scoreboard when the match was abandoned
The Kingsmead pitch being prepared before the 10th and last day of the match
The final scorecard of the last timeless test match played (England vs South Africa, 1939)
Norman Gordon, the last survivor of timeless test and a South African pacer who played in the last timeless match, died in 2014 at the age of 103
On March 3 1939, the final test of the 5-match test series between South Africa and England commenced in Durban. Back in the day, test matches did not have an official 5-day rule; instead they were timeless, meaning that the match would not be deemed complete until one of the teams had won. England was up 1-0 in the series and in the expectation that the final test would complete in 5 days, the England team booked a train to leave for Cape Town on March 7. They were to play their final tour match there before sailing home by ship on March 17.
What began with warm sunshine and promise of a fitting end to the series on March 3 ended in a dull affair that changed the course of Test Cricket. The match was marred twice by overnight rain and a slow pileup of runs to prolong the match till March 14, when Day 10 of the test was played. Chasing 696 to win, England need 200 runs to win. With the score reading 654/5 and England needing 42 runs to win, heavy rain pelted down and ensured that no further play was possible.
Since the England team had to make a 2-day train journey so that they could catch their ship on time, it was the last day of what is known as the Timeless Test. With the match having painstakingly dragged on for 10 days and no outcome at the end of it, it was understandable that the match left players, spectators and fans disappointed. English player Bill Edrich said after the match, “…another half-hour or so would have won the match”!
This test match was the last timeless test to be ever played.
Even prior to the series there were already increasing concerns over timeless tests. They were being deemed as becoming increasingly dull with batsmen opting to replace their natural game with a very cautious approach. During the 1928-29 England tour of Australia, the fourth and fifth test matches lasted seven and eight days respectively. Two years later, a test match between West Indies and England in Kingston lasted 9 days before it was forced to a draw as the England team were due to return home.
After the Timeless Test in 1939, the opposition to timeless tests grew louder with both media houses and Wisden calling for an end to them. After the test, the Times said “a match without the discipline imposed by time… is null and void of all the elements which go to make cricket the enchanting game it naturally is”. The Guardian said “…even chess has its limits”.
Soon after, Test cricket went into hibernation as World War II broke out. When cricket made a return after the war with England touring Australia in 1946-47, both boards agreed on 6-day tests. The Invincibles tour in 1948 a little over a year later, when Don Bradman played his last test match and Australia won the series 4-0, was the first time 5-day tests were played in England. And it has remained so since then.
- Andrew Ward, “Cricket’s Strangest Matches – Extraordinary but true stories from 150 years of cricket”, Robson Books, London, 2000, pp. 126-129
- Peter Hayter, “Great Tests Recalled”, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 1990, pp. 56-75
Image Credit: Cricinfo