History’s Longest Cricket Match

The longest cricket match in history went on for an incredible 12 days - even then, it still ended without a winner! The Test match between England and South Africa took place in 1939 and became known as the "Timeless Test".

Beginning on Friday 3rd March, it continued for 43 hours and 16 minutes. The match, in Durban, saw a total of 5,447 balls bowled and 1,981 runs. Going into the fifth Test of the tour, England had a 1-0 lead, so according to the regulations, the match would be played to the finish, however long it took.

Wally Hammond

© Public Domain

 

How it started

On the first day, England captain Wally Hammond lost the toss and South Africa chose to bat. The day ended with South Africa at 229-2, after the crowd of around 3,000 spectators watched what was described as a day of “quiet and rather grim cricket” by journalist Brian Bassano.

Day two saw spectator numbers boost to 10,000 people, as packed trains from all over the country poured into Durban. Pieter van der Bijl, on a score of 105, faced England's 6ft 6ins tall bowler Ken Farnes, who hit his body so many times that the unfortunate batsman had to leave the field for further padding around his waist to avoid injury! South Africa was on 423-6 at the end of day two.

Torrential rain continued overnight on Sunday 5th March, but it was said the only effect it had on the pitch was to "settle the dust", so play continued on Monday 6th March. By close of play, the South Africans were eventually all out for 530. A newspaper report said: “Just think of it, nearly three days to finish a single innings!”

 

England "disaster"

Day five, Tuesday 7th March 1939, saw England begin batting. Maybe it was because the first innings had taken so long, or perhaps the weather had played a hand but the enthusiastic crowd of 10,000, who had poured into Durban three days earlier, had dwindled just as quickly!

As England began batting but had a bit of a disaster and ended the day 268-7. Admission prices were reduced for the rest of the match to try and lure the spectators back.

On the sixth day, Wednesday 8th March, groundsman Vic Robbin was out rolling the pitch flat at 5.30am, as he had done every day. The England team were all out for 316, trailing by 214, when South Africa went in to bat again. By the end of the day, South Africa was 193-3, after Van der Bijl struck up a good partnership with Bruce Mitchell, exasperating England's bowlers.

 

Half-way stage

Day seven, Thursday 9th March, saw South Africa leading by 458. Press reports described the England fielders as so "exhausted" that every time a batsman was bowled out, they all "flopped full-length on the grass". English bowler Hedley Verity had bowled 766 deliveries by the end of the innings and the South Africans were all out for 481. England was facing what was described as an "impossible" total of 696.

Bill Edrich, who played for Middlesex and Marylebone Cricket Club, had made only 21 runs in five Test innings on this tour. He had subjected himself to a strict regime of early nights and a reduction in alcohol intake and smoking to be fit for the tour, but according to his biographer, he was invited to a party after the disastrous action on the seventh day. He decided things couldn't get any worse, so he went out and had a few drinks. The next morning, Friday 10th March, he was told he was being promoted to number three batsman and that this was his last chance.

He soon made his first Test 50, with Paul Gibb at the other end. As light drizzle began to fall, the match continued and Edrich made it to 107. The day ended with England on 253-1.

 

Record-breaker

On day nine, Saturday 11th March, England should have been in Cape Town to play a final match against Western Province before travelling home, but it had been cancelled. However, the whole day was a washout, due to torrential rain.

Sunday 12th March was another rest day, although it was reported that South African captain Alan Melville had grown so accustomed to going down early for breakfast each day before play that he queried why the hotel dining room was so empty. Someone pointed out it was Sunday and there was to be no play.

The match resumed for its eleventh day on Monday 13th March. On this day, it officially became the longest cricket match in history. Prior to this, the record had been held by the nine-day Test that was played in 1930 between England and the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.

 

Champagne tea

Gibb, batting with Edrich, finally reached his century. He was eventually bowled out for 120, after the partnership put on 280 together. At tea time, Edrich was given a glass of champagne by England's manager, Flight Lt Albert Holmes, even though he was still batting after the break!

Edrich, who was exhausted, admitted he polished off two glasses, as he thought it may give him a boost. Sadly, it appeared to have the opposite effect - two balls later, he was caught for 219. The day ended with England at 496-3.

On the final day of the match, Tuesday 14th March 1939, the England team was supposed to have already left the country on the Athlone Castle, but the ship had sailed from Durban without them! The plan was to take the train to Cape Town and catch the ship there, before it left for England.

 

Final day

As a result, before the day's play started, it was announced this would be the final day, regardless of the outcome, as the England team must leave that night. This was long before the days that they could simply change a flight at short notice and returning by ship was a massive journey.

At lunchtime, England needed 118 to draw level with South Africa, but rain was forecast. Radio broadcaster Jim Swanton, during a live broadcast, received a call from an England fan who was listening to the match, 15 miles down the coast. "Buck up. The storm has just broken at Isipingo!" he advised.

England needed 42 runs and had five wickets. Two batsmen from Kent, Bryan Valentine and Les Ames, were at the crease when they took an early tea due to rain. However, as the bell rang to call the players out for the final session, the rain became torrential and it was apparent that it was set in for the day.

 

Damp squib

Journalist Bill Pollock wrote of everyone's disappointment. He said the players and spectators were keyed up for the drama that they had anticipated was about to unfold. Instead, the match ended on a bit of a damp squib, with the teams officially drawing.

Hammond gave a farewell speech to their South African hosts and admitted he didn't think "timeless" matches were in the game's best interests. "I sincerely hope that the last one has been played," he added. His wish came true and this was the last such match in Test cricket.

Hammond's professional career continued until 1951 and Wisden Cricketers' Almanack dubbed him "one of the four best batsmen" in the history of cricket. His Test career spanned 85 matches.

 

War hero

Verity sadly died a war hero four years later, at the age of only 38. In 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Green Howards and was posted overseas to Egypt and India. He was promoted to the rank of captain, but he was fatally wounded during the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and was buried in Caserta.

Edrich went on to play for Norfolk with his brothers Eric, Brian and Geoff and also their cousin, John. He came from such a big family that they formed a full team of 11 family members. They challenged Norfolk to a one-day cricket match and won!

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