The last timeless test and the end of a cricketing era

last timeless testReviewer: Archie Henderson

Edging Towards Darkness: The Story of the Last Timeless Test, by John Lazenby (Bloomsbury)

John Lazenby has breathed new life into a cricket relic.

The aficionados are familiar with its bones: in March 1939 at Kingsmead in Durban, South Africa and England played the longest cricket match. It was spread over 12 days, nine of actual play, one which was rained off, and two days’ rest. Yet it still produced no winner.

The bones are easily accessible and you can pore long and hard over the scorecard without giving them the flesh that Lazenby has found.

The match was to be played to the finish because it was the last of five tests and England led only 1-0. There had to be a decider: either South Africa could square the series or England could finish as emphatic winners. There had been 98 previous timeless tests to decide a series, so it was nothing new.

The trouble with this one was the weather and the heavy roller (since outlawed when a test match is in progress). Before play each day, the heavy roller would squeeze any moisture out of the clay that formed the foundation of the wicket and the sun would bake it rock hard, making it a batsman’s paradise.

Bowlers toiled while batsmen thrived. But not all batsmen; South African opener Pieter van der Bijl, who later became head of Bishops Prep in Cape Town, suffered numerous blows to the body from especially Ken Farnes, the fearsome England fast bowler. The duel between the two is just some of the flesh Lazenby puts on the bones. Van der Bijl scored 125 in the first innings and 97 in the second, underscoring his courage.

It’s not all suffering, however. South African batsman Ken Viljoen had two haircuts during the test and the captain, Alan Melville, became so confused about which day it was that he arrived for breakfast on a rest day wondering where the rest of the team were. A waiter needed to inform him there would be no play.

The crew of a flying boat were given complimentary tickets by Melville, and watched some of the game before setting off on the four-day flight to Britain. There they handed the tickets to the returning crew, who were able to watch the same match.

One of the best bits of flesh is the story of Bill Edrich, a fine England batsman, whose form had been abysmal throughout the series. Somehow he was not dropped and arrived at the crease for the second innings having scored only one run in the first and his team in trouble. He set about the South African bowling, becoming the first Englishman to score a double century in a second innings of a test and taking his team within sight of victory.

The night before, Edrich had over-indulged at a party thrown by Tuppy Owen-Smith, a former South African test cricketer and England rugby international, and later a much-loved Rondebosch GP. Edrich was possibly still a little hung over when he strode out to bat.

So why did the match not produce a winner? When rain brought an early end to play on the 12th day, England were a tantalisingly 42 runs short of victory with five wickets still standing. They needed to catch the train to Cape Town in time for the mailboat home. Missing the boat would have meant at least another month’s waiting and with the situation in Europe deteriorating by the day, it was not worth the risk. On March 15, the day after the test match ended, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia bringing the world closer to war. It is against this ominous backdrop that Lazenby has revived the story of the Timeless Test, which brought down the curtain not just on a strange format of the game but on an entire era.


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