Philip Barker

This week the cricketers of the West Indies fell only 29 runs short of a remarkable one day international victory against England in Grenada.

A supercharged innings of 162 from Chris Gayle so nearly made history after England had posted a towering 419.

The match produced 807 runs in 98 overs. Phenomenal figures, but not a record, and an indication of just how the sport has changed. Granted it was not a Test match, but even in the classic longer form, players are more attacking and matches scheduled for five days often end inside three.

This year, Ireland will play England at Lord's in London in a four-day match.

Eighty years ago most Test matches were also played over four days, but this week in 1939, South Africa and England began a contest that lasted for 10 days and even then finished in a draw.

It came at the end of a long England tour organised by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Club secretary Colonel Rowan Scrope Rait-Kerr and his assistant Ronnie Aird hastened to Waterloo station one October day in 1938 to see the team off. Sir Pelham Warner, Sir Henry "Shrimp" Leveson-Gower and Percy Chapman were also on the platform. 

All three gentlemen had previously captained MCC teams to South Africa.

The leader of the 1938-1939 vintage was Walter Hammond, one of the greatest batsmen of his generation. In those days, only amateur players were allowed to captain England and Hammond had to renounce his professional status in order to lead the team. He was listed in Wisden as "Mr" W.R. Hammond.

This was a time when one of the big domestic matches at Lord's was between the Gentlemen (Amateurs) and the Players (Professionals). In the press, the Gentlemen were listed with full initials but the Players by surname only. 

The pro touring contracts in those days included an allowance for tobacco. The tour bonus was conditional on favourable reports by the tour manager, in this case flight lieutenant Jack Holmes, a true blue amateur of course.

Walter Hammond was among the England players to set sail for South Africa, where a timeless Test match was played ©Getty Images
Walter Hammond was among the England players to set sail for South Africa, where a timeless Test match was played ©Getty Images

"Judging from South Africa's form they will give us a hard fight," he said. "We are taking out a strong side and it is in my opinion about the best that England can call together."

The tour party sailed from Southampton on the Athlone Castle. It did not include Denis Compton who was then a promising youngster and had only just broken into the England team. Compton had a parallel career playing First Division football for Arsenal.

Even so, Kenneth Rankin in the Daily Telegraph wrote: "It is hard to see how this English team can fail to do well."

Their first match of 18 fixtures on South African soil took place on November 8 and throughout that winter, the team played against each of the provincial teams to prepare for the Test series.

After four Test matches, England led the series 1-0.

The last of the series was to be played in Durban. The playing regulations called for the match to be played to a finish "providing the difference between matches won and lost is not greater than one".

The idea had been introduced in the 1920s, and one Test between West Indies and England had even run to nine days.

For the first time in the entire series, South Africa's captain Alan Melville won the toss and chose to bat.

"The wicket was perfect but the batsmen exercised the greatest caution," wrote Louis Duffus, a South African writer who compiled an account of the match for The Cricketer magazine.

South Africa batted through Friday and Saturday, the first two days of the match. In those days there was no play on a Sunday.

Play resumed on Monday and the South African innings finally came to an end. Their total of 530 was the highest they had ever achieved against England in a Test match, but the runs had taken more than 13 hours of play.

There was just time for England to begin their innings before the close.

When England resumed on day four, they scored marginally quicker than South Africa but lost wickets throughout the day.

The tourists were finally dismissed in their first innings for 316, when it was already well into the fifth day.

South Africa had a first innings lead of 214 but showed no inclination to accelerate even though they were in such a commanding position. Openers Pieter Van Der Byl and Bruce Mitchell posted 191. Then Mitchell hit his wicket, and without a further run the South Africans lost two more.

Only 400 spectators made their way to the ground to watch the start of play on day six.

"The wicket again showed practically no signs of wear but the players appeared to be feeling the strain," noted Duffus.

The Times reported that "because of an apparent lack of interest generally in the timeless Test, South African Cricket authorities have reduced the price of admission to one shilling".

Gradually the crowd grew as South Africa pressed on and scored their runs more swiftly. Finally they were all out for 481.

England's target for victory was 696. No team had ever successfully chased such a target.

England's opening batsmen Len Hutton and Paul Gibb, both Yorkshire players, successfully appealed against the light after one ball.

England and the West Indies produced huge scores in Grenada ©Getty Images
England and the West Indies produced huge scores in Grenada ©Getty Images

They resumed on day seven. This was described by eyewitnesses as "’the first time in the match England had the better of a day's play".

By the time they came off for bad light, they had only lost one wicket and scored 253 runs in the process.

Star batsman Bill Edrich reached his century and was 107 not out at the close.

On the eighth day, there was rain. In fact there were two successive days without play because another Sunday meant a second scheduled rest day.

Come Monday morning, play continued. Gibb resumed on 78. He remained very cautious and edged his way towards a century. When he was finally dismissed his score of 120 had only included two boundaries.

By contrast, 46 sixes were hit in Grenada this week.

His innings had lasted seven-and-a-half hours. The second wicket stand with Edrich had realised 280 runs and England were now more than half way to their victory target.

Edrich was finally out for 219 and England skipper Hammond was joined by Eddie Paynter, a diminutive but combative player from Lancashire. They were still together when bad light again brought play to a close.

England were 496-3 which meant they required only 200 runs to win on what would be the 10th day of the match.

Only 39 runs came in the first hour but England did not lose another wicket until after lunch.

With further rain likely, the England batsmen tried to speed up. Paynter was out for 75 and Hammond was stumped for 140.

As rain threatened again, England were now only 42 runs short of victory with five wickets in hand.

The tourists were all too aware that their ship home was to sail in two days time and they still faced a journey of more than 1,000 miles to Cape Town to rendezvous.

After a long discussion it was decided to abandon the match.

The players had left the field at 4pm. Less than four hours later they were on board the overnight train to Cape Town.

It was the longest first class match ever played and had produced a record match aggregate of 1,981 runs for 35 wickets.

"Few people imagined the team had a ghost of a chance of averting defeat, much less of scoring such a colossal total," said the Wisden Cricketer's Almanack. It was emphasised that there are "no limits to the possibilities of what may occur in cricket".

Roy Webber, the distinguished cricket statistician, called it "one of the most extraordinary struggles that has ever been witnessed".

Before the tour, Hammond had promised "we shall do our best to provide attractive cricket". 

"That is our policy," he said.

As the scores reached London, an editorial in The Times fumed: "The lessons are writ large on the monstrous scoreboard. 

The popularity of Test cricket is in decline as other shorter formats take hold ©Getty Images
The popularity of Test cricket is in decline as other shorter formats take hold ©Getty Images

"The most important is that 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."

In the years immediately after the Second World War, Test matches were played over three, four or five days, which then became the norm. Right up to the mid 1970s, an extra day was available if the series remained undecided.

Around the world crowds for Test matches have been falling since the 1980s. Only England have bucked the trend and will no doubt do so again when Australia defend the Ashes in 2019. 

In 1939, after that longest Test of all, the cricket writer E.L. Roberts complained in traditional style with an indignant letter to The Times

"No matter the importance of the match, batting of this dreary description can by no feat of the imagination be called cricket," he said. "It is merely a certain cure for sleeplessness and an infallible recipe for the destruction of public interest in Test cricket."

More recently, former England opening batsman Geoffrey Boycott has long been an advocate of shorter Test matches and some administrators are also keen on the idea. "People simply don’t have time for Test cricket," he said.

The experience of other countries emphasises his point. The Indian Premier League and Australia's Big Bash League attract big numbers but they are played in the evening with cheerleaders, fireworks and music all part of the entertainment package. 

It is possible to arrive in early evening, watch the match and still be home for supper.