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The era of Timeless Tests


I was pondering over why big hundreds not coming in from batsmen anymore. The Ranji trophy, Duleep trophy and Irani trophy would witness scores of 200 plus, sometimes even 300 plus. Batsmen would bat for days, as epitomised by the best opening batsman of his era, Sunil Gavaskar.It was the Bombay cricket that was famous for all those big hundreds because cricketers from all over India would converge at Mumbai to play the coveted Times Shield cricket tournament, a tournament started by the Mumbai Cricket Association in 1930. Mumbai batsmen of those times were called ‘khadoos’, which means ‘impregnable’, in this case the reference was to their concentration and defence. They used to play for hours together and grind the opposition to pulp.

The Times shield, which started with one division and twenty teams, now boasts of six divisions and 152 teams. The highlight of the tournament was its final match, played on a ‘play-to-a-finish’ basis. That means the match would go on till one team surpasses the target set by the other team or the other team takes twenty wickets to win the match. There were no draws or ‘win-on-first-innings’. Therefore, the match would either be played six days at a stretch or would get over in two days, depending on the match conditions.

This idea could have been influenced by the decision taken in 1926 by the then test playing countries England, Australia, West Indies and South Africa. The decision was made due to poor response of crowds due to frequent draws that occurred in those years. It was found that though the decision was successful and results were obtained, matches went on normally for five days, sometimes spilling over to the sixth day. Only a few matches went on for a record number of days and that stimulated authorities to re-consider the decision of ‘timeless tests’. It was found out that the reason of the original decision, lack of crowds, prevailed after the sixth day and by the end of the tenth day the crowd was a trickle.

The Australians had their first taste of an elongated ‘timeless test’ in a test that went on for eight days, starting from March 8 and ending on March 16, 1929, with March 10 being a rest day. Being the fifth test of the series, which England had already won, organizers decided that the test would be timeless. England crawled to 240 for 4 on the first day and to 485 for 9 on the end of the second day. Jack Hobbs (142) and Leyland (137) scored centuries. Patsy Hendren (95) missed making one. England eventually was bowled out on the day after the rest day for 519. The run rate was 2.41 for an eight-ball over. Australia started their reply and played very cautiously to post 491 at the end of the fifth day with twenty-year-old Don Bradman scoring 123 and Woodfull scoring 102. Australians scored runs at only 1.80 per over and George Geary, the England medium pacer, bowled 81 eight-ball overs in the two days, scalping five wickets in the process. However, the over rate had to marvelled at as Australia bowled 215 eight-ball overs in a matter of a little more than two days play. England bowled 271 overs as they were grounded for little less than three days on the field.

By now the England players were home-sick after a long tour and they succumbed to their fatigue, but not before scoring 257 at a healthy run-rate of 2.97, which showed that they were eager to go home. But Australia had other ideas. They took nearly two days and 134 overs at a rate of 2.13 runs per over to score the 286 required to win the match to end England’s ordeal. This was the last ‘Timeless Test’ to be played in Australia.

The second such test was played in Kingston, Jamaica, from April 3 to April 12, 1930, where the West Indies needed 481 to win at the end of the ninth day. But the match was called off as again England had to go home.

In between, 33 matches of this type were played, but they ended in five to six days, which was quite normal. But the one test match that ended all this was played between South Africa and England at Durban for ten days on  in March of 1939. It was again the final match of the five test series with England leading the series 1-0 with 3 tests drawn, which must have prompted organisers to have a result. Little did they fathom what the test had for them in store, as it continued to tighten the noose after every passing day with players refusing to leave the crease. This was the height of tenacity shown by cricketers by far.

The match started with South Africa choosing to bat and posting 530 at 1.96 runs per 6-ball over and it took them nearly three days. At the end of the third day England were 35 for 1. England were bundled out for 316 on the fifth day and by the end of the fifth day’s play, the South Africans were in a commanding position at 193 for 3. England cut short the innings for 481 on the sixth day, but had the daunting task of scoring 696 to win the match.

English batsmen showed what they were made of as they started the chase in right earnest, with meticulous planning. At the draw of stumps on the seventh day, England were sitting pretty with 253 for 1. On the eight day, it rained and the entire day’s play was cancelled. On the ninth day, England was truly on track for an historic win when they ended the day at 496 for 3. Gibb (120) and Edrich (219) had put England firmly on track and with skipper Hammond batting on 58, the win was possible.

England was on 654 for 5 on the tenth day when there were signs of impending rains and Hammond batting on 140 was told to go all out. He was stumped and the skies opened and no more play possible. Forty-two runs were needed on the eleventh day to win but it could not happen as England had to board the boat the next day. That was the last boat for a long time as the Second World War had spread its tentacles and English players had to rush home.

What could have been an incredible win could not materialise and that ended the era of ‘Timeless Tests’.

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