“This Durban monstrosity”. This is how the famous journalist Sir Neville Cardus, a specialist in English cricket, named the first-class cricket match which opposed the England team to that of South Africa in Durban in March 1939. This meeting remains in the history of cricket as the longest first-class match ever played… and the last of the Timeless Test.
It was in 1926 that the first Timeless Test was played. As the name suggests, this is a game with no time limit. A first. Needless to say, the stakes are high. That year, England hosted Australia to compete once again for the most famous trophy in cricketing history, The Ashes. Matches are played at the Oval, Kennigton’s famous cricket ground in London. The two teams cannot decide after the first 4 matches. It is therefore decided to make a last match without time limit to force the meeting to give birth to a winner. And England will win the Ashes.
Eventually, the idea caught on. We say to ourselves that these Timeless Tests allow us to decide on a winner. It is true that in the short history of these meetings, from 1928 to 1939, only two Test Matches will end in equality.
This is the case for the last of them, our topic of the day, the longest test match in the history of cricket. We are on March 3, 1939 in Durban, South Africa. The host national team receives the England team. It’s the first day of the game. And it will be far from the last since the match will end on March 14. In the meantime, the two teams will have played for nine days. A match day will be canceled due to rain. The other two days without play will be Sundays, non-working days when cricket is not played.
The game could still have continued or given a winner on March 14, but this last day was thwarted by bad weather, preventing the game from taking place properly. South African officials and those of the prestigious Marylebone Cricket Club, which at the time acted as both the international federation and the British federation, met to see if the match could still be played the following day. But the English team had an imperative. She was to reach Cape Town by train for a journey of more than 1,600 kilometers in order to take her boat on March 17, at the risk of remaining blocked for several more days in South Africa. We thought about playing one more day and sending the team by plane, but in the end, out of wisdom, the match was declared a “draw” and the English boarded their train after 46 hours of play and a lot of ” tea times”.
The English were only 42 runs away from victory with 5 wickets still in hand. Victory, if the rain had not interfered that day, would have had little chance of escaping them. Moreover, the 654 races scored during the 4th inning remains the highest total ever reached in a 4th inning of a First Class match. Another record, this Timeless Test saw the staggering total of 5463 throws. And the teams racked up a combined total of 1,981 runs, another record. England scored 970 runs and South Africa 1,011. Take away the zero and you have a…Nelson! Is this the reason why the South Africans could not win?.
The Timeless Test in Durban sounded the death knell for these games without a time limit. The press does not go hand in hand as we have seen with Sir Cardus. The Times goes on to say that “a match without the discipline imposed by the weather … is void and void of all the elements that will make cricket the enchanting match that it naturally is”. Two weeks later, the Wisden Almanak said, “The No Time Limit Match, we believe is now dead.” And he’s right. Difficulties due to its organization, especially in the event of bad weather like in Durban -it rained almost every evening and the players had to put the pitch carpet in good condition every morning-, as well as the torpor of certain matches marked its disappearance from the landscape of cricket matches. What had made its charm, this idea of an eternal game of the most marvelous of games, had ended up making it unhappy.
However, this idea had not completely disappeared since in the early 2010s, the ICC proposed that the final of its new competition, the ICC World Test Championship, be played without a time limit. The competition was to take place in 2017 but financial difficulties derailed the project in 2014.
Does this mean that this idea has definitely disappeared? Not among cricket enthusiasts since, since 2003, the Guinness Book of Records lists cricket marathons that try to make the game last, continuously, as long as possible. In June 2003, a Franco-English club, the Cricket Club Des Ormes opened the ball with a match of 26 hours 15 minutes played in Dol in Brittany at the Château des Ormes. But the current holder of the title is Loughborough University Staff Cricket Club in Leicestershire. A match that was played in June 2012 and lasted 150 hours 14 minutes. Only.
A record to beat. A record to bring back to France perhaps?
And as a bonus, archive images of the 3rd Test Match between the two teams during the English tour from December 1938 to March 1939. This 3rd Test Match happened towards the end of January 1939 and saw England win after 4 days of matches (including one unemployed). A game of small players, in short.