JOHANNESBURG – The last Timeless Test lasted 12 days, with approximately 46 hours of cricket.
Played between South Africa and England in Durban from March 3, 1939, the English came tantalisingly close to claiming victory in an epic slog.
South Africa had put up an almighty fight, posting a winning total of 695 runs, led by the heroics of Pieter van der Bijl (125 runs in the first innings and 97 in the second), Dudley Nourse (103 in the first innings) and captain Alan Melville, who stroked 103 runs in SA’s second innings.
Meanwhile, all-rounder Eric Dalton was pulling his weight with the ball, ending the game with match figures of 6/159.
With such a run chase, you’d think that the game would be a formality and that the English would capitulate, or the South Africans at least eke out a winning result. Modern-day Test cricket would have it no other way, but the timeless nature of this Test meant the English could dig in.
They occupied the middle for three days in their second innings with no risk cricket and as the 12th day dawned, the ninth day of action – if you exclude the two rest days and the washed out eighth day – they required some 200 runs to beat Melville’s men.
And they probably would have – by tea that day, they required 42 runs and had five wickets in hand.
Down came the rain, by all accounts torrential as is that part of the world’s want, ending the day’s play.
The match was declared a draw by mutual consent on March 14, an outcome few had expected, but the English were scheduled to board their passage back to England on March 17 via Cape Town.
In between, they still needed to travel a good 1 600km to the Mother City.
The world was changing, war was on the horizon and when cricket returned from its enforced six-year hiatus, that which had come before no longer applied.
Due to the unpredictability of a timeless Test and the commercial and logistical problems relating to its nature, the format was abandoned.
It was a necessary change, one that took the current world view into consideration and applied it to the game.
Nearly 70 years later, cricket is still beholden to the traditions decided after the post-timeless Test era.
In the interceding years between the last timeless Test and now, the world has gone through several paradigm shifts – the Atomic Age, the Space Race, the rise of Communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the digital revolution and the information age.
Our reality has changed several times over yet Test cricket is still living in its own fantasy bubble.
It doesn’t help that the powers that run cricket just can’t seem to get a handle on the longest format of the game, but their inaction only further degrades cricket’s most celebrated format.
They ooh and ah, throw in perhaps and maybes, whenever discussions relating to updating Test cricket come up.
In a sport that is increasingly becoming a victim of its own T20 success, something must be done to reinvigorate the longest format of the game.
This past week they were prattling again about cutting a day from Test cricket. That won’t solve the Test problem, though it might plaster over the cracks for a period and it will help the continued dominance of T20s.
But not coming to some consensus regarding the future of this particular format of cricket, will only lead to a path of continued irrelevancy.
If Test cricket is to survive in our modern world, we might have to abandon old notions and traditions.
But sitting on those ideas or revolutionary thinking could mean an unfolding disaster that sees the purist version of the game swallowed up by its shortest format.
Here I refer to former ICC president David Morgan.
Said Morgan: “Another thought that many people have, that we are examining is whether Test-match cricket can be played over four days rather than five, I would be very surprised if within a year, you haven’t seen some significant changes in Test-match cricket.”
That was in June 2009. Since then, nothing has been done.
It’s time for the ICC and Co to get on with it and save Test cricket now.