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Timeless Test matches: Play until there's a result

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29th June, 2020

A Test match without a final, fifth day’s play scheduled is hard to contemplate.

Imagine arriving at the first day’s play realising if the match was contested with slow batting, it could stretch well past the five days we are used to.

If you were planning to attend the Boxing Day Test, you’d be rationing out all those Christmas day leftovers as you considered if there was enough turkey and bread rolls to last you for a match that could extend beyond those five days.

Yet this is how Test matches were once played. From 1877 to 1939 Test matches were played until a match was won. (In Australia all Tests were played to these rules). If you could organise your holidays, there was the possibility of spending over a week at a Test match. Despite that many finished within the time we are used to now.

Timeless Test matches played havoc with schedules. At times a match had to be abandoned because players needed to be on a ship to travel to their next venue or return home. Another complexity was that in Australia pitches were left uncovered through the match, meaning conditions deteriorated severely through the game. When matches extended for long periods, the potential for bowlers and fielders in particular to be exhausted was a problem.

The long format enabled a few mammoth scores as well as some intriguing contests. One of the last timeless Tests played was between England and South Africa in 1939. It stretched from third March to 14th March. Having said that, fifth and 12th March were declared rest days.

Play on the eight day was also not possible. South Africa produced 530 runs over 202.6 overs. England responded with 316 from 117.6 overs. South Africa’s second innings tallied 481 from 142.1 overs. England’s reply was 5/654 from 218.2 overs, a credible run rate of three per over.

This left over 680 overs bowled. A marathon effort, considering overs included eight balls. At 90 overs a day, a current Test match could stretch to around 450 overs. You were wondering about the result of that 1939 match? After all that it was still a draw! (By agreement).

Generic cricket ball image.

Cricket ball

It would be easy to assume that longer games constantly produced higher scores. Overall this wasn’t the case, although there is a peppering of large scores that occurred during timeless Test matches. But they weren’t unduly large by today’s standards.

There is a 600 score made by Australia against England over 149.5 overs in the second Test played in January 1925. That was a Test played over seven days. During December 1928 England scored 636 against Australia during 272.1 overs, a match lasting six days.

One especially high score is 695 made by the Australians against England, featuring Don Bradman making 232. The Australian total was scored over 256.1 overs. This was during August 1930, played at The Oval. It was a match of six days.

During April 1930 in the fourth Test at Sabina Park, England put together a handy 849, taking 258.2 overs. With a run rate over 3.0, it would have been an entertaining, if not lengthy knock. The match was declared a draw on the ninth day.

After all, England had a boat to catch. While the match was long, there were two days where conditions prevented play.

In 1938 a Test was played between England and Australia at The Oval, England. Play commenced on 20th August. Even though this was a timeless test, the match only went to 24th August. (21st August was a rest day). England scored 7/903.


Aside from a contribution from Len Hutton of 364, the match was also notable for being the highest innings score featuring a batsman out for a duck.

(Eddie Paynter being the culprit. Imagine how he must have felt!) So while at first glance this timeless Test produced a high score, play only lasted four days.

Timeless Tests ended in 1939 because of the impossibility of scheduling. It was in fact during that year the longest Test was played, between England and South Africa, mentioned earlier in this article.

After 43 hours and 16 minutes of play, the game was called off so England could catch that ship home. (Also leading to a final scheduled tour match being abandoned).

During the period of timeless Tests, touring teams to Australia had a number of tour matches scheduled, often taking them into country areas. It was difficult transporting teams to those matches without knowing when the Test match would end. Interestingly, tour matches were not played to a timeless format.

One element that timeless Tests lived up to was to achieve a result. Of the 100 Tests played, 96 provided a result.

In our current game, players may well feel they are contesting a timeless test. With Test matches so closely scheduled after each other, such as the Melbourne and Sydney Tests, it must seem at times one match stretches into the next.


At least with Test matches scheduled for five days, we can now be sure we can plan ahead to have enough sandwiches and leftovers to take along!