The Test that saw records tumble - England beat Australia by an innings and 579 runs
England had already conceded the Ashes in the previous Test of a high-scoring series at Headingley when the two sides met at The Oval in south London at the end of August 1938 for the final match in the five-Test series.
Little was therefore riding on the contest, but a 22-year-old from Fulneck near Pudsey in Yorkshire ensured that the game would be writ large into cricketing folklore. Len Hutton smashed record after record en route to a Test record 364 as England piled up 903 for seven before Wally Hammond put the Australian bowlers out of their misery by declaring.
The tourists – shorn of the services of their skipper Don Bradman and middle-order batsman Jack Fingleton due to injuries – then imploded for 201 and 123 to fall to what was, and remains, the biggest defeat in Test match history; by a margin of an innings and 579 runs.
Hutton had missed the previous Test at his home ground, but was recalled alongside Yorkshire team-mate Maurice Leyland, who would play a key role in the historic match in what would be his final Test at the age of 38. Wicket-keeper Arthur Wood, another Yorkshireman, would debut at the age of 39 after a late injury to Les Ames.
Australia, meanwhile, were without their pace spearhead Ernie McCormick due to a shoulder problem and opted to pack their side with batsmen. Wisden wrote rather dismissively of McCormick, who had taken 10 wickets in the series to date: “Neuritis was given as the reason for the omission of McCormick, who in any case had done little to suggest he was likely to trouble England’s batsmen on a good Oval wicket.”
Sid Barnes, a 22-year-old from Sydney who also bowled leg-spin, would debut, while the bowling would be opened by part-time seamer Stan McCabe and Mervyn Waite, who was yet to taste success at the highest level.
The pitch was a flat one – prepared by The Oval’s renowned groundsman ‘Bosser’ Martin, who had a reputation as one who was rather fond of the heavy roller, which was known as ‘Bosser’s Pet’. When captain Hammond won the toss fourth time in a row, and with the Test being played without a time limit, the stage was set for a batting marathon.
Hutton to the fore
ESPNCricinfo notes that Hutton is “widely regarded as the finest, most technically correct England batsman after the Second World War”, while Wisden notes that he was born into a family “in which there was a healthy respect for the old virtues of discipline and self-denial”.
He would draw on all those batting qualities for 847 balls, compiling 364. Australia did taste success early when Bill Edrich was trapped LBW by the legendary leg-spinner Bill O’Reilly and history was nearly never made when Hutton, on 40, jumped in to hit an off-break from Chuck Fleetwood-Smith, missed the ball which, with the batsman well out of his ground, wicket-keeper Ben Barnett failed to gather. Denis Compton said later to The Cricketer: “Poor Ben missed it and was never allowed to forget the fact.”
Hutton and Leyland ploughed on for the remainder of the day despite what Wisden wrote was “a superb display” from Australia in the field. “If the bowling lacked venom it was mainly accurate,” it added. Luck also deserted Australia. “A curiosity of the day’s cricket was that four times a no-ball led either to the wicket being hit or the ball being caught.”
Progress was slow, with Hutton taking 254 balls to reach three figures and Leyland taking a more sprightly 218 deliveries over his ninth and last Test century. “Hutton never altered his cautious game,” Wisden reflected. “That the scoring rate quickened was due mainly to the powerful driving and neat cutting of Leyland. Hutton used similar types of strokes in correct and fluent style and all the time his defence never faltered.”
Leyland would offer Australia a chance shortly before stumps when he was almost run-out but for an error from Waite, but stumps were indeed reached with the score on a mammoth 347 for one.
Second day continues in similar fashion
Rain delayed the start of day two, but this merely seemed to flatten the pitch yet further. Leyland was eventually dismissed for 187 after adding 382 with Hutton for the second-wicket. This remains a record for any partnership in Test matches against Australia.
Hammond then joined Hutton and saw his record score of 240 in home Tests, made earlier in the series at Lord’s, surpassed by Hutton. Wisden reflected: “It was a remarkable feature of the season’s Test games that the 182 not out by Philip Mead at The Oval in 1921 which stood as the record for England against Australia in any home Test was beaten four times during the current series.”
Hammond was quite defensive by his usual standards and had reached 59 off 153 balls when he was dismissed by Fleetwood-Smith. Eddie Paynter, due in at five, and Denis Compton, at six, had sat with their pads on for more than a day and Compton recalls a conversation he had with Paynter in The Cricketer:
“Eddie leaned across to me on the players' balcony and said, `Denis, I bet you a pound you and I don't make ten between us!' Now in those days a pound was worth a bit and, foreseeing some easy money, I promptly accepted.
"You know what happened. While Len watched from the other end, Eddie was out to Bill O'Reilly for nought and a minute or two later I had been bowled by, of all people, Mervyn Waite, for one. I purposely say Mervyn Waite of all people. You see this was the only wicket he took in his Test career and he became so proud of his achievement that to this day every time I have arrived in Australia or he in England, he rings me to arrange to buy me a ‘thank you’ drink."
Compton goes onto recall Hutton’s method for maintaining his huge powers of concentration. "I soon realised that Len could play the type of innings that was foreign to my nature,” he said.
“I could not have batted that length of time without having a number of rushes of blood, but he just ground on, unwilling to break his concentration even for one ball. Lunch and tea breaks, Len just sat quietly in the corner of the dressing-room. I think he had fruit salad and a cup of tea – nothing else – each time but, as the innings went on, he showed signs of tiring. Yet Wally Hammond, Hedley Verity and Bill Bowes pressed him to keep going. In the end they were keener on Len attempting to beat Don's record than he was. Moreover, Wally seemed determined that England, so often on the receiving end of Don's mighty bat, should turn the tables this time.”
Sleepless night for Hutton
Joe Hardstaff jnr joined Hutton to see England through to stumps on day two. That was not before Hutton had endured a torrid night of tossing and turning on Monday.
"I don't think the idea of trying for Don's record came into my head until I was around 250,” recalled Hutton in The Cricketer. “By the Monday night, however, the strain was beginning to tell. In fact Maurice Leyland told me I would probably have difficulty in sleeping and he advised me to drink a port and Guinness. I was then a strict teetotaller and I did as he suggested. It was no good. I should have had five or six. With so many people telling me that I needed another 35 runs to break the record, I tossed and turned most of the night, haunted by one face. That of Bill O'Reilly.
"I could not shut out of my mind the thought of his charging up, ball after ball, as he always did, as though he was going to eat me. My, how that man hated batsmen. What a great competitive bowler. I've never played against a better.
"And, next morning, sure enough Bill asked Don Bradman to field at silly mid-off. With our score at the start of play at 634 for five, you would have thought the Aussies were skittling us out. Every time I looked up there was Don crouching in front of me, other fielders creeping closer and closer, and O'Reilly still breathing fire and brimstone as he galloped in. Anyway, in the end Fleetwood-Smith bowled me a long-hop outside the off-stump. Gratefully, I chopped it through the slips and I had done it.”
Hutton had indeed done it. In an innings spanning two and a half days, he had eclipsed Bradman’s record of 334 and the BBC radio commentary reporting on the reaction of the crowd said: “They won’t stop cheering.”
Hutton would go on to make 364 – surpassing Hammond’s all-time Test record score of 336 in the process – in 797 minutes before being dismissed by the legendary O’Reilly. But England weren’t finished yet. Arthur Wood was sent in with the score on 770 for six and would add 106 in an hour and a half with Hardstaff jnr as they finally picked up the pace. The pair were together as England overhauled the previous highest team total in Test matches of 849.
Shortly afterwards, Wood was dismissed by Barnes and it was then that “occurred the tragic accident to Bradman, who when bowling caught his foot in a worn foot-hole, fell prone, and was carried off the field by two of his colleagues.”
Compton later said: “But for the injuries to Fingleton and Bradman, I believe Wally would not have declared as early as he did.”
The declaration did finally come with the score on 903 for seven and Hardstaff jnr unbeaten on 169 off 400 balls and Hedley Verity on eight off 19. O’Reilly got through 85 overs for his figures of three for 178 and it was said that he “wore the skin off a finger in imparting spin to the ball.” Fleetwood-Smith meanwhile conceded 298 runs – the most by any bowler in a single innings – from his 87 overs.
A demoralised Australia then lost Jack Badcock without a run on the board and number three McCabe with the score on only 19. However, Bill Brown and Lindsey Hassett provided some resistance. Hassett played some great strokes prior to falling for 42 at which point Barnes partnered Brown through to stumps, which were reached on 117 for three.
On Wednesday, the superb fast-medium bowler Bill Bowes took two wickets in an over on two separate occasions but Brown looked like an unmovable object at the other end. Hutton was involved in a notable incident towards the end of the Australian innings when he deliberately kicked the ball over the boundary in an effort to keep ninth, and last, man Fleetwood-Smith on strike. Umpires Frank Chester and Fanny Walden, however, took no account of the occasion and correctly awarded Brown four runs plus the one that he had run, meaning that he retained the strike for the next over.
Australia were all out soon after for 201, with Brown last man out for 69. Their second innings was even shorter, lasting little more than 34 overs, as Brown was the fourth man out for 15 to hand Ken Farnes one of his four wickets. Barnes (33) and Barnett (46) added 74 for the fifth-wicket to at least delay the inevitable but Australia lost 13 wickets on the final day to lose by a record margin.
Wisden summed up: “They were actually dismissed twice in four and three-quarter hours' cricket. On the fourth day, the proceedings were so one-sided as to be almost farcical. The fact that Australia batted only nine men removed some of the honour and glory from England's triumph, but there was nothing in the condition of the wicket to excuse the poor resistance of so many Test batsmen. Bowes' sustained pace and skilful swerve made himself England's best bowler and in the two innings he took seven wickets for 74. The number of people who saw the game was 94,212, including 81,336 who paid for admission.”
The last words, of course, must go to Hutton, who recalls: “On the way from The Oval at the end of the game, I stopped at traffic lights. A woman in an adjoining car pulled down her window and said: ‘Well done Len, but why ever didn’t you score one more – one [run] for every day of the year?’
“As I said to Denis later: ‘Denis, tell me, can you ever satisfy a woman?’”