Norman Gordon, Dies, age 103…
Norman Gordon, the South Africa pace bowler who has died aged 103, proved the maxim about the survival of the fittest, if not in the strict Darwinian sense. He was the first Test cricketer to reach a century in years, as well as the oldest of all when he died.
And as the last surviving cricketer to have played a Test before the Second World War, he was also the last to have played in the era of eight-ball overs and timeless Tests.
Gordon was so fit because he grew up playing cricket every day of the year in Johannesburg, whatever the season. He said he never went to a gym, but he was still able to average 49 eight-ball overs per Test in the 1938-9 series between South Africa and England. Today’s pace bowler is warned he will break down if he averages 50 six-ball overs per Test.
As South Africa’s third seamer in that series, Gordon took more wickets than anybody else on either side – and England had Ken Farnes and Hedley Verity. If Gordon’s 20 wickets cost 40 runs each, it was partly because he played in the highest-scoring match ever in Test or first-class cricket, when 1,981 runs were scored for the loss of 35 wickets.
The first two Tests, of four days, were drawn. England won the third by an innings; and the fourth was drawn as well. As the rubber was still alive, it was agreed to play the fifth to a finish – a timeless Test.
Day after day, South Africa were on top. The match began in Durban on a Thursday and by the end of the following Thursday (Sunday was a rest day) South Africa had set England 696 to win. Anything other than a South African victory, to square the series, was inconceivable.
But at the end of the seventh day England were 253 for one. Rain washed out the eighth, the second Saturday of the match. At the end of day nine England had scored 496 for three – the pitch had not dried out and disintegrated because of the rain and perhaps, so Wisden suggests, illegal watering.
On the 10th day nobody rested, least of all Gordon. Wisden refers to the “particularly accurate bowling by Gordon, who aimed at the leg stump” and tied England down. At tea England had reached 654 for five – whereupon it rained, and rained.
That evening England had to catch the 8.05pm train from Durban to Cape Town, to board the Athlone Castle for their voyage home: by now it was March 14.
The sides agreed to abandon the match as a draw. Gordon’s figures in the final innings – his final Test innings, because the War ended his cricket career – were 55.2-10-174-1. But figures are not everything. It was a match-saving effort.