Visiting every county cricket ground #2: The Oval

Two rounds of the County Championship completed, and two grounds visited. This rate, I hope, will speed up in time, but for now I am easing myself in, like an opening batsman pre-Bazball.

The Oval is the first cricket ground I ever visited, in 2005, on the last day of the last Test of that summer’s epic Ashes series. I was extraordinarily lucky to go, a friend offering me a ticket, face value, on the morning itself, after giving up on his plan to sell his spare to a random stranger at massive profit [1], a trick that had funded his trip to the Rugby World Cup final two years before [2].

I had got into cricket a couple of years beforehand, after a lifetime of denial, thanks to a well timed bout of unemployment and Channel 4’s excellent television coverage.

Free-to-air ended with the Test I witnessed, one of the most exciting ever. It has rarely emerged from its paywall since, the elephant in the room of shiny executives coming up with fancy plans to keep the game revelant. [3]

I do wonder sometimes whether I’d ever, say, become completely obsessed with Ian Bell, to the point of impersonating him on social media and getting shut down by the ECB, without it just being on in the background one hot summer, allowing one to be drawn gradually into its many wonders and complexities.

I remember walking up from Vauxhall station, so repeated this trip, past the legendary Vauxhall Tavern. In 2023, I paid a silent tribute to the Kennington Lane Cafe, where me and Paul sat at lunch, eighteen years ago, England 133 ahead with 5 wickets remaining.

We quietly munched our bacon and egg sarnies alongside other England fans with haunted expressions, having seen Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne ruin their dreams many times before, and seemingly about to do so again.

But happened next. It will never be forgotten.

Surrey are cricket royalty, hated by many a fan of their rival, less financially blessed county rivals. But of late, there doesn’t seem to be much to loathe. It just seems like a well organised, well run club, bringing through good young talent and vowing to “attack”, not defend, their 2022 title.

The person I quote above is Surrey’s Director of Cricket Alec Stewart, and it’s through a gate named after him that I pass in order to gain entry. I dimly remember him as a player, before I followed the game but when it still had some prominence in news and culture, largely via the medium of cricketing scandal. I remember Atherton with dirt in pocket, or rebel tours to apartheid South Africa, far more than I do any coverage of the matches themselves.

With this ugly past in mind, up to the Member’s bar I go – named in honour of Mark Ramprakash’ hundred hundreds – in time for lunch, to find myself surrounded by retired men talking enthusiastically about GB News and Nigel Farage.

“They tell a few home truths on there. They don’t care what they say.”

Roast beef under lamps, and white men discussing their appreciation for the far right while being served food by people of colour. I cast my mind back to reading “Anyone But England”, Mike Marqsee’s outsider look at English cricket, and the game’s roots in imperialism, classism and racism. How far have we actually travelled?

Before this train of thought can travel any further, my friend arrives, and we head out to watch the game.

It looks a nice day to be bowling. It’s a high class battle – we watch Hampshire, with Mohammed Abbas and Keith Barker, bowling to future England captain Ollie Pope, and almost England captain Rory Burns.

The friend I was with, I have known since the late nineties. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, and so we covered a billion conversation topics, in that easy, discursive way of people who have known each other forever, sat side by side, our eyes on the cricket but our minds occasionally elsewhere.

Housing, love, children, work, the possible reformation of Oasis and the issue with nostalgia generally, the waning popularity of the name “Paul”, the solid backsides of fast bowlers – all were thoroughly discussed, much, I’m sure, to the annoyance of the members sat behind us.

The weather was cold, and the light was bad. During stoppages we visited the new cafe/bar – “I could definitely work from here”, said Paul, eyeing up the charging points – and enjoyed Felix White on Surrey’s commentary.

I had some work to finish off, and Paul, who had been up since 5am for his early shift, needed to go home for dad duties. And so we parted, him to Vauxhall, me via The Oval tube, to a borrowed cat in the suburbs of south London.

Surrey won by 9 wickets.

[1] NB I do not approve of touting.

[2] or of rugby.

[3] Some argue that pining for free-to-air Test cricket is an anachronism in a digital world, with clips of wickets on Twitter and streaming on YouTube. But cricket is not football, and for people not from cricket backgrounds to fall in love with the best form of the best sport in the world, it needs a level of visibility beyond whoever’s mum or dad can afford to shell out for Sky Sports, BT Cricket and the rest. And yes, I have not mentioned The Hundred, ha.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s