Sunday 30th May 2021 – The LV County Championship – The Kia Oval, London
I’m going to be honest here. Four day cricket has never been my thing. Images of a handful of fans, snoozing with a copy of the Times crossword on their laps, their home made sandwiches curling up in the sun whilst most of us had to work. I remember the long summer days spent watching Kent during Folkestone cricket week (when that was a thing) with my Grandad but since the age of 12 or 13 I don’t think I’d ever been to a four day game.
Perhaps it was playing one day games myself that I always preferred the limited over game. I love a day at the test like everyone else, but that is more of a social day out, normally starting at silly o’clock at a pub somewhere in the city. So when we finally reached milestone three of the road out of lockdown and cricket became open to all (well, within agreed limits), the idea of sitting in the sunshine, with a cold beer and watching a game unfold, appealled.
Each county has their own challenges with getting “match ready” – ensuring socially distant ticket sales, one way systems within the ground, enough staff to provide help and assistance. The last year has been tough on cricket, just as it has for football, rugby, horse racing and so on. Operating costs still remain roughly the same, but income has been cut to the bone. The return of fans is not only a step in the return to normality but also revenue generation.
I’d set myself a goal of trying to see a game at all 18 counties in the Summer, starting at The Kia Oval. Some County Championship games, some T20, a couple of Royal London Cups, and whisper it quietly, one or two Hundred’s. Three of the games would be viewed from balconies of hotels, now an integral part of may venues such as Old Trafford, The Ageas Bowl and New Road, whilst at Edgbaston and Headingley it would be watching from new viewing platforms.
Over the course of the last decade I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few Baseball Stadiums, where each one among the traditional elements of the game, each has unique viewing areas, something that the cricketing authorities are starting to realise, something that Surrey Cricket Club had certainly bought into with the ongoing redevelopment of in my view, the best ground in English cricket.
The Oval continues to evolve as one of the finest cricket grounds in the world. Whilst its current capacity of 27,000 (prior to the current redevelopment work) sees it just scrape into the top 30 stadiums ranked by size, it has the fine balance of character, modernness and urbanism that is lacking in many of those who can seat more. Without disrespecting the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where I’ve enjoyed a number of excellent games and hospitality, the steep tiers of stands, rise in uniformity high into the sky without giving much of a clue to the surrounding area. Ditto, the world’s largest cricket stadium, the 132,000 capacity Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.
You couldn’t have asked for a better day for the start of my journey around English (and Welsh) cricket. Work commitments meant that I missed the opening session, that saw Surrey win the toss and decide to bat, reaching 77-1 at lunch. But come 2pm and I was in my seat, in the balcony area of the impressive 1845 stand, with a beer in my hand.
The next few hours saw Amla take control of the Gloucestershire attack but what I loved was being around people who were there for the same reason as me on a Thursday afternoon. A chap to my right was loudly telling no one in particular facts about the Gloucestershire players and play. He was going to be there for all four days, which was going to be tough on those around him.
“Have a guess what stat I’m thinking of now?” was his opening gambit in my direction. When nobody answered, he told nobody that David Payne’s Jamie Smith was in fact his 300th. Meanwhile behind me a group of septuagenarians were discussing the merits of smart phones.
“I don’t understand why you need all these gizmos and gadgets. £10 this one cost me and it suits me perfectly.” Ten minutes later, when he saw me checking the crickets scores, he asked me what was happening at the Middlesex game.
It was all good natured and I picked up some useful information about when exactly to water my potato plants on a hot day, what really is in piccalilli and Iranian baking techniques as well as watching Amla score runs at will, supported by Jamie Overton (50) who fell just before the close of play. Day one done and dusted and I loved it. What had I been missing all these years?
Surrey built a commanding score as play entered the afternoon session on day two, with skipper Amla making a superb 173, ably supported down the order by Abbott (40) and Clarke (65). On a hot and sunny Saturday, the visitors got off to a good start, with Braithwaite and Hammond looking comfortable before a collapse from 84-1 to 158 all out, with Hammond the last man out on 77. Naturally, with a day and a half to play, Surrey enforced the follow-on, 315 ahead, Daniel Moriarty the pick of the bowlers with 6-60.
It was deja-vu in the second innings as Hammond aside, wickets tumbled every few overs. 38, 42, 44, 58, 84. At one point as I checked the score there was a real danger I wouldn’t get to see any play on the fourth day. But that man Hammond doggedly kept his wicket in tact. Five down at stumps still 200 runs adrift of making the hosts bat again.
Sunday started cloudy and I was one of the first to take my seats, this time in the shadow of the impressive construction going on above the Peter May seats, which will see a three-tier structure going up with some impressive views of the London skyline when it is complete. Any hope of a draw were effectively ended when Hammond fell for 45, caught behind off the bowling of Moriarty. One run later and Tom Smith followed him, LBW to Overton. Tattersall, to his credit kept the run rate up as the sun broke through, smashing a couple of sixes as he eased past fifty, and whilst Taylor and Payne added double figures. With nine wickets down, Surrey called for the extra half hour, hoping to remove 11th man Worrall quickly.
But in an innings more akin to T20, the Gloucs last man smashed 24 off 25 balls, including 5 boundaries, in a stand of 56 before being the Moriarty’s eighth wicket of the game. A convincing victory for Surrey, one that won my love of the county championship back. Top marks to Surrey on and off the pitch. Next stop, Canterbury.
Surrey 473 all out
Gloucestershire 158 & 268 all out
Surrey won by an innings and 47 runs