A Memorable Occasion at The Oval

With the three match series tied at 1-1, after each side had demonstrated batting failure and bowling strength, this final Test of the summer held intriguing possibilities and was eagerly awaited.  I was part of the expectant crowd at the Oval, and it was disappointing – after a long summer with all too little rain – to arrive in sunshine on day one only to find that overnight showers had delayed the start till eleven thirty.  It was even more galling at eleven twenty eight for the rain to start again, and the familiar Oval ballet of the tarpaulins to commence instead of cricket. Meanwhile the toss had been held in camera, and it was announced that Ben had won it and had chosen, as he is wont to do, to field first.

The day proceeded in this vein, promises of an inspection, an announcement that lunch was being taken early and that play would begin at one thirty ‘if it didn’t rain again’, mopping up operations in bright sunlight, protracted for just long enough for it to rain again, and so it went on.  About four, my companions and I had had enough, and soon afterwards, back at home, I learned of the death of Her Majesty.

Day two was, of course, cancelled in line with the national grief.  It may well have gone the same way as day one in any case, with more intermittent but heavy showers.  As the day proceeded, we learned of further event cancellations across the nation, including the entire weekend football programme, so it was a welcome email from the Surrey club that announced that play would take place on the Saturday, with suitable marks of respect.  Please turn up early, we were requested.

A few minutes before the scheduled start, the teams and officials emerged, and the whole Oval fell spontaneously silent in what by any measure was a very moving moment.  There was a short homily, and we were then requested to be silent for a further two minutes before a sharp peal on the bell, and the singing a capella of the two national anthems. The ceremony was unshowy, brief, to the point, poignant, and utterly respectful.

England bowled their socks off on that first morning, pure class as always from Anderson and Broad, and a very hostile and well-crafted spell from Robinson who broke the back of the innings taking five wickets, all established batters.  This was a performance which determined the course of the game, and earned him the player of the match award.  The prospect of the test ending within the three remaining days suddenly seemed far less remote. 

England’s batting did not exactly scintilate with the exception of Pope, who took the bull by the horns with 67 in only 77 balls, joined all too briefly by a similarly sparkling Joe Root.  Having breezed past South Africa’s paltry 118 with only four wickets down, they contrived to lose the tail in very short order to end with a paltry lead of forty soon after the start of day two.

A dogged start by the South African openers eased them back to level pegging, with the England bowlers rapidly burning off all their reviews, beating the bat a lot, but this time getting nowhere.  Enter Stokes, who hadn’t bowled at all in the first innings, to take a wicket in his first over.  He really does have a magic touch.  He promptly took himself off, leaving the other three to work through the next few wickets, but they needed a break, and once again the skipper came on to bowl a long holding spell, which included a magical ball which swung in from outside off to remove the leg stump of the unfortunate Jansen.

With less than a couple of hours before the end of the day England needed just than 130 to win, and Crawley and Lees (who nearly lost his wicket first ball) set off like men who fancied a day off on Monday.  By the time the light had inevitably deteriorated to the point one might have expected at 6.30 on a September evening, they had rattled up ninety nine, and nothing was going to stop England now.  Surrey declared free admission for the final morning.  

The last rites took less than twenty minutes on Monday morning.   It was pleasant to stand on the pavilion terrace with a pint and watch the very low key presentation ceremony. 

Everything about the presentation of this match was low key: the absence of flickering advertisements, restrained use of the public address, the generally quiet hum of the crowd.  This was a very pleasant change (old fogy alert) from the often brash sideshows that desecrate too much cricket these days.  I have over the years found plenty to criticise in the way they manage things at the Oval, but they rose to the occasion this time, conducting the whole proceedings with excellent taste and the decorum the circumstances required, with fascinating and fluctuating cricket taking centre stage.

The man of the series was Stokes.  Back in January, when speculation about the future captaincy was rife, I wrote ‘Ben Stokes is the next in line, but he already – like Root – bears too much playing responsibility in the side and is currently struggling to re-establish himself after a long lay-off.’  My suggestion at the time, off centre, but not ridiculous, was that England should turn to Sam Billings.  Whatever happened to that idea?

Stokes has been magnificent.  I don’t remember another England captain in my lifetime who has had such an impact.  His infectious self-belief may not have turned England’s frail batters into giants, but it has certainly compensated for their deficiencies.    ‘I want a result, either way.  I am not interested in a draw’; his statement at the start of this match flew in the face of Test match wisdom but I love it, don’t you?   His leadership in the field, in this match particularly, has been – and this is a word that should only be used very sparingly – inspirational.  What a summer he, and his team, have had.

John Bartholomew


  • The thing that worries me about Stokes is his batting. He clearly has the idea that 20-20 is the way to go for entertainment from a personal perspective. His ‘innings’ for want of a better word in this test was his worst of the summer, amongst a number of iffy performances, showing a lack of respect for conditions and the opposition. He is a test class batsman but has made only 1 significant contribution with the bat all summer. Most of his innings have ended with him giving it away. It’s not good enough for a captain who clearly leads by example. In stark contrast his bowling and captaincy have been a revelation.
    My other concern is the role of Root, the one world class batsman we have, who is also getting himself out with overambitous shots in the name of positivity. Root has always been at his best as an accumulator, having enough skill not to need to push the boat out, especially when conditions, as they have done recently, favour the bowlers. Presently there’s not one of our batsman we can trust to build an innings round. We won this series because South Africa, despite their test ranking, have an even weaker batting line up that just can’t cope with the moving ball.

  • It does sound as though the match and events surrounding it were handled with great dignity. As for the game itself….I do worry when neither side appear to have much of a clue about innings building. Test matches really shouldn’t be over in 2 days and a bit. I for one will no longer consider buying day 3 tickets in advance and that really says it all. The future of test and first class cricket looks a little bleak if this continues.

  • The senior Royals never liked cricket and did as little for the game as protocol allowed. That’s okay – I don’t like any sport that involves horses. However is all this cringing and fawning really necessary?

    As for the game itself, the batting was embarrassing and who needs de jure 4-day tests when we have de facto 2-day ones? As far as Stokes goes, Root won his first series which was at home against SA and what did that amount to in the long run?

    • What’s described here doesn’t sound like cringing and fawning at all–although there has been a bit in some places. It sounds like a short, tasteful ceremony to commemmorate the life and mark the passing of an extremely long-reigning monarch to whom many people felt some kind of emotional connection. That doesn’t seem especially surprising in the circumstances.

  • Memorable? Hardly. Ok the sad occasion was handled well, but as for the cricket…blimey not sure what this was but it’s not Test cricket as I know it. In terms of overs under 2 days.
    You know I’m currently watching Surrey vs Northants and hardly any one it seems as in both of these Test teams, has the patience, aptitude or technique to build an innings any more proving what endless white ball hit and giggle cricket is doing to the game. Oh not quite right: Hashim Amla built a superb patient well placed innings of 97 not out to rescue Surrey from 80/4 and the Northern openers were ok. But Amla is classed as “old school” by the instant society but great to watch.
    This “test” match for me, or indeed series, has been a bowlers game on both sides, SA batsmen are poor and England average at best. Stokes has done a good captaincy job I agree, but what on earth was that innings about? Looked like he was taking the piss. Glad I didn’t spend £200 odd on this.

    • Did Keogh scoring 120 not qualify as building an innings? And I know he didn’t score any runs in this match–but Luke Procter can’t build an innings? Sure he’s not good enough to play for England, but he’s been playing exactly the kind of innings that Amla played today for a few seasons now. His record this season says it all: averaging 67 at a strike rate of mid-40s and staying in on average for 36 overs.

    • I agree, Doug. Entertaining it may have been, but this was not a Test match in any meaningful sense. I am afraid that the longer form of the game is disappearing before our very eyes.

  • I had tickets to watch the rain on day one but from what I saw the Saturday morning was beautifully and tastefully done.

    As to the cricket 6 wins out of 7 was beyond all expectations at the start of the summer. Stokes captaincy in the field has been better than I imagined (we had a running bet as to how long it would take him to blow his knee out giving himself one more over) and from a selection point of view picking a proper wicketkeeper as well as the best available attack seemed steps in the right direction (as was the return of Robinson and emergence of Potts)

    Root apart the batting is a concern (although they won the SA series with him averaging 11) but it speaks to something when he was the only one on either side who averaged 40+ Going into the series. If any of the actual quirks could get/stay fit that would be very helpful going forward.

    All in all some reasons to be cheerful


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