August 9, 2007

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan on India in England, 2007

Oval moments with David Frith

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
What might have been: Shane Warne drops Kevin Pietersen, who went on to score 158 and deny Australia victory, England v Australia, The Oval, September 12, 2005
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Talking cricket is sometimes as enjoyable as watching it. Nothing like doing both. This diary writer spent an hour or so next to David Frith, the veteran cricket historian, trying to take in bits of his encyclopaedic knowledge. Frith, whose cricket-watching career spans more than 60 years, is one for detail and his recounting of minor anecdotes makes for riveting discussion.

Memories of The Oval flood back. Not only has he seen several Tests at this venue, a scene for grand theatre down the years, but also spoken to legends who took part in many. There’s Gilbert Jessop’s Test in 1902 – “probably the greatest Test of all time” – Australia amassing 701 in 1934 – “Bradman and Ponsford, ouch” – Bradman’s last Test in 1948 and many, many more.

“I spoke to Wilfred Rhodes about 1902 and the whole story about him and George Hirst coming together with 15 needed,” he says, “Folklore has it that they said, ‘We’ll get ‘em in singles’. Rhodes says they said nothing of the sort. He also added with a wry smile, ‘We might have run a few of ‘em’.”

Did the Oval crowd know it was Bradman’s last innings in 1948? “That they might have, because England were bowled out for 52 and Australia were 117 for no loss when Bradman came in. So it was unlikely he was going to bat again. But I don’t think anyone in the crowd would have known he needed four more for an average of 100. Statistics weren’t that big then. Neither were they called the Invincibles on that tour. That’s all retrospective coinage.”

Rahul Dravid has just been bowled and The Oval stands up to salute Sachin Tendulkar. “Ah here he is for his final Test in England. That’s my Bradman,” Frith smiles. “Second ball duck? Where’s Hollies?” Another chuckle. “But Bradman wouldn’t have walked in the same way. The dressing rooms were further to the left.” He points towards the pavilion, before getting back to more Oval talk.

What of 1953, one of the most famous victories in English cricket history? “That Ashes win was essential, especially for a country that was so low after the war. But you must remember, England benefited from some umpiring in the previous Tests. Frank Chester was on the wane and he didn’t give a run-out decision when the batsman was four feet out of the crease. Now that changed the series.”

Was he there at 1971 when India triumphed? “Of course, I remember Abid Ali being lifted and all that. But Chandra was such a master. I remember facing him in Madras (well after his playing days) and he was getting the tennis ball to bounce way over my head. He wasn’t spinning it that day, just so much bounce.”

Any choices for his greatest Oval innings? “There are so many but Basil D’Oliveira’s 158 in the 1968 Ashes Test must be a big contender. I also remember that match because it was one of the last to be played on an uncovered pitch. Australia had 352 to chase but suddenly it all got damp and Derek Underwood skewered them with seven.”

And, finally, the best game he’s seen here? “[Ashes] 2005. Nothing makes me believe otherwise. The context, the mood, the game … and most importantly the irony. Who would have thought Shane Warne, the undoubted star for Australia, will drop the Ashes? I don’t think there’s been a stronger irony.”

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a former assistant editor at Cricinfo

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