South Africa in England, 2012 July 24, 2012

The English crowd experience

Generosity. It's not what you expect from a crowd that has paid to get something. But it is what The Oval crowd was all about

Generosity. It's not what you expect from a crowd that has paid to get something. But it is what The Oval crowd was all about.

They gave it to South Africa's bowlers throughout the match, but particularly on the first day when Imran Tahir was their main target, they gave it to their own batsmen, mostly in support but occasionally in jest and they opened their wallets for five days straight and gave their money to Surrey County Cricket Club.

It was not small change either. The average ticket cost £75. Ask that much at the gate in South Africa - almost R1000 - and no-one would go to the cricket. You can imagine the surprise then when more than 100,000 people streamed through the gates over the course of five days to watch the home side lose, in a spectacle that took the better part of four days to play out.

The sporting world already knows that England is one of the few places where Test cricket crowds illustrate that the longest format of the game has longevity. What they may not know, until they experience it for themselves, is how much those crowds contribute to that. For a first timer, it is a pulsating place to be.

If expectation could hum, that is what the sound at The Oval on the first morning was like. There was atmosphere that an overused term like buzz cannot justify. It was more of a pop. Not the snap-crackle and pop variety but a pop that kept popping through the players' warm-ups, the loudspeaker's belting out of Jerusalem and the initial arrival of the team on the field. But it is a pop that did not become a bang. Instead, it faded with the delicacy of an English sunset (as opposed to the violin-like drama of a Johannesburg one) into a palpable hush as soon as the first ball was about to bowled.

For a few moments, it was as though the entire summer was balanced on that moment. As soon as Morne Morkel ran in and delivered the first of his four balls to Andrew Strauss, the tension dissipated. The cricket had begun. And the people in the stadium were here to watch it.

There are times when a crowd can become like a vuvuzela, blurting itself out in the middle of play indiscriminately. That time never came at The Oval. Passages of play were followed, as though the seated public had a map and knew which way to go with it. When England were batting unhindered, they cheered, when wickets fell so did their voices but importantly, when South Africa began to mount the house that eventually bolted away, they did not lose interest.

Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis brought up centuries to rapturous ovations. But it was Hashim Amla who rightly received their most warm applause. When he crossed 300, the minute's standing ovation that the crowd gave him was showed their appreciation for quality cricket and he was careful to acknowledge all sections of the ground with his raised bat.

Dale Steyn too, enjoyed his share of crowd interaction. He chatted to a man on the other side of the advertising board for almost all of the first day and returned to that section during his match-winning last spell on the final afternoon. Every time he took a wicket and went back there, he received a series of handshakes, pats on the back and, on one occasion, a bear hug.

Their balance between recognising a winner and being partisan is the stuff tightrope walkers should study. When England ground down South Africa's lead, every run had a cheer of its own. Matt Prior and Ian Bell would have been inspired by that even if their hearts were made of stone.

Above all, the crowd was able to combine that with a sense of humour. When Strauss managed a run off Morkel, they cheered him. When James Anderson came out to bat and the end was in sight, he had a large section of support from people willing him to "bat out the day" with memories of Cardiff 2009. However, it was the South Africans in the crowd who had most to cheer at the end.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent