February 16, 2016

The other ground

Aditya Gadre
Lord's might be widely considered the pre-eminent cricket ground in England, but The Oval has a strong claim to the title too

The Oval has as much history associated with it as Lord's © Getty Images

In the Seinfeld episode "The Doll", Elaine gets her boyfriend an autograph of Jose Carreras - his favourite of the Three Tenors. Throughout the episode, the characters tend to always remember Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo but keep forgetting Carreras' name - referring to him as "the other guy".

It is very hard to argue that Carreras lacked talent compared to the other two or that he was any less of a legend or about the value he brought to the Three Tenors. Yet, some things lend themselves to fame and recognition more easily than other equally capable or deserving ones. People at large always remember the Pavarottis while the equally important but lower profile contributors like Carreras - are forgotten, the "other guys". There has been enough written about the Pavarottis of the world, let's talk about the Carreras.

Last year, I got the opportunity to visit two iconic cricket grounds - Lord's and the Kennington Oval. One common theme I noticed in my interactions with several cricket fans was that Lord's is the pre-eminent ground, while The Oval is the "other ground" in London.

Both the grounds are similar, yet vastly different. In the opulent borough of Marylebone, unassumingly stands among several residential buildings Lord's, perhaps the most famous ground in world cricket. Across town, The Oval is also located in what is currently an upmarket neighbourhood - Kennington. However, while Marylebone has always been a posh area, when The Oval was founded in the mid-1800s, Kennington was not even a part of London. In fact for large parts of its history up until the 1970s, the area was a largely working-class neighbourhood - the iconic gasometers visible in all TV coverage of The Oval are testament to this. It is perhaps these differences in the local social circumstances that lead to the grounds giving off vastly different vibes.

Both grounds are similar in that they have been controlled by influential and wealthy figures throughout their history. The big difference is that while The Oval is the ancestral property of the Duchy of Cornwall, Lord's has always been a privately owned ground, completely controlled initially by the aristocrat Thomas Lord and later by the all-important Marylebone Cricket Club. The way sports developed in the 1800s, there was a flurry of private clubs that emerged to control the sporting scene, leading to most of the common folk having to ask the royals to allow usage of some of their private land for sporting activity. This meant Lord's always hosted only games of other cricket clubs, or reputed schools or counties, while The Oval hosted anything the Duke of Cornwall gave permission for - which was mostly everything the local government asked for.

In light of these differences, it becomes a little clearer why everything at Lord's (starting from the ground's name itself) seems to scream "aristocracy" while The Oval seems significantly more inclusive.

To illustrate, even today the MCC members in their mustard and tomato jackets gather outside the Grace Gates to enter Lord's while non-members have to walk around the corner to a smaller gate at the back of the ground to get in. The good-natured guard tells me this entry is possible for the common folk after a mere 29-year wait for MCC membership. At The Oval, one just walks in through the main gate heading straight to the entry lounge through the lovely red stone façade.

The stadium tours at both grounds also reflected to a large extent the "other ground" status of The Oval. The one at Lord's was crowded - over 40 people from all cricketing nationalities coming to pay homage to the game they love. The green blazer clad tour guide joked that there were enough Indians and Australians to make teams and start a game of cricket. By contrast, at The Oval, I was literally one of two people in the walking tour, both of us Indians.

It is not just the composition of the tourist population that is a contrast - the contents of the tour are vastly different as well.

The Lord's tour starts at the spectacular cricket museum. The first thing one sees is a glass enclosure - with the word "War" written in big, upper case letters at the top. Inside we see the story of Sir Edward Creasy, a jurist and historian remembering that when Lord Wellington was walking past children playing cricket on the playing fields of Eton he remarked: "Here grows the stuff that won Waterloo." This quote (most likely misattributed to Wellington) accompanies a cartoon showing Wellington hitting a ball representing Napoleon. Next to this are a few more similar glass boxes for "Politics", "Race", and "Religion". The cricket museum at Lord's is structured to give the visitor an insight into the other aspects of life that shaped and were shaped by cricket over history before leading the visitor on a journey into the history of the game itself.

By contrast the museum at The Oval focuses almost entirely on the history of Surrey (who lease the ground from the Duchy of Cornwall). The Oval museum is charming, endearing and cosy, but constrained by the fact that it exhibits only its own history and not of the game as a whole.

The Lord's museum's proudest artefact, its priceless crown jewel, stands behind a wall of bullet proof glass - the Ashes urn. Most of the people who huddle around to grab a glimpse of the tiny trophy are ignorant of the origin of the term "the Ashes" which came about when the Sporting Times ran a mock obituary for English cricket after a loss to Australia, not at Lord's but at The Oval, during the 1882 tour. Oddly enough, even though the Ashes were born there, there are only a few references to the Ashes at The Oval.

Outside the museums, as you walk around the stadiums, greatness surrounds you at every corner - reminders of brilliant performances adorn the walls and the doorways. Once you get over this, what also becomes apparent that The Oval is perhaps a better sports ground. The rectangular patch that is Lord's also has a slope of 2.5 metres - the most for any Test venue in the world. The Oval by contrast is nearly perfect in all respects. One cannot help but think that it is perhaps the blinding brilliance of history that hides some of the obvious shortcomings of Lord's as an international sporting venue. One wonders if not for the history steeped in aristocracy, would this pre-eminence be justified? Would Lord's by any other name still be considered the greatest ground in the world?

Even outside of cricket, I have always maintained that The Oval, having hosted England's first international football match, the first England v Wales and England v Scotland rugby internationals, the first FA cup final, and the first cricket Test match in England, has perhaps the strongest claim over the title of the most important sporting venue around. Yet, Lord's is the home of cricket, Wembley is the home of football, Twickenham is the home of rugby - and The Oval is the "other ground".

There is not much to choose from between the actual cricket played at the two venues - the histories of the grounds don't seem to rub off on the type of cricket played. At Lord's, for every sublime 254 from Bradman, there is a gritty 11-hour long controlled epic by Sidath Wettimuny. And at The Oval, for every imperious 364 from Hutton, there is the aggressive, savage 158 on the final day from Kevin Pietersen. So, like most such comparisons in sport, this is largely a subjective viewpoint and not a definitive statement of how important the two grounds are in their own right.

I am certain there are several people out there for whom Lord's is the "other ground" - much like in the Seinfeld episode we spoke of at the beginning, where Elaine's boyfriend is thrilled that he has the autograph of his favourite tenor, Jose Carreras, who sings with those two other guys.

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Aditya Gadre works with a Management Consulting firm in Bombay and is a full-time cricket enthusiast on the side