Tubes, touts and tenements
It's not often that a glorious summer's day dawns as gloomy as this. For the third time in the series, South Africa had been granted best use of a belter, and England had duly been belted. Consequently, the mood in and around Kennington at the start of the second day's play was muted, to say the least.
As one might have gathered from some of the tone-setting newspaper coverage of yesterday's debacle, The Oval is not the most scenic of venues. The short and sweaty hike from Vauxhall tube station doesn't attempt to rival the grandeur of, say, Wembley Way, or even the leafy(ish) approach to Lord's. The traffic-choked Harleyford Road, with its average of three police sirens per furlong, soon dulls any notion of romance.
As for the ground itself - all red brick and concrete with a garnish of decaying tenement blocks - it is a moribund sort of place to witness what was expected to be the slow death and burial of a much-loved and lampooned cricket team. Whether, as one esteemed columnist suggested in the morning press, the latest addition to the Oval skyline resembles "a penis" is a matter for conjecture. But, having toiled up four flights of stairs and taken one's place in an airless eyrie of a press box, even the most objective of observers is entitled to grumble.
At least the touts can always be counted on to lift the spirits. They were out in force today, lining the route from tube to turnstile, talking up England's prospects in the name of a quick buck. At the notorious Vauxhall Cross traffic lights, a horde of supporters were teetering on the pavement, trying not to get run over by a bus. A lady collecting for sick children recognised the potential of this melee, and was rattling her tin energetically. "How about a collection for sick cricket teams?" interjected one wag. It was only half unfunny.
But hopeless situations do funny things to England, particularly where South Africa are involved. After all, it was on the second day at The Oval, nine long years ago, that Darren Gough and Phil DeFreitas turned the tide of that famous match with a rollicking eighth-wicket stand. The rest, as Devon Malcolm almost said, is history - and history is the best that The Oval has to offer these days.
So when Jacques Rudolph fell to the fifth ball of the day, the stands were a sea of raised eyebrows. When Mark Boucher fell to those wily old hams, Alec Stewart and Martin Bicknell, even the journos allowed themselves an excited murmur. When Jacques Kallis was run out by Ashley Giles's fingertips and Andrew Hall fell for the single that had eluded him at Headingley, South Africa were 421 for 8 and wobbling. And Paul Adams's run-out on the stroke of lunch was the completion of a perfect morning.
The pints and pies flowed merrily in the interval, and - briefly - all was well with English cricket again. Just don't mention the score at Multan, where their next opponents, Bangladesh, are closing in their maiden Test victory.