England v South Africa, The Oval, Day 3

The ghost of Grace

Roving Reporter by Freddie Auld at The Oval

September 6, 2003

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As the thousands flocked to The Oval this morning, the majority eager to see England continue yesterday evening's fightback, not many will have known that today, September 6, is the 123rd anniversary of the start of the very first Test in England. It was played right here at The Oval: England took on Australia, and won by five wickets. The star of the show was, of course, the old bearded monster himself, WG Grace.

WG powered his way to 152, the first Test century in the Mother Country, to set up England's win. Also in that illustrious line-up were two more Grace brothers, Edward (EM) and Fred (GF). Sadly, Fred was dead two weeks later, from pneumonia, but WG lasted another 35 prosperous years. And wandering around the famous old ground this morning, 123 years on from that landmark day, I wondered what the ghost of WG would make of it all now.

In one of this morning's national newspapers, The Oval was described as "a relic of a bygone era". Well, that might be so, but the great man would surely have been turning in his grave and stroking his crusty old beard in amazement (goodness knows what would have fallen out) if he could see the fun and frolics of the future. The upper classes feasted in the corporate-hospitality boxes decorating either side of the pavilion, while the plebs in the cheap seats gazed up at a giant TV screen erected in the Bedser Stand. And to see what some of them were wearing!

Even though the traditional fancy-dress Saturday was a bit lame by Headingley standards, in the Peter May Stand bowler hats had been replaced by baseball caps and, in a few cases, some outrageous mullet wigs. Sadly, there were no manly unkempt beards on display, much to the distress of Pete and Pixie, a couple of players sporting stick-on `taches in the 118 advertisement mould. "We're on a crusade to get facial hair back in sport," they cried. And then a blazered youth called Angus Campbell, very much a gentleman rather than a player, insisted that WG would indeed have been disappointed about the lack of beards on show.

On a different note, Dave, a South African steward, imagined that the good doctor would have been appalled at the crowd's bad behaviour, and by how scantily some of the young ladies were dressed, even though he himself didn't mind. And one of those young ladies, who refused to be named, admitted she didn't know much about cricket or Grace, but a lot about Jimmy Anderson. Oh, and that Anderson's got her mate's number. I don't know, the youth of today ...

And it's not just off the pitch that things have changed, either. There was the sight of both teams warming up before play, as the England batsmen sweated it out in the nets and the South African bowlers aimed at one stump. "Why the bother?" WG would have squeaked. And there were some other people on the pitch as well. Standing smack on the square were two suited-and-booted important-looking men nattering away. They were in fact the suave, bouffanted Mark Nicholas and the stubbly Ian Botham, preparing for their pitch reports and pre-match interviews.

Television pundits, journalists, radio commentators: they were all swanning around The Oval in force. But not all had their mind totally on the job. Back up in the press box, fresh from a chat with Nicholas on the state of play, Mike Atherton was quietly tipping Vintage Tipple in the four o'clock at Kempton, and David Lloyd was instructing Jonathan Agnew on the technicalities of fishing. Meanwhile, there was no fishing from Marcus Trescothick and Graham Thorpe out in the middle, much to the delight of the absorbed Oval crowd, and no doubt to the somewhat baffled ghost of WG Grace as well.

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