1971 September 29, 2007

Pop goes the Oval

Surrey's idea in 1971 to raise much-needed income by staging a rock concert

The poster advertising the concert © Cricinfo

Today The Oval is on its way to becoming a state-of-the-art modern cricket ground, with facilities that rank among the best in the world. But for decades after World War Two it teetered from one financial crisis to another.

Perhaps the most serious situation came in 1971 when, facing increasing losses and hit by the cancellation of the 1970 South Africa tour, the future of the ground was in doubt. "Unless the finances are radically and quickly improved the club will not exist two years hence," Maurice Allom, the Surrey president, wrote in a letter to members in April 1971. "The very survival of the club is in doubt."

Aside from cricket-related fund-raising, the club sought any alternative ways of producing income they could think of. There were bonfire nights, Sunday markets and Christmas fun-fairs. And Micky Stewart, at the time the captain, but also a good footballer who played for the Corinthian Casuals, arranged for his side to play home matches there - not as surprising as it might seem, since The Oval had staged the first FA Cup final and the first England international 99 years earlier.

Perhaps the most ambitious scheme came at the end of the summer, a week after Surrey clinched the Championship. Rikki Farr, a London-based promoter who had been involved in staging the legendary Isle of Wight festival in 1969, wanted to hold an outdoor rock concert to help raise funds to aid the escalating humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh. The Oval was close to the centre of town, could hold over 30,000, and was available. What's more, Surrey were desperate for income and Farr offered a £3000 guarantee. The two most unlikely bedfellows agreed to stage the event on Saturday, September 15, a week to the day after Surrey secured the Championship at Southampton.

"It's better people should use The Oval than it be empty," explained Geoffrey Howard, Surrey's forward-thinking secretary. "We badly want to go on providing cricket here because we love it. We cannot force the young generation to. But if we can create a little bit of money by giving people what they like, it has to be good for cricket."

"What cricket needs is some new rules to hype it up as a change from all this old nonsense of batsmen prodding about," Farr, the son of legendary British heavyweight Tommy, said from his central London office. "I'd love to do a concert in the true bastion of the old days - Lord's.

If rock'n'roll can help salvage the financial situation at The Oval, then cricket should be in awe of rock'n'roll and not the other way round

Rikki Farr, promoter

"If rock'n'roll can help salvage the financial situation at The Oval, then cricket should be in awe of rock'n'roll and not the other way round."

The scenes in the days before the concert were surreal. While ground staff started the post-season work on the middle, props, such as giant chess pieces, were wheeled in around them and a stage and sound system erected at the Vauxhall End. At the last moment coconut matting was laid over the precious square.

Farr, meanwhile, through contacts, persuasion, and aided by the charitable nature of the event, assembled a strong line-up. The Who were billed to headline with The Faces - who still featured Rod Stewart. Atomic Rooster and Mott The Hoople were included as support. "One thing missing, though - American acts," lamented the New Musical Express, adding: "Maybe the British standard is enough to stand on its own. Well, it is cricket old boy."

Ticket sales were good. The Times noted that more people would see the concert than had turned up to watch Surrey through the summer, and the box office stayed open until midnight on the eve of the event to deal with applications.

The capacity was set at 31,000 but come the gloriously sunny late-summer morning of the concert, as many as 40,000 were preparing to descend on Kennington. Most turned up on spec, as fewer than 10,000 tickets had been sold in advance.

Next week: the concert itself ... Hell's Angels, Keith Moon, and a Long Room full of hippies

At The Heart Of English Cricket by Stephen Chalke (Fairfield, 2001)
The Times
Playfair Cricket Monthly

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Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo