New stand brightens a gloomy London day
After two days of sunshine before the start of the County Championship, it was almost inevitable that rain and bad light would ruin the opening gambits. As favourites Surrey warmed up for a clash with the 2003 champions Sussex - an enticing opener by anyone's standards - the only visible sparks at The Oval came from the building site that is the new OCS Stand. In fact, as the clock - soaked in drizzle and barely visible in the gloom - ticked remorselessly on to 11 o'clock, this extraordinary new structure had all the action.
The sweeping down-turned grin that makes up the roof cuts across the familiar London backdrop, dragging this famous old ground into the 21st century, while giving a healthy nod to tradition. If you haven't seen it yet, it is as stunning and memorable as the media centre at Lord's or the new arch at Wembley.
What promises to be an unforgettable summer had a slow start in this corner of south-east London. The builders outnumbered the players, who outnumbered the journalists, who outnumbered the stewards, who outnumbered the crowd who, at 11 o'clock at least, only just outnumbered the umpires. Prospects were not good.
But this is the County Championship. The diehard fans who come to such occasions can gauge quicker than the umpires when play will resume. "No play till after lunch," the rows of empty seats seemed to say. And they were right, as the rain ceased, the clouds cleared and the players joined battle for a complete afternoon session: Sussex facing the sharpness of the home side's attack on a lowish track offering enough to keep the bowlers very happy.
When Jimmy Ormond bundled in for his first of many balls in 2005, a fair smattering of spectators had timed their arrival to perfection as the ground filled slowly. One benevolent teacher had even decided to take his class to the first day of the Championship (for the kids, I am sure), and they were loving it - high-pitched screams of "Come on Surrey" brightened the gloom.
Other than that, the £25m building site at the Vauxhall End drowned out the noise of the cricket with whirrings and crashes, whizzes and bangs. One yellow-coated builder spent the first half of the session suspended from the roof, only his bottom half visible, fixing some strut or light, as his workmates took it easy and argued which end Mohammad Akram should open the bowling from.
And this became an increasing problem as the first day ground on: the builders were enjoying the cricket. The powers-that-be at Surrey are thrilled with the progress of their elegant monster - it is all on schedule, within budget and looking good for the Ashes Test ... for now. They didn't bank on employing builders who were also cricket fans. This is no site-manager's report but progress seemed to slow, especially when the Sussex captain Chris Adams was bowled, leaving the visitors struggling on 119 for 4.
Aside from the building site, watching county cricket in this oasis from urban noise is a tranquil experience. Being able to hear the hustle and the hurry, and see the fuss and business in the office blocks behind, while taking in the calmness of the ground, void of the usual hum of a Test-match crowd, is special. Maybe that's what Surrey's senior pro, Graham Thorpe, was thinking as he enjoyed a restful day at first slip, occasionally slinging the ball to gully or, in a fit of energy, running short leg's helmet off the pitch. He's been there and done it all enough, no need to over-exert himself - that's what the youngsters are for.
Finally, a day's cricket that started with a whimper ended with a whine as Sussex fled to the dressing-room, the light closing in and 24 overs left in the day. The cricket was good and gritty but, even in the gloom, the sight of the new Oval stole the show.
Edward Craig is deputy editor of The Wisden Cricketer.