England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 1st day September 8, 2005

Touts, flats and the Baggy Green Beach

Andrew Miller reports on a remarkable day at The Oval

Some people joined in the singing of Jerusalem ... but not too many © Getty Images
It was an omen, one way or another. The moment the final whistle went at Windsor Park last night, condemning England's footballers to a humiliating 1-0 defeat against the nonentities of Northern Ireland, one of two eventualities had been set in motion.

Either the stage had been set for the glorious resurrection of the national summer sport, at the expense of those spitting, cursing, overpaid nancy-boys, or the precedent had been set for yet another bout of national navel-gazing, and the unpalatable prospect of Shane Warne doing a wiggling stump dance on the Oval balcony. Perhaps emboldened by that fearful image, the tabloid front pages had no doubt which line they preferred, and the nation awoke to the predictable double-headers of "England heroes" and "England zeroes".

At nine o'clock in the morning, there were no immediate signs of an England derailment. Half the country would have been more than content to watch the rain streak down on SE11 for the next five days, but instead the ground was blessed with the best late-summer sunshine that England can muster. When Michael Vaughan won the toss on a blameless wicket and under blazing skies, it was tempting to believe that half the battle had been won already.

Good weather and good English fortune added up to the chance of a lifetime for the ubiquitous touts at Oval tube station, whose appeal for surplus tickets betrayed a rare hint of desperation. With Ebay flogging its spares for upwards of £500, Mr and Mrs Tout could be halfway to the Caribbean on a celebratory cruise by the time England (are scheduled to) display their spoils in Trafalgar Square on Tuesday.

Kennington hadn't seen such a hive of activity since the denouement of the 2000 Test series, when the Wisden Trophy was retrieved from the Caribbean after 31 years and to cope with the overflow the hospitality boxes had been thrown open to Joe Public at £10 a pop. This, however, was a more organised chaos, as Surrey's executives licked their chops and patted themselves heartily on the backs, having undertaken the bold move last winter of bulldozing the decrepit Vauxhall End of the ground and replacing it with the magnificent arcing OCS Stand - packed with tier upon tier of lovely lucrative executive lounges.

Any vantage point was in demand © Getty Images
The views from the upper decks were simply stunning, with the splendour of the old pavilion finally there to be appreciated from a height that put it in context with its surroundings. North of the river may be replete with towering architectural landmarks, but the view to the south is notable only for its emptiness - aside from a selection of unlovely tower-blocks, the one pinnacle of note is the radio mast at Crystal Palace, some five miles in the distance.

Talking of tower-blocks, there were a couple of plumb venues outside the ground that have been the envy of the ticketless hordes all week. Peering over the eastern corner of the OCS Stand, a pair of penthouse flats (but more to the point, their balconies) had been flogged for an extortionate £23,000 for the five days. A troupe of Aussies had taken up residence in one of these, lapping up the sunshine on their self-styled "Baggy Green Beach", as the ordinary folk milled around on the concourse below.

With a flotilla of TV vans anchored at both ends of the ground, and a vast banner hanging from the gasometer proclaiming "Go England!", it was clear that - for the next five days - The Oval had become the epicentre of national interest. There was still time for a bout of typically English antipathy, as an attempt to rouse the country into a soaring rendition of "Jerusalem" descended into a moderate burble of fluffed notes, but the roar that greeted Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss showed just how raucous this crowd could become, and was matched only by the pin-drop silence as Glenn McGrath delivered his first ball of the match.

But, if there was one sign that trouble was on the horizon, it came in the banner headline of a London evening paper being sold outside the ground. "Shamed Warne" it proclaimed, the precursor to a ridiculous three-page tale of an utter non-event on a Kensington shopping trip. No amount of tabloid exposes can deflect Warne from his primary role in life - the dismemberment of English batting line-ups. And as Warne ripped out the first four wickets to fall, the crowds began to look hopefully towards the free gifts being handed out with the very same paper. Big red umbrellas.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo