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Way Back When

A lifelong affair with The Oval

From truant schoolboy to junior Surrey member to member of the press corps

Steven Lynch

August 24, 2013

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Workmen put the final touches to the new pavilion at The Oval, London, circa 1897
Finishing touches are administered to the pavilion, in 1897 © Getty Images
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Teams: England
Grounds: Kennington Oval

Considering I spent a large portion of my adolescence there, it was a surprise to realise that I hadn't actually been to The Oval for three or four years. The ground was sparkling for the final Ashes Test this year - at least until it started raining on the second morning, which spoiled things a bit.

As a teenager I often thought The Oval was a better idea than school (I later discovered that if I wasn't there, bets were taken in the staff room on whether I was at Lord's or The Oval; unless it was Wimbledon fortnight, in which case the odds shifted).

More recently I've been lucky enough to be closeted in the press box, which has been shunted around the ground a bit. After a long time on the fringes of the pavilion, there were spells in a Portakabin near Archbishop Tenison's School, and a box on stilts opposite the pavilion. Now the media are housed in some splendour in the new OCS Stand, at the Vauxhall End - an area that has been transformed from the lunar landscape it was back in my schooldays.

For a while, until recently, the press box was in the oddly flat-fronted Bedser Stand that sits next to the pavilion - the angles were all wrong in there, and the rake of the seat rows was too narrow: for a match in the 1999 World Cup I was allocated a seat from which I couldn't actually see one blade of grass. Matters weren't improved when my neighbour developed a prodigious nosebleed, possibly because of the altitude (it was on the fourth floor). And the lift was the slowest in the world. So you won't catch me complaining about the new place.

I never have liked the Bedser Stand much, though. It doesn't seem to accommodate very many people, but my main objection is that it replaced a building which was a big part of my formative years: as a junior Surrey member, I wasn't permitted in the pavilion on match days, but was allowed to roam free in the West Wing (no presidents in sight, only the occasional 100-year-old steward).

Soon after I became a member at the age of 12, I sat in front of the pavilion, wondering if was reasonable to eat my tea-time sandwiches before the start of play (the lunch-time ones had somehow disappeared during the trip on the Northern Line tube), and was very politely ushered away by a kindly old gentleman who turned out to be Geoffrey Howard, Surrey's urbane secretary.

 
 
I sat in front of the pavilion, wondering if was reasonable to eat my tea-time sandwiches before the start of play, and was very politely ushered away by a kindly old gentleman who turned out to be Geoffrey Howard, Surrey's urbane secretary
 

By chance I saw the West Wing again the other day. I was watching a TV documentary about Basil D'Oliveira, and after his epic 158 in the 1968 Ashes Test the modest hero was interviewed outside the England dressing room, with a backdrop of what appeared to be a large shed roof. But us Surrey junior members knew better: it was the corrugated-iron roof of the pavilion's West Wing, which protected anyone who sat at ground level from the ravages of the Kennington sun. The West Wing was, like most of the ground, a warren of interesting corridors, dead ends, oddly sited flights of stone stairs, and unbelievably antiquated toilets.

Whenever rain stopped play - which was quite often - exploring the stand was the favoured option. I once found a door (no combination locks or security cameras in those days) that led to an opening under the seats themselves. The floor was encrusted with wrappings and newspapers and other rubbish, and I remember thinking even then that it wouldn't be good if someone dropped a lighted cigarette down there.

That is, of course, roughly what happened on the fateful day in 1985 at Bradford City's Valley Parade football ground, when 56 people died in a fire that started under the main stand. Sports stadiums, including cricket ones, couldn't carry on in the same old way after that, especially in the light of the later Taylor Report into ground safety.

It wasn't just The Oval that was ramshackle back then. Lord's was a similar adventure playground, with swathes of corridors and inviting doors, although disappointingly, more of theirs were locked against the inquisitive schoolboy. The old Grand Stand, for example, had passageways in it that I wasn't fully aware of even after working there for years: people in the boxes had to traipse for miles to find their lunches, in musty old rooms at the back, and in a masterpiece of 1920s design a lot of the seats - the most expensive in the house - were unsaleable, as the buttress in the middle, which housed the iconic old scoreboard, got in the way of the view, so if you were at the back you could see only half the playing area.


Any vantage point...and a free view, England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 1st day, August 21, 2013
A bird's-eye view © AFP
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Going back to The Oval pavilion, though, is an odd experience: for a start, most of the building has been jacked up by a storey or two, so the top is now level with the Bedser Stand. And the atmospheric bar behind the Long Room, which used to be presided over by a buxom woman whose opening gambit was invariably "I only do teas", has been cut in half, but augmented by a balcony overlooking the back of the pavilion.

Back in the day, we juniors were allowed in the pavilion on Sundays - I never understood this, as there were always more people than for your average Championship match - and again we made the most of it.

A friend and I would turn up improbably early for a 2pm start, in order to bag a seat on the middle balcony, which comprised just one row of those canvas-backed S-shaped stacking chairs. I suspect it was actually committee-room territory, but no one (not even Mr Howard) ever chucked us out. From there you could see both dressing-room balconies, and a bit further behind was that familiar old corrugated-iron roof. When I go up there now I'm still transported back to the age of 15 or so. Unfortunately, the feeling doesn't last!

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013

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Posted by jay57870 on (August 27, 2013, 13:53 GMT)

Steven - Perfect timing for your column: August 24! It was a historic day in 1971 as India won a Test match & series for the first time on English soil! I was there all 4 days; day 2 was rained out. The epic win was spearheaded by BS Chandrasekhar's match-seizing spell of 6 for 38, boosted by superb close-in fielding, notably ED Solkar's incredible catches. The critical turning point though was opener John Jameson's (deflected) run-out by Chandra for 16 on day 4. The Poms collapsed soon after for 101. Maybe all this was triggered by the 'divine visitation' of Bella the elephant - loaned from Chessington Zoo to faithful Indian supporters - during the 'auspicious' lunch break. It worked! After all, the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha is the remover of obstacles. By karmic happenstance, Bombay-born Jameson had also been run out for 82 (1st inng). The keeper was Bombay-born Farokh Engineer. Maybe their paths had crossed long ago in the Bombay maidans, likely in Churchgate at the other Oval?

Posted by   on (August 24, 2013, 13:36 GMT)

just wanred to say that I loved the story. Any history to do with cricket. Thanks for sharing your memories.

Posted by landl47 on (August 24, 2013, 11:00 GMT)

I saw my very first test match at The Oval, in 1961. My Dad took me and I saw my idol Ted Dexter bat, although he only got 24 and the match was a tame draw.

As a Middlesex member I spent a lot more time at Lord's and watching a county game from the top deck of the pavilion is one of my fondest memories. I've lived in North America for over 30 years now and when I'm asked if I miss anything about England, that's one of the first things I mention. Of course, people over here have no idea what cricket is, so I get some very blank looks!

Posted by   on (August 24, 2013, 6:00 GMT)

Great Ground,,, what beautiful memories,,,,,,

Eng b . Muralitharan at a one off test

An Epic SA- Eng test where Thorpe scored a unforgettable ton

Belly's Double against India and Kumble century against Eng

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Steven Lynch Steven Lynch won the Wisden Cricket Monthly Christmas Quiz three years running before the then-editor said "I can't let you win it again, but would you like a job?" That lasted for 15 years, before he moved across to the Wisden website when that was set up in 2000. Following the merger of the two sites early in 2003 he was appointed as the global editor of Wisden Cricinfo. In June 2005 he became the deputy editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. He continues to contribute the popular weekly "Ask Steven" question-and-answer column on ESPNcricinfo, and edits the Wisden Guide to International Cricket.

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