Way Back When August 24, 2013

A lifelong affair with The Oval

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

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.

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