August 19, 2015

Here's looking at The Oval

The occasional Ashes dead rubber notwithstanding, there's something about this south London venue that inspires
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England's earthiest Test venue (circa 1953) © Getty Images

We're the Surrey Lions and all we do is win,
Finals, championships, piss-ups too,
We're the Surrey Lions,
Who the f*** are you?!

Beyond the Hobbs Gates they call it The Hovel, sneers seldom confined. Home to the most reviled county outfit of modern times and birthplace of "The Surrey Song", the delightful ditty quoted above. As Alastair Cook pinches himself black and blue while savouring the unprecedentedly delicious prospect of becoming the first England captain ever to win a home Ashes series 4-1, no stage could be more auspicious.

Granted, Edgbaston - more patriotic, more intimidating - has supplied a superior win-loss ratio (3:1 to 2:1). Headingley, too, has yielded a higher percentage of victories (41.89 to 40.21). The Oval, moreover, remains the scene of England's limpest home total (52 against the Bossies in 1948) as well as their most numbing loss (1882 and all that). Among the five grounds where they have been playing across three centuries, nevertheless, none has supplied more glory.

Against the Bossies the score is a dizzy 16-6, a ratio of success unmatched in either country by either side. England have won 51 and lost 48 of their home Tests against the ancient enemy; nearly a third of those triumphs have come in south London, and just 12.5% of the reversals.

Delve further and it gets even better. On the nine occasions the destination of the Ashes has been at stake, successes (in 1896, 1926, 1953, 1985 and 2009, plus a "winning" draw in 2005) outnumber failures (a draw in 1899, defeats in 1930 and 1934).* England also gained significant wins in Kennington in 1888, 1890 and 1893 (in the last instance regaining the urn), though that was before the ground cemented its place as the summer's final chapter.

This match, mind, will not be the first dead rubber by any means. Indeed, in all four encounters from 1899 to 1909, in 1921, and in 14 of the past 19 series, the important business had already been decided, mostly in the visitors' favour. Jessop's Match (1902), Hutton's Match (1938) and Tufnell's Match (1997) were all gloriously redundant. Since the Bossies had already retained the urn, D'Oliveira's Match in 1968, an imperishable series-squarer sealed with five minutes to spare, might be regarded with similarly mild disdain but shouldn't: no individual innings or cricket match has ever meddled more gloriously with the worst-laid plans of politicians.

Thought The Oval's done with revamps? Think again © Associated Press

So what makes the Vauxhall Road so inspirational? Could it be the gasholders themselves, the very definition of ugly-beautiful, oblivious to fashion and contemptuous of change? Or the simple fact that, with rare exceptions, The Oval has staged the final Test of a home series for more than a century? As a partly reconstructed Lord's man, this column prefers to put it down to it being (dashing new pavilion notwithstanding) England's earthiest Test venue. True, Stockwell has been yuppified and there are plans afoot to smarten up Vauxhall, but SE11 will never be NW8. Nor ever want to be. Forget the champers and crudités; bring on the Foster's and fries.

Few grounds have so little in common with the name of its team. "If Lord's is cosmopolitan, The Oval is distinctly metropolitan," Neville Cardus once attested. "One of the great ironies, surely, is that Surrey, with its hills and downs, has in cricket come to be associated with Kennington and a setting of bleak tenements and confident announcements (on hoardings) about somebody's pale ale and dry gin. Little of breezy country air passes over The Oval."

For many years, the legendary Spy cartoon of Bobby "Guv'nor" Abel, a nimble, diminutive late-19th century opener, could be found on a wall in this column's hall. Here, to Cardus, was "the personification of Surrey cricket seen through the air of The Oval; the pert lift of the cap on his head, the slick dexterity of his play, with bat at an impudent angle - all these gave cricket a Cockney accent".

Cue fanfare for the (mostly) common man. Ken Barrington aside, Surrey legends tend to be no-nonsense, salty types, the very antithesis of the "Southern softie" archetype. John Edrich didn't smile much, Jim Laker and Peter May even less. Jack Hobbs may have been more likely to say "batting and bowling" than "battin' and bowlin'" - he was born in Cambridge, after all - but his childhood was spent in near-poverty. Tony Lock was the son of a military policeman; Jim Laker's father was a stonemason; Ken Barrington's, an army private, brought his children up on the barracks; Alec Bedser's was a bricklayer. Alf Gover's a builder.

The forebears of Alec and Micky Stewart were self-made chaps, versatile duckers and divers with the gift of the gab and determination to burn. Micky's grandad was a song-and-dance man, touring North America with Charlie Chaplin before reinventing himself, first as a professional cyclist then a cabbie; Alec's grandad graduated from salesman, via tic-tac man at horse and dog tracks, to professional gambler.

Central to so much of Micky's Herne Hill childhood was Brockwell Park, home to as many as 13 cricket pitches in the 1920s. In 1978, that same 125-acre expanse hosted the second Rock Against Racism festival, featuring the nation's reigning conscience-in-chief, Elvis Costello, alongside reggae agitators Aswad and Irish punks Stiff Little Fingers. Fighting the good fight goes with the territory.

Once import controls were relaxed in 1968 the cultural mix gradually evolved via the likes of Intikhab Alam, Sylvester Clarke, Monte Lynch and Geoff Howarth, yet it has long been a mystery that so few of the many Caribbean migrants to Brixton and Peckham have seen their sons wear that Belgian-chocolate cap. A decade ago, Mark Butcher (English father, Jamaican mother) informed this column of his incredulity that there was no signpost to The Oval in Brixton; there is still every reason to cite this as a matter of concern for British cricket in general.

Surrey crusader: George Lohmann © PA Photos

It is surely somewhat more revealing, then, that the first players' revolt ever to disturb a Test match was primarily a Surrey affair, and that the arch-rebel was George Lohmann. Saluted in the 1894 edition of Cricket Songs as "Something like a yeoman / Neither fast nor slow man", his 10.75 average made him the founder of the Test Untouchables; his lone associate is Bradman.

In fact, there is every reason to depict Lohmann, who would die of consumption at 36, as the first major activist for cricketers' rights, as highlighted in Ric Sissons' invaluable 1988 book The Players. Unlike SF Barnes - who would renounce county cricket for the better-paid leagues - Lohmann was not only the best bowler of his era (at least 150 wickets per season from 1886 to 1892) but preferred peeing inside the tent.

Forelock-tugging was assuredly not his bag. As aware of his own worth as he was of the considerable depth of his employer's pockets, he and the two Toms, Hayward and Richardson, late Victorian England's leading professionals, aroused jealousy throughout the realm by securing multi-season contracts.

Lohmann was understandably peeved in 1889 when, having done his bit to ensure a shared pennant with Nottinghamshire, Surrey once again awarded the "amateur" Walter Read a £100 bonus while making Lohmann and the other eight leading professionals share the same sum. Lohmann sent the paltry cheque straight back. The committee relented, awarding him £50 (the others got £20). Two years later, having advised the club that he'd been tapped up by his native county, Middlesex, he negotiated a more profitable deal.

A week before the 1896 Ashes Test at The Oval, motivated in part by mounting anger over WG Grace's laughable "amateur" status, in part by envy of the better-paid tourists, Lohmann, Abel, Hayward and Richardson joined forces with Nottinghamshire's Billy Gunn and demanded £20 - double the match fee. Predictably rebuffed, they downed bats.

The Surrey quartet were summoned to a special committee meeting hours before the Test was due to start, whereupon all bar Lohmann backed down, signing a statement that read, in part: "The Australians have made and are making large sums by these fixtures and it seemed to us only reasonable that we should beneficiate [sic] in a small way out of the large amount of money received."

Lohmann refused to sign the statement until he'd communicated with Gunn; both were omitted from the final XI. On the third and final day of the match, Lohmann, having been informed that Surrey would not pick him again until the issue was resolved, attended another committee meeting, where his apology was accepted and he consented to a press statement expressing his "sincere apologies" for daring to use the word "demand".

Go to The Oval this week and you'll hear oodles of rabbit about the latest revamp: come season's end, the May Stand will be rebuilt, the Lock Stand demolished and the Laker Stand renamed the Lock-Laker Stand, pushing capacity beyond 25,000. Still, for all that the unalphabetic title of the last could well be traced to Laker's argy-bargy with the Surrey committee more than half a century ago, you'll still be able to drink in his and Lohmann's acute sense of self-worth, that defiance, that refusal to be trodden on.

Witness the new Jardine Suite, named in honour of the only cricketer ever to mug the Don in broad daylight (being an arrogant, unbeloved bounder plainly has its compensations). Witness, too, those unbudgeable gasholders, never mind this column's outright refusal to refer to the ground by its sponsored moniker. Sincere apologies to those charming young people in the PR department, but, as with Piers Morgan's rise from gossip columnist to Daily Mirror editor to World's Most Embarrassing Cricket Lover, some concessions to "progress" are simply beyond the pale.

* - August 20, 0800 GMT- the article had originally stated eight occasions. It has been corrected to nine

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Peter on August 21, 2015, 17:01 GMT

    Another reason not to play in London so often is the fact England don't play well there, look at this series

  • Adam on August 20, 2015, 10:26 GMT

    The argument about providing players for any current side is irrelevant. Overall Surrey players have collected more England caps than any other county.

    Also harsh expecting the MCC to be putting up England players. Middlesex are just tenants .

  • Peter on August 20, 2015, 9:54 GMT

    @Harris

    One, the whole north of England probably has about 20 million people so it's debable whether the south east has more let alone London. No way it deserves two tests while 20 million people in the north get nothing

    It can have one test and the North can have the other, it does afterall provide all the players for this England team. As for capacity Old Trafford and headingly both hold 20,000 to 25,0000 so it's not much different to the London grounds

  • Dummy4 on August 20, 2015, 9:36 GMT

    2 Lords tests each summer and the final test at the Oval is obligatory, more money available down south as the crowds prove. Also a chance for the Surrey members to see some decent cricket. As regards the great Northern cricket lovers where were they in 2010 for the Australia v Pakistan test at Headingley? Deplorable turn out which the county are probably still paying for

  • Adam on August 20, 2015, 9:18 GMT

    @IDD0555 -Your argument has been pretty much demolished by HARRIS652 but The Oval is where it all began; The Ashes, Tests - it is the real home of cricket. Not forgetting the first FA Cup finals and Rugby internationals). A giant venue in the history of sport in this country.

  • Aubline on August 19, 2015, 20:21 GMT

    @IDDO555 - Lords's and the Oval have the biggest capacity of the test grounds. Attendances are good whoever the opposition is, unlike some of the Northern venues. Accordingly, I'd suggest that they have every right to stage Ashes tests. London is located in South East England, which has a bigger population than 'the whole of Northern England'. Any population comparison focusing only on London is meaningless.

  • Milind on August 19, 2015, 20:01 GMT

    The Oval brings back fond memories to fans of Indian cricket as well. The venue for India's first series win in England in '71, and the almost-win pulled off by Sunny Gavaskar in '79 with his masterpiece of 221, the highest fourth innings score by a test batsmen in England.

  • Peter on August 19, 2015, 17:24 GMT

    London has in my opinion too many tests, especially ashes tests. For a place that provides zero players to the team I can't quite understand why it should have the right to 2 ashes tests every time they are played in England, especially as the the whole North of England, which has a bigger population than London and provides the bulk of the players, gets nothing.

    High time this was addressed, the Oval or Lords needs to miss out, as to which, I don't care. Maybe work out where England has the worst record and scrap that as an ashes test ground.

  • Kev on August 19, 2015, 13:49 GMT

    London's ground for the Londoners. Always thought it had The best tracks. Quick by English standards. Moved to Australia in 2002. Got a shock when i saw the huge new stand. Great ground. Just wish the test match wickets were more central, so tv viewer can appreciate.

  • Dummy4 on August 19, 2015, 12:35 GMT

    The ashes were at stake in 2005 too.

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