A friend of mine once asked me for some very earnest and sombre advice. He'd been invited to Lord's for his first ever day at the cricket, and needed a crash-course in Test match etiquette, or most specifically, how to watch it.

My answer? "Don't."

As in, don't exhaust your eyeballs by trying to focus on a tiny red orb for seven hours a day. Just let the whole experience wash over you, and slowly but surely you'll get the gist of what's going off out there.

Read a book, do a crossword, talk to your neighbours, and listen to the aural clues all around you - the cracks of willow or the clicks of wicket, the oohs and aahs, and even "woahs!" that alert you to unfolding drama. If you stitch together enough of those moments over the course of a day, you'll probably emerge with an innate understanding of what you've witnessed, even if the details remain a mystery.

It was advice that I was happy to reclaim for myself at the Kia Oval on Sunday, as Surrey opened its gates to spectators for the first time in this pandemic-wrecked season, for a two-day friendly against Middlesex that was as meaningless on the field as it was existentially significant off of it.

For the record, Will Jacks enhanced his burgeoning reputation with a sumptuously compiled 62, Scott Borthwick added a half-century of his own, while Middlesex rotated their way through their full stable of recently furloughed fast bowlers, all of whom were grateful for a gallop before these two sides meet again for slightly higher stakes in the Bob Willis Trophy next week.

But it simply didn't matter who did what and when - or even that a dramatic downpour sent most of the punters packing on the stroke of 5 o'clock. The only thing that anyone cared for was the sense of returning normality that a day at the cricket was able to offer. And from the moment that that first familiar ripple of applause rang out across the ground at 10.55am, as the umpires walked out to the middle, there were enough Pavlovian moments to get even the most casual fans drooling.

"I have to admit, I felt a bit emotional when the gates opened this morning," Richard Gould, Surrey's chief executive, told ESPNcricinfo. "It feels like a long, long time since we've been able to do this."

The homecoming was very much a part of the new normal, mind you. Socially distanced queuing outside the ground, facemasks mandatory in indoor spaces and covered concourses. Hand-sanitising stations dotted all around the ground, and a strict limit of 1000 spectators, who were spread out across five blocks of seating beneath the great gasometer, with every other row left vacant to create a maximum capacity of 30% - or 21% as it turned out, once a mandatory two-seat gap between bookings had been factored in.

Debbie Knight was one of those few - an Essex fan but a Surrey member, she had made some 22 of the 10,000 calls that Surrey's hotline received in the first hour after the tickets went on sale on Wednesday morning. "Cricket is summer, as far as I'm concerned," she said. "I'm just so glad to be back."

The day's most significant onlookers, however, were undoubtedly the representatives of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), whom Gould likened to Ofsted inspectors as they sat alongside the ECB at the top of the 1845 Stand. From there, they observed the day's proceedings and set about fine-tuning the government's aim of a permanent return of fans to live sport by October 1.

For Gould, however, as for many other county chief executives desperate to rescue their seasons from oblivion, that October date is the outer limit of their ambition. With the bottom line more visible than ever now that the financial tide has gone out, Gould warned that the loss-leading exercise that Surrey had been willing to put on this week could not be repeated in perpetuity.

"It's a good start and we are delighted to be back but 30% [capacity] is not viable and, if it stayed at that for the next year or two, it would certainly not work," he said. "You would need to be getting north of 60%. We need to be back to normal next summer. If not, the structure of not just our sport but all sports will need to significantly change."

County cricket is no stranger to such doom-mongering pronouncements, but coming from Gould and Surrey, they carry an extra urgency. Certainly, the evidence presented by the test event is that the spectators not only feel comfortable with the safety measures put in place ("it's really no different to going to the supermarket," said one) but are actively yearning for the structure that such social gatherings provide in their lives. And yet, the longer such clubs are held back from declaring "business as usual", the less likely that declaration will ever be.

"If you go back 120 years, you go back to a time where the chief executive is an unpaid honorary treasurer and the players are paid beer money," Gould said. "We don't want that to become normal. If we don't get crowds back in at some stage, then maybe more clubs will become part-time organisations."

Surrey's particular sums are made all the more complex by the sheer size of their overheads. Gould said the club had been happy to go "over and above" in their bid to prove the safety of their sport, but with approximately 100 staff on duty for the benefit of just 1000 spectators, the day's ten-to-one ratio will not last the distance, especially if next summer's marquee Test against India were to take place with similar constraints. Unlike clubs of smaller stature, who derive 80% of their income from the ECB and Sky, and just 20% from paying customers, Surrey's figures are almost the inverse, especially when you factor in their £6 million income from non-matchday events and conferencing.

For the time being, however, Gould is confident that the same patience that cricket as a whole has displayed in this most frustrating of summers will continue to sustain them. The club's 13,500 members contribute an annual revenue of £3 million, which will keep them going into the winter, by which stage The Oval's other operations also be back up and running.

But fundamentally, the sense endures that, at the very local level on which county cricket has to operate, everyone remains very much in this together.

"Sports clubs are families, and people feel they have come home today," Gould said. "It makes them the most responsible people out there. They know they need to respect the rules, or they won't be able to come again."