Choice of game
We now live at a stone's throw from The Oval, so I wasn't going to miss this game. With the series delicately in balance, an Indian team that must have been equally buzzing and hurting after Lord's and Leeds, I was looking forward to a great time at the ground, and the prospects of enjoying the lunch break with aloo parathas at home.
My commute regularly takes me to the road outside The Oval and for the last full year, I have seen it become a construction site, with a new stand being built. There was almost no cricket there in all of 2020. Often, I was left wondering how the feel of the ground would change. It was nice to be in the same stand, having seen them built slab by slab. They have been a great addition to the facilities and provide a modern touch to the gasholders in the backdrop.
Here we were - 4th Test, day five - with all the four results possible. I left for the stadium early and even then the streets from Vauxhall station were packed. The stands were full well before Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja started the proceedings. Schools and offices in the UK are now fully open - and one could sense that there were more than a few bunked classes, a few sick leaves and work-from-home requests that would have enabled those in the stands to be there.
It was absolutely buzzing. By the end of day four, England had provided hope by their staunch resistance. While I knew that such a score has never been chased at The Oval, one of my earliest cricket memories was reading about India at the venue in 1979, and how Gavaskar's 221 took India to 420 odd, just a few runs short of the target. Then there always was Headingley 2019 in the back of the mind! And of course, India did not have R Ashwin.
Whoever said Test cricket is on a decline needed to be at The Oval. Most of the fans were in their seats before the start of play. Not just the usual faithful but also young kids and families were all around. The stands were packed to the rafters all five days.
Between shouts of support, it was normal to hear someone explaining to their kids how the ball could reverse. The more passionate Indian fans were still arguing about the inclusion of Ajinkya Rahane (a banner saying "oh Rahane- no more Bahane (excuses)" was a crowd favourite) and the exclusion of Ashwin - who was seen practice bowling in almost every break.
I had been to a few games at the Hundred this summer and the buzz in the crowd in the last five days matched the best of those - and that speaks volumes of the love of Test cricket in these parts.
The resistance from the England openers carried on through the first hour of the day. But just when the Indian supporters were starting to feel a bit down, the first couple of wickets fell. All hell broke loose.
The Indian supporters were in full swing. Dhols (Indian drums), turbans, flags, and people dressed in all shades of blue - the dark-blue retro jerseys from the 1992 World Cup, the light blue ones from 1996 to 2007, and then the slightly darker versions that the World Cup champions wore in 2011 - were all there.
An ode to The Oval
To a cricket fan, The Oval does not have the history and reverence that Lord's enjoys, but it does almost always assure an incredible atmosphere and a buzz - slightly rebellious and much less formal than the "Home of Cricket".
It is also one ground where the dressing room is very accessible to the viewing public - and a seat at the Bedser Stand is one of my favorite spots in the world to watch cricket. For it not only provides a great behind-the-bowlers-arm view of the game, it allows a rare glimpse of the body language of those walking up and down on their way to battle, and those in the dressing rooms.
The wow performance
By far, the best cricketing performance of the day belonged to the smiling assassin, Bumrah. He has such an energy about him - the way he bowls, and then turns almost hurrying to his mark and smiling all the way back - it is hard not to love him. In many ways, he is very similar to how Neil Wagner, another much-loved character, goes about his business.
The six-over spell that Bumrah bowled was my defining cricketing memory of the day. Old ball, dead pitch, strong home support, good batting line-up, tired body - none of these seemed to have mattered to him.
Fifty years on...
The last time India won at The Oval was when Bangladesh had just become a nation, Sunil Gavaskar had made his debut a few months back, India still played three-four spinners overseas, and my parents weren't even married - and I am not young by any standards! By all measures, this was a historic win. But more importantly, it reaffirmed the joy of Test cricket - for how it unfolds over many sessions and days, and how a day (or two) at the cricket beats almost everything else. The Oval might not be the Home of Cricket, but for the last five days, for me and for many others - it was the "Heart of Cricket"!
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