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Live at The Oval, the crowd, the rituals - an occasion to savour despite the cricket

A truncated day's play at The Oval, coupled with Surrey's collapse, took a bit of sheen away from a day most memorable

Tawhid Qureshi
Most people wore masks and followed the one-way system as advised, but in many ways, the slow pace ensured social distancing  •  Getty Images for Surrey CCC

Most people wore masks and followed the one-way system as advised, but in many ways, the slow pace ensured social distancing  •  Getty Images for Surrey CCC

A Surrey fan returned to the cricket, at his favourite ground, and while the proceedings in the middle were uninspiring, there was much to take back - nothing more than just the feeling that things could be normal again.
The game
Despite the slate grey sky, which was more early winter than early summer, I was eager to sample the normality of a low-key day, watching cricket at my favourite ground, The Oval. I felt lucky to be watching the first day of Surrey's County Championship game with Middlesex, along with a few thousand Surrey members and their guests.
The occasion itself - live sport with a crowd - was probably more significant than the spectacle in the middle. The uncertainty surrounding the easing of lockdown measures meant that most of us were happy and relieved, in equal measure, to be doing something we truly value. Once inside the ground, it didn't take long for things to feel familiar: random conversations with like-minded strangers, a nod towards a friendly steward and collecting a blank scorecard were all rituals that I'd missed, but perhaps I hadn't realised how much. Most people wore masks and followed the one-way system as advised, but in many ways, the slow pace of a county cricket match ensured social distancing.
The best part
I was hoping to be entertained by Surrey's batting talent, a long partnership between Hashim Amla and Ollie Pope being the ideal scenario. Instead, it was the workman-like Rory Burns and Mark Stoneman, who spent the longest time at the crease. From my imperfect view, square of the wicket, it seemed that Burns had ironed out some of the more extreme idiosyncrasies in his technique. The Surrey openers put on 135 well-crafted runs before things went very wrong.
The Middlesex bowlers were rewarded after a wicketless first session. The evergreen Tim Murtagh was unlucky not to make the initial breakthrough and, to an extent, the three wickets picked up by Martin Andersson were attributable to pressure exerted earlier by Murtagh and his new-ball partner Ethan Bamber. It was the youngest of the bowling pack, 19-year-old Blake Cullen, who showed the most promise and pace. I'd witnessed his first-class debut last year, a friendly match between the same teams, when his raw talent impressed. He's certainly someone who should be filed under the "one to watch" category.
The wow moment
The opening phase of a four-day game between teams with indifferent form was never going to set the pulse racing. The morning session was dominated by the solid accumulation of runs between Burns and Stoneman. It was only after lunch, when Stoneman reached his half-century, that he showed signs of expansive strokeplay. Even then, a neatly-timed clip through square leg and a cut shot for four were pleasing rather than exhilarating.
The most dramatic passage of play took place when the tea interval was approaching. Surrey's position of strength was decimated by a stunning collapse; they lost six wickets for seven runs. Surrey's steady progress up to that point made the collapse all the more surprising. The Middlesex bowlers quickly ripped out Surrey's middle order by applying the simple virtues of a good line and length.
One thing I'd change
The suspension of the IPL has given more exposure to the County Championship, with Sky Sports televising a number of games, which would otherwise have received scant attention. So it was frustrating that there were no action replays shown on the large screen, despite all of the broadcasting equipment that surrounded the periphery of the ground. It meant there was little way of judging the validity of numerous lbw decisions, unless you downloaded the delayed footage on a mobile phone.
The day's play was officially called off at 5.30pm just as sunshine began illuminating the outfield. Second-guessing British weather is a fraught pastime, but it seemed that umpires, ground staff and players were happy to end the day's play as soon as rain arrived during the tea break. The stadium PA system relayed that the umpires didn't think there was enough time to prepare the ground for a restart, which was rather surprising given The Oval's reputation as one of the best-equipped grounds in the country.
The crowd
The day began in chilly conditions and things hardly improved. Layers of clothing and hunched shoulders braced against gusts of wind were a common sight. Nonetheless, the crowd was always in good spirits. The low-level hum of chit-chat was often drowned out by a combination of south London traffic and construction work, going on at the new stand next to the pavilion.
Even before the rain arrived, a steady trickle headed towards the exit gates, as two sessions of cricket in inhospitable conditions, compounded by Surrey's batting collapse, persuaded many to seek the comforts of home. Few could blame them.
Out of ten...
A safe 7/10. The long awaited return to The Oval was an occasion to savour rather than delight in. The truncated day's play, coupled with Surrey's collapse, took a little of the sheen away from the proceedings. I can only hope there are many more days of experiencing such enjoyment this summer. As I headed for my train at Vauxhall station, I caught sight of a trio of Surrey players doing the same - it was yet another sign of things becoming normal.

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