The last-minute u-turn that stopped the pilots having crowds at county matches had left myself and many other Surrey fans in a state of frustrated despondency, unsure if we would be able to watch any competitive live cricket at The Oval in 2020. Thankfully a huge amount of effort behind the scenes by Surrey enabled 2500 fortunate members to watch the T20 Blast fixture between Surrey and Hampshire, the first professional cricket match to host spectators this summer.
On entering the ground, it was apparent that people were at ease with the social distancing measures in place, perhaps since similar measures have been experienced at most public spaces since the lockdown. As The Oval had been part of phase one of the government-endorsed test events with a practice match back in July, the staff inside the ground were cheerfully drilled in managing the social-distancing measures. Clear signage directed me to my seat via a one-way system, and as before alternate rows were used as well as numerous gaps between seats. In an effort to further improve social distancing, some people were asked to wear sensors around their necks, presumably to monitor and understand crowd movement, yet again demonstrating Surrey's commitment to providing the best and safest spectator experience. We were then forced to wait even longer for the resumption of live cricket, as rain threatened to spoil things. Luckily the skies eventually became clear and a shortened game got underway.
The tantalising match-up between Pakistan pace sensation Shaheen Afridi and the legendary Hashim Amla was something that I was looking forward to most; a game within a game. It was a contest that took place well into the night, with the full moon visible behind the pavilion. In Afridi's second over Amla struck two sweetly timed boundaries to demonstrate his enduring class and revive memories of his Test triple-hundred on the same ground. Understandably, given the uniquely arduous tour of England that Afridi has experienced, he wasn't able to quite live up to his billing. During the 64-run partnership between Will Jacks and Amla, which proved to be the bedrock of the Surrey chase, in many ways it was Jacks who overshadowed his more illustrious partner. He looked assured and eager to take any runs on offer from the start, eventually guiding Surrey home with a dominant unbeaten 45; earlier his solitary over of bowling had produced a surprise wicket, sealing a Player-of-the-Match performance in my eyes.
Rory Burns' excellently judged boundary catch midway through the Hampshire innings drew loud cheers on an otherwise quiet night. Amla also showed how his advancing years haven't affected his graceful striking of the ball, with several strokes down the ground generating a pleasing thud from the bat. But the shot of the day was from Jacks: a brutal four over cover off Afridi's bowling. Having done something similar in Afridi's first over, a change of ends resulted in an even more commanding boundary, the ball bouncing a couple of times before crashing into the advertising boards.
It was actually refreshing to see a T20 Blast crowd solely focused on the game rather than socialising and drinking. In recent years The Oval has earned itself the somewhat dubious tag of being "London's biggest beer garden" but there was no beer snake or loutish behaviour on show. It was also unusual for a T20 Blast fixture not to be a sellout, with half of the stands closed and the ground at about 10% capacity. At times there was an eerie silence, and the chat between players in the middle could be heard. The low-key nature of the event meant that the usual accompanying music, boundary-edge flame burners and crowd catch contest - touching the ball itself is now taboo - were all absent. Spectators were left to amuse themselves and did so by finding entertainment in the seemingly banal; during the innings break, every time the rope used to dry the outfield almost deflected into a pile of saw dust, a big cheer and laughter was heard. The happiness and relief of being able to witness live cricket was evident in the genuine warmth of the applause when the players took to the field. When Reece Topley delivered the first ball to Felix Organ, despite there being no possibility of a catch behind the stumps, an excited "ooh" swept around the semi-populated stands, echoing the crowd's excitement.
A victorious 9 to match Surrey's comprehensive nine-wicket win. Only the persistent rain and the curtailed nature of the game denied the perfect return to watching "in the flesh" cricket. I'm firmly hoping that the win will mark a turning point in Surrey's season, but more importantly Surrey's trailblazing staging of the game will surely be of benefit to cricket fans around the country and beyond, as empty stadiums gradually welcome back the most important asset of the game: people
Want to do a Fan Following report? Read our FAQ here.