A Short Trip to the Oval
July 14, 2011 by Me In My Frightened Silence
“You must be mad”.
“The game could be over in a couple of minutes”.
“They’re sure to lose”.
“And you’re going to pay a £16 rail fare and possible £10 admission price for that?”
The sort of comments to be expected from the sensible and soulless.
After three days in which they have been also rans in the game, Kent need 52 runs to win with just two wickets left. But one of the undefeated batsmen is captain Rob Key who has already made 144, over half the team’s score of 270 for 8, chasing 322 for a victory that seemed remote when they had been 87 for 6 in their first innings in response to the home side Surrey’s 387 all out.
So why am I going? The match could be lost in just two deliveries, and it will seem pointless and anticlimatic. Key and his tail end partners, Robbie Joseph and Ashley Shaw, will be facing a formidable attack comprising England’s premier fast bowler and two other promising right arm seamers with a new ball in helpful conditions.
Would anyone in their right mind make a nearly two hour journey by public transport to catch the last five minutes of a football (soccer) match in which their team are already losing 2-0? Or the final innings of a baseball game when their favourites are 4-0 behind in the bottom of the ninth with no runners on base and two out?
Probably not………but. There is a chance, an admittedly slim one, that Key, with doughty support from his numbers 10 and 11. might just pull off an unlikely and famous victory. And I would be able to say “I was there!”. Very few people who follow sports with any fervour would deny the exhilarating feeling that that engenders – such events live in the memory long after dozens of dreary defeats have been forgotten.
And perhaps that feeling is no more acute than in cricket when, however uninspiring the preceding 18 hours of play might have been (this has, however, been an absorbing game throughout), everything comes down to a matter of minutes, perhaps as much as an hour, where every ball leaving the bowler’s hand has the potential to destroy and every run scrambled stokes up the tension.
Or as J.M. Kilburn memorably put it: “cricket never was and never can be a game of continuous excitement or of great achievement every day. The quiet hours, the simple strivings, are as much a part of the attraction as the unforgettable moments of high drama”. The quiet hours and simple strivings are now done with in this match – it is high drama from now on.
Despite Key’s five and a half hour heroics, Surrey remain strong favourites to complete the win. And were I at home listening to the inevitable denouement I would shrug my shoulders, accept that the result had been on the cards and be thankful that I hadn’t wasted considerable time and money trekking to South London to witness it. The emotional impact would be minimal.
But if Kent won and I hadn’t been there! Any sports fan will know that, thrilling though that might be, their response would be tempered with a certain frustration and disappointment that they had not shown sufficient faith to have witnessed it. A part of them will have rather craved a glorious failure in order to vindicate your judgement.
As I approach Bromley South on my inbound train journey from Gillingham to London Victoria, an elderly, greying, gap toothed woman lovingly folds sprigs of purple heather in aluminium foil. I’m almost inclined to ask her for one there and then in the hope that it might bring Kent luck! But I resist as she is clearly intent on wrapping as many as she can in the remaining twenty minutes of the journey before foisting her wares on unsuspecting tourists.
It is standing room only after Bromley South and a three year old girl chuckles to her “granny” that this must be the “wobbliest train I ever saw……….I keep bumping into everyone”. Even the commuters hypnotised by their laptops and Blackberries cannot avoid a smirk.
After a short underground journey I reach the Oval tube station forty minutes before play, pleased to see that admission is free, though membership cards are still required to enter the pavilion (the “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” streak in me is glad to see standards are being maintained even with such a sparse crowd). It is more February than July – the glowering skies and brisk wind make the choice between cold beer and hot tea an easy one.
The players vigorously going through their paces in the net area on the Harleyford Road side of the ground almost outnumber the spectators. As if conscious that the game will be over soon the dozen pigeons that would usually set up their encampment on the edge of the square at around tea time are already circling the playing area. The talk amongst the members, Surrey and Kent alike, in the middle tier of the pavilion, is of Key’s “magnificent” innings and the prospect of the Surrey pace attack of Tremlett, Linley and Meaker rolling over the last two visitors’ wickets quickly.
And the outcome? Predictable valiant failure on the behalf of the Kent batsmen. For forty minutes Key and Joseph looked comfortable – the former thumping 4/5 balls an over at the dispersed field before taking a single on the 5th or last ball, and his partner judiciously leaving or solidly playing the remaining deliveries. As the score mounted towards 300 the sense of unease in the Surrey camp became palpable, provoking lengthy discussions between Rory Hamilton-Brown, the captain, and his senior players. Shredded nerves induced a wayward shy at the stumps that went for four overthrows and a wild delivery from Linley that flew for four byes. But to his credit, with only 29 needed, the Surrey captain turned to his spinners, Batty and Ansari, both of whom promptly took a wicket, including Key’s for 162, to complete a 21 run win for the home side.
Scars of sweet paradise indeed or as Sir Neville Cardus said: “Dear, lovely game of cricket that can stir so profoundly, that can lift up our hearts and break them, and in the end fill them with pride and joy”. Being there, the overwhelming feeling as I returned to the tube station was one of pride.
But I could not help also feeling regret that I had not purchased that sprig of lucky purple heather when I had had the chance.