I wasn’t at Canterbury on the weekend that Darren Stevens broke the history books with his fantastic 190. Furthermore, Yorkshire had a bye week, not that Headingley would have been a likely venue for me.
That left the first weekend supporters were allowed back into grounds as a choice between one or the other of these – Surrey v Middlesex at the Oval or nothing. I had grown rather weary of nothing for these last many months, so opted for the former, and prayed that the weather would hold.
The trip to the Oval is a familiar one now, though this was just my third visit. However, London had become something of a stranger from recent times, and retained that same Sunday feel that I’ve found prevalent across the pandemic; an otherworldliness, a feeling that something isn’t quite right.
The train was busier than I expected, in that nearly every pair of seats was taken, but we never reached the overcrowding level of standing. That was not the case on the tube, where alternate seats were used on the Northern Line service to Morden (in case you ever need to go) but the younger of the travellers remained respectfully on our feet. I noticed the lady behind me was carrying a tiny decorated boutique shopping bag, and found myself peering at it thinking about what jewellery might be in it until I was able to focus on the words Victoria’s Secret, and turned away blushing, hoping to avoid making eye contact.
That brought into my eyeline something a little more useful. I’ve mentioned before that you can often tell county cricket fans at a glance, and this was a picture perfect example. Seeing a gentleman in a thick navy blue coat and weathered hat, his destination was inevitable, and the fact he read the Financial Times, folding it over into smaller and smaller sections as he completed the stories, meant only one thing. He was of Middlesex and going to Surrey, so for knowledge of which exit to use at Oval, he was the man to follow.
When we reached the station, it became I had not been alone in my calculation. He stomped his way up the steps with ten or twelve other obvious cricket-watchers behind him, turned left into Harleyford Road and, now eveyone could all see the Hobbs Gates, his pursuers streamed past him as though he was Galen Rupp having served his purpose keeping Mo Farah out of trouble for the opening few laps. It was as I passed, that I noticed his jacket had the MCC logo on it – an inevitability that I should have picked up by Angel, at least.
Trips into London by train aren’t as evocative as those into the countryside for me. Travelling through the seasons watching cricket, as budding Spring becomes vibrant Summer, giving way into golden Autumn, I’m blessed to begin my journeys from Kent; the hops, the orchards, now even the vineyards. London is different. The views do change, but only insomuch as that construction is a continuum, a time lapse photograph in which scaffolding might appear, then a new construction takes its place almost immediately, or a facade alters somehow. Very rarely, buildings disappear to the hanging dust of an empty space. In London, unlike the rest of the country, those gaps are not left for long, and before long new scaffolding will appear, then another construction, then it too becomes familiar. Things change, but they stay the same.
There was scaffolding and building work going on at the Oval, a crane peered over from the Gasworks, motionless most of the time, but occasionally its load would lurch forward as if trying to get a better look at proceedings within the ground. The members pavilion was covered in sheeting and bars, too, the longer you looked the more you could pick out – a brick wall built at ground level was not quite finished. I know why they didn’t do the bigger stuff over the weekend, but a little brickwork must have been possible from the stacks stood adjacent. All this, presumably, to ensure the ground is looking it’s best when the tests come around in a month or two’s time.
With the clouds hanging heavy and the covers removed, the bell rang and the groundstaff, who had been involved central preparation disappeared under the concrete cover of the Bedser Stand. There was a brief moment of silence before a ripple of applause greeted first Middlesex, then Surrey’s late batting hopes, represented by Kemar Roach and Reece Topley. I had hoped as stumps approached yesterday that I might see Hashim Amla, and while I did come to do so, it was not with bat in hand.
Roach was on strike to the first ball I saw this summer, striding forward to meet a Blake Cullen delivery and pushing it low, firmly, to point. There was no run. He got off the mark a couple of balls later, a similar stride forward evincing a flick down the leg side for a single and giving Topley three balls to face. The taller man looked immediately less comfortable, as did Roach when, Topley having seen out the over, he faced Tom Helm. With eight wickets down, this was navigation and negotiation rather than accumulation, a house of cards ready to tumble when Middlesex were able to breathe on it from the right angle.
Nature may be healing, as so many sarcastic memes of modern days suggest, but rules must still be obeyed, never more so than in county cricket. A group of five supporters appeared at the adjacent vomitory to mine and made to press on to their seats before thinking better of it and staying put, waiting until the end of the over before they found their way to the seats.
They saw Tom Helm getting the better of Kemar Roach for the remainder of that over, and were able to applaud as the West Indian slashed a streaky four behind him. I had forgotten the great fun in not quite knowing where the ball has gone after such a shot – perhaps those with finer eyesight than mine, or at a higher level, are able to follow it’s trajectory, but I require a second or two of fielders’ reactions to do so. That one had hit the boundary before my eyes caught up with it.
The skies had leadened since the start of play, and heavy overhead conditions will always favour the bowling side, so it was no surprise that Cullen and Helm were able to make the lower order batsmen uncomfortable, but if Roach looked uncertain in the gloom, Topley undoubtedly suffered a little more. He has endured a great many things to return to fitness and it is a joy to see him bowl again, but one gets the impression that he has returned to fire in deliveries at petrified batsmen, and the fact he has to occasionally fulfil that role himself is an inconvenience at best. He looked, all the time the rain held off, as a fish out of water, and Cullen’s next five deliveries had him pulled this way and that in the crease, high and low, like an expert marionette. When the last ball struck him low on the pad and the umpire raised his finger, it felt like a blessed relief. No longer did he have to rapidly cajole his long levers into shapes unfamiliar to him to avoid a speared red projectile. He had departed the square before even the celebrations begin.
Yet if Topley is a true tail ender, he is followed in by Amir Virdi. Virdi made his way to the crease for the start of Helm’s over, only to see Roach’s attempt to smack him back north of the river end in a nick into John Simpson’s gloves. Both Virdi and Roach trudged back to the pavilion – one had been the star of the morning, and was to continue, the other was a mere spectator, a rôle he was not to escape for some time. Surrey, Roach, had added five in a few minutes, and ended on 190 all out.
There was a noise and purpose to the way Surrey took to the field. One imagines that comes from Rikki Clarke, enforcing his busy, chipper personality on the opening notes of play. It seems designed to get at their opponents, to make the Surrey players seems closer, bigger, and more of a threat, and to cow the opposition.
To what extent it works, or worked, is impossible to say, as both Sam Robson and Jack Davies made a comfortable start to their innings. By Topley’s third over, Robson had clearly found his feet a little better, his low centre of gravity transforming shots that might look elegant from the bats of taller men appear to be more crustacean-like punches into gaps. Davies, by comparison found both Topley and Roach more challenging, and when he feathered a zinger from the West Indies paceman to Foakes, it came as little surprise, and served to introduce Nick Gubbins.
Within the blink of an eye it was two, and then three, as Middlesex lost their grip on ‘a spot of bother’ in short order, and ended up ‘deep in trouble’ in the space of just four balls. First Robson, despite his crisps strokeplay, nicked Roach behind, then Gubbins was pinned in front by Topley. Peter Handscomb came out at around 11.50, by which time we were averaging a wicket every ten minutes.
Handscomb represented the fourth Middlesex wicket to fall, and was a minute late, at 12.01. The Australian went forward to defend yet another searing Roach delivery only to hear it clip the top of his stumps and send the bails spinning into the thick Maytime air. He trudged off while we considered what level of trouble follows ‘deep’; John Simpson came out to face it. “Middlesex have a collapse in them”, I told my fiancée when we speculated if I might see Amla bat. This was showing signs of being just such a thing.
The change to Clarke and Jordan Clark allowed Middlesex to get a little more comfortable; Roach faded a touch by his seventh over, and Simpson had obviously decided to bring the game to the hosts, the clouds lifted, the bowling eased, and courtesy of a flurry of boundaries from their wicket-keeper, Middlesex began to clamber from their hole.
Just as Roach and Topley took a couple of overs to get into their rhythm, so did Clarke and Clark. Their respective rôles developed quickly. The older man was enforcer, applying shackles to the scoring and thumbscrews to the shots. His more tattooed almost-namesake was a bustler, an appealer, looking for the one magic ball amongst three or four that might give opportunity.
Amir Virdi became noticeable at this point. With it too early and too overcast to consider spin, he either wanted to keep warm, or wanted to be involved somehow. There was a couple of theatrical springs towards shots he had no chance of being the first to reach, some lovely high lobbing of the ball back the bowler after the butt-polishing, and generally making himself noticeable. My mind certainly thought of the phrase “give the spinner one before lunch” but it was not to be. Instead, Surrey stuck with their pace bowlers and saw Robbie White dismissed as well, leaving the visitors 90/5 at the interval. They had, at least, avoided the follow-on.
When the afternoon session came, it brought with it a patch of blue sky and an unfamiliar glowing orb within. This aberration soon passed, and we were back to wondering whether this really was May, and when the clouds would, finally, break.
We had seemingly all spent our lunch well. I was surreptitiously scoffing yesterday’s pizza from foil pockets in my bag, and Middlesex had seemingly been learning to bat. Those around me had been, I think it’s fair to say, availing themselves of the hospitality, as there was a definite fug of brewing in the air as the players took to the field, and a depth and resonance to the “Come on the ‘rey” that boomed from the stands behind me. Having resisted nicknames through the T20 era, this development in the use of “The ‘Rey” is one I find a little galling; what of the Feathers or the Brown Caps?
Still, any potential rambunctious was assuaged by the returning class of John Simpson. One pull shot came straight down our eyeline before dying to the left, and was gorgeous, as though he had imagined a jack on the field in front of us and aimed for it. A drive flew through the covers, die straight, and dispersed the gathered pigeons, no doubt truffling for any worms attracted by the wet surface and occasional padding of feet or ball. He progressed serenely through the thirties and into the forties seemingly playing a different game to everyone else.
The warmer conditions, the gradual dissipation of cloud, and the increased age of the ball, allied with fatigue in the legs of Surrey’s bowlers would all have contributed to a greater or lesser extent in frustrating the hosts after lunch, and seeing Middlesex comfortably into three figures. Simpson found himself hustling up to 49, then stalling a little at the enormity of it. Suddenly his timing was awry, the smooth power of his earlier shots absent, and 50 looked as though it would take a while to reach.
At this stage, one would normally look to an experienced head at the other end for calm. That his partner through these jitters was Blake Cullen, at 19 a greenhorn of the clearest order, would not have helped. There were a few false starts, a few half-runs, stopping batsmen on their heels. Eventually, it came from a push and run, Cullen came through, the tension was lifted, and Simpson raised his bat.
When the game progressed, it was invariably Roach that moved the game along. Having endured this unexpected partnership eat into his good work from the morning session, he took great joy in cleaving Cullen’s stump from the ground to break it and expose Middlesex’s tail. He pumped the air and roared with delight, a lion.
By this juncture, I had collected a coffee and a group of Middlesex supporters had appeared in front of me, filling the empty seats a cider drinking group had vacated towards the end of the morning. One mused effusively on the skills of Roach and the sanctity of red ball cricket. Another railed about the fact one couldn’t enjoy multiple vantage points at the moment, being tethered to one’s seat number, at least for the time being.
He went on to lament those missing from the Seaxes XI, listing many, including those who have been away playing for England. This is something of a football-centric concept, I feel. The counties should look to produce as many England players as possible, knowing that losing them is part of that process. As a Yorkshireman, I’m always delighted to see White Rose players in the England team, even if it weakens the county, and I can’t imagine the crowd at Surrey would give his argument much support, either.
There is a different feel to games in the capital to those outside, and the afternoon session began to highlight some of the differences. In the more parochial grounds, the crowd are often older folks h who applaud any and all play. Certainly they wouldn’t announce an intention to be ‘as loud as I can to be obnoxious’, descending a pleasant afternoon at cricket to the level of a schoolboy boor.
I had watched Hashim Amla periodically during the day, and he came to life to take a catch, moving from his spot right next to the bowlers arm to dismiss Tom Helm as wickets started to come again and the cloud gathered overhead. This brought out Ethan Bamber out a man that, having allowed my fiancée the privilege of picking Darren Stevens as an all-rounder, I needed to perform well for my County Championship fantasy team. He made 11 not out, with a couple of full-blooded shots in that number. It was not 190, however.
Simpson at the other end was approaching his century of balls faced, and decided to bring that landmark up with a nick to Jordan Clark that flew towards Ollie Pope at gully. He dove forwards, and it wasn’t immediately apparent that he’d taken the catch, but his delight, contrasted with the frustration of Simpson, told us all we needed to know. He walk off disconsolate, receiving warm applause as he did so.
Tim Murtagh, and consequently, Middlesex, did not last much longer, their tail wagging them up to 160, just 30 shy of the Surrey total. When the teams reappeared at 15:35, looking to get a couple of overs in before tea, the rain came with them. The Brown Caps had made 8-0 before the players scarpered off for the break.
A disjointed beginning to the evening session was frustrating. The rain fell, and the covers went off and came back on, and the clouds hung heavy when eventually the players did come back out. I waited until the next delay before I left, though the stands had emptied considerably by then. Of course, the sun waited until half an hour or so later to do it’s best work of the day, Mark Stoneman and Rory Burns basking in its golden rays to punish their visitors while I travelled under the city, damp.
The next day was rain affected as well, but the match swung both ways – in the end it was Middlesex who would have been more aggrieved that they didn’t get to a result. In the end, it was an interesting rather than brilliant day of cricket for me, and Roach’s fire will live long in my memory, as will the momentary uncertainty over the quite brilliant catch by Pope.
On May 22nd, I was back at County Cricket, and that’s the most important thing of all.