This writer has a confession to make, not only am I an Essex boy but, despite regularly following England home and abroad for the last 16 years, it has been longer than that since I was last at a County Championship game. Indeed the last match I attended was way back in the mid 90s, a time before Amy Childs (we’ve no idea either – Ed) and TOWIE had sullied the good reputation of Essex girls, when Birds of a Feather was still on TV and when the England management set-up was derided by both fans and pundits.
The vagaries of the CC schedule over the years as well as stout commitment to becoming a fully functioning alcoholic (as required by editor Steve of all his writers) has meant that the opportunity to see my beloved Essex in the flesh has been reduced to the occasional T20 match and one day game. With the fixtures this season meaning that the majority of games start on a Sunday, and with the forecast set fair for Bank Holiday Monday I took the opportunity to take a look at the boys, sadly not in front of the glorious backdrop of the County Ground Chelmsford, but in the megabowl of the Kia Oval in London.
The Oval holds fond memories for me: this was the place where I saw my first International match. Fresh from picking up our GCSE results, a group of friends and I took ourselves off to the one-off England vs Sri Lanka Test in 1998. The scorecard is that of legend, featuring heroes of a bygone period and some chap called Murilatharan. Ever since that match I have attended at least one game a year at the Fosters/Brit/Kia Oval and I can remember at least two of them.
On Sunday evening I checked the Surrey website and noted down the minor details, such as the start time and the ticket price (an astonishingly good value £12, or £10 in advance and £1 for U16s) and the important detail of how much booze is allowed in. Our elder readers will remember that during the late 90s, before the ICC’s relentless crawl towards commercialism, you used to be able to take in a few cans of supping lager in order to help you get through the early part of the day. This inevitably led to a fantastic game of hide the beer, as secret compartments were created, cans inserted in to unknown crevices, all cunningly covered up with jumpers and sandwiches in order to avoid the steely-eyed check of the bag man at the gate. Our Personal Best for smuggling cans in was an impressive 12 on one person, but we shan’t mention the time when eight cans were found and the smuggler promptly downed six of them at the gate and passed out before lunch.
With this in mind I dug out my old boozing bag and got to work in hiding my stash; as it was a leisurely bank holiday I only opted for eight cans of memory reducer and cunningly wrapped four of them up in my jumper and placed a few bags of mini cheddars on top in order to distract the prying steward. It was to some dismay that when upon approaching the main gate and having my ticket scanned that I was happily waved through without even a cursory check of the bag. I wanted to know if I still retained some of my smuggling skills now I am a respectable insurance broker and was tempted to ask someone to search my bag just to see if I still had it. Discretion and a Saharan thirst got the better part of valour though, and in memory of my first visit to the ground I strolled round to the Peter May stand and took up a front row seat.
My first impression inside the ground was that Chris Tremlett appeared to have shrunk to the size of a normal human being, but I then realised that the action was actually taking place about 500 yards away across the gargantuan Oval square and so decided to up sticks and move round to the OCS stand in order to actually see some of the action. Surrey had won the toss and put Essex into bat, hoping to make full use of their seam attack on a green pitch. 51allout favourite Jade Dernbach was steaming in from the Pavilion End – perhaps hoping to use the opportunity to show England captain Alastair Cook that he isn’t just a useless short format bowler, but has all the ability to bring the skills to the longer format of the game. That is perhaps somewhat harsh and although never really troubling the batsmen (well Cook certainly, Jaik Mickleburgh seemed intent on only scoring runs off the edge) he bowled tidily enough. The first hour’s action passed comfortably, Cook looked in ominous touch and Mickleburgh just happy to not have been caught in the waiting cordon. The only real action point occurred just in front of me, where Zafar Ansari, attempting to recover his own fielding error threw himself headlong towards the boundary in a bid to somehow cut off the ball that had actually crossed the rope before he had even attempted the dive. Due to the slick nature of the pitch he crashed sickeningly in to the solid wooden boundary posts and play was delayed for some time before he was eventually helped off the ground into a nearby ambulance and taken to hospital.
On the pitch Essex lost their first wicket as Cook, perhaps thinking about what nonsense piece of management talk he could use at his next press conference blue-skied one that ran up the telegraph pole and found himself disengaged from the action earlier than he would have hoped. Shortly after this the match was interrupted by rain and an early lunch was taken. I took the opportunity to have a wander around under the stands. It was evident that Surrey have decided that this home game was not of sufficient stature to warrant a spring clean of the stadium, with thick layers of dust around the closed food and drink outlets as well as copious amounts of pigeon shit lying across pretty much any available surface, as if South East London had become a Kings of Leon concert. There appeared to be only one food outlet open across the whole ground and this was serving up fish and chips for a price that wouldn’t look out of place in a Michelin star restaurant.
The heavy rain passed and the next hour was spent being absorbed (horrific pun intended) by the mopping up process that took place: it was surprising just how cathartic it is to watch and waterproof hats off to the ground staff for getting the pitch ready in just over an hour after the rain had left standing water all over the square. They probably lose a few points however for spraying the mopped up water over the area where Ansari had slid into the fence. It may well explain why the fielder seemed to gather speed off the slick surface if this is their usual procedure to deal with water.
Play resumed and Surrey continued to keep a tight line, doing a superb job of defending the ridiculously short boundary at the Archbishop Tennyson side. Credit to Graeme Smith as well who kept himself as part a strong slip cordon for the majority of the day and was rewarded with the wickets of Mickleburgh and Tom Westley. Smith himself was stationed in the first slip position that we know so well from his time with South Africa, although I did get the impression that even had Essex been 400/0 he still would have been keeping himself in there (possibly to avoid any running). As mentioned Dernbach bowled well and must be glad to be out of the spotlight following a miserable winter. Tremlett appeared to offer the least threat of the bowlers and although he is still an absolute dream boat, with arms that appear to offer an embrace you would never want to leave, he continues to look a shadow of the bowler that so rattled the Australians a few years back. The two most impressive bowlers were Stuart Meaker who bowled with good pace and aggression – probably deserving of more than his one wicket – and Matthew Dunn. This is the first time I have seen or even heard of Dunn but he was extremely impressive and you would hope that there is a good future for the youngster as long as he is kept out of the hands of the England bowling coaches. Dunn removed Westley and Greg Smith in short order and the familiar collapse-related panic of the Essex fan started to kick in. However Ravi Bopara batted sensibly if somewhat stoically in tandem with Ben Foakes before Meaker returned to leave Foakes’s stumps rearranged. Bopara looked close to bringing up his 50 before strangling one of Jason Roy’s numerous leg side deliveries through to Steve Davies. With light closing in this brought the reassuring heroic presence of Graham Napier to the crease and he proceeded to get hair, broad shoulders, firm buttocks and most importantly bat behind the final few deliveries before the umpire’s decided that natural light was being unduly influenced by the floodlights and took the players off. Despite their being no discernible change in overhead conditions in the previous hour. The bastards.
As we headed out towards the exit, my boozing accomplice noted that the stairs to the members bar had been left unguarded and we snuck up there to enjoy a few pints (£1.10 cheaper than out in the stands) whilst looking out over the pitch. As we were finishing off out last drink our eye was taken by two stunning blonde ladies waiting by the foot of the players’ entrance. Obviously being 51allout we didn’t actually make eye contact with the ladies but stared morosely in to our pints until the monstrous presence of Tremlett strolled down the steps and departed with both ladies. To say we were gutted is an understatement: what we would have given to spend a night with him. To console ourselves we headed around the corner for one last G&T or five. It was at this point that I realised that like any good 51allout correspondent, I had sacrificed myself for the good of my art, and had managed to completely burn one side of my face.
My final musing on the day’s play is that there is a definite lack of intensity at the County Championship matches and it no wonder that players often struggle to make the step up to international standard, particularly when playing in front of a few hundred people scattered across the huge arenas of the Test grounds. It is odd to hear the players clapping and chatting away to each other although the sound of a frustrated Dernbach scream as another ball is clattered to the boundary is something this writer will never tire of. Having said that it is unfair to be overly critical and the value for money tied in with the chance to see international players (particularly in the early part of the season) should encourage more international cricket fans out to their local grounds….particularly when it gives you a chance to tidy up your smuggling skills!