135 years on, will a Protea ‘Grace’ The Oval again
ONE OF MY favourite books when I was a child was an old ‘Boys Cricket Annual’ my dad gave me. It was from the late 1950s, when my dad was still a kid and he’d kept hold of it for many years. It had been through many hands, the cover was chewed up, a couple of pages were torn, some were missing. Someone had taken a crayon to it as well while some other joker thought it would be fun to pretend he was Bradman and ‘autographed’ it as such.
The book contained features on Australian quick Ray Lindwall and his partner in crime the flamboyant all-rounder Keith Miller, a review of India’s Test series in England in 1952, a feature on the first day/night match – played at Arsenal’s old home ground Highbury, some works of cricket-related fiction and one of my favourite stories – a review of the 1882 Test at The Oval between Australia and England.
I think I read that story 50 times. Although it read like a piece of fiction, it was apparently – well mostly – true. The Australians had never beaten England in a Test in England at that time and the English, with WG Grace opening the batting for them, needed just 85 to win that match.
They lost by seven runs, but the account of the story as told in that Boy’s Annual was of 12 maidens in a row being bowled, a run was purposefully conceded with England numbers 10 and 11 at the crease, a man chewing the handle on his umbrella, another dropping dead and the crowd initially stunned to silence when the last wicket fell before charging onto the field to carry the victorious Australian players from it.
This week The Oval hosts its 100th Test, making it the fourth ground in the world to have done so. There are banners all around the neighbourhood reminding locals of that fact and when you watch the match on TV today, you’ll see that the nearby gasworks is festooned with an enormous banner, depicting Grace, Bradman, Alex Stewart, Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook.
It is a venue with a rich history, that certainly rivals Lord’s although it does appear to play second fiddle to the ‘Home of Cricket’ north of the River Thames.
You could argue though that The Oval has more soul, a sort of venue for the people, devoid of the stuffiness of Lord’s. It used to have the quickest pitch in England, and because the square stretches two thirds of the way across the field it’s also a fast scoring ground.
The ground holds special memories for South Africa too, it being the venue where Hashim Amla scored the country’s first ( and still only) Test triple century.
Hopefully the 100th Test will be an occasion that will slot alongside the drama that unfolded year 135 years ago.
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