135 years on, will a Protea ‘Grace’ The Oval again

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - Stu­art Hess CRICKET WRITER

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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