People are allowed onto the Oval at lunch. Some kids play cricket. A small boy stands on the outside. A ball is hit near him, and he fields it. He hopes to be asked into the game. When he fields the second ball, he is asked to play.
It is The Oval, 2015.
It is Ilkeston, 1974.
After playing with his new friends at lunch, the county cricket continues. Derbyshire are using the Rutland Recreation Ground in Ilkeston as an out-ground. Just a pretty village. For Derbyshire, the bowlers included Mike Hendrick and his Test bowling average of 25. And Venkat with his 57 Test matches. Facing them was Nottinghamshire, who had a batsman, well, an all-rounder, who was a world record holder. This man, God, Garfield Sobers, makes 130.
A boy, at his local ground, sees this as his first game. He is hooked.
The boy has grown up. He is at The Oval for Surrey v Derbyshire. He is now a retired policeman and a semi-professional photographer who has sought me out as he’s heard I’m going around asking people about county cricket. After making sure I was on the side of the good, he tells me about his attendance record. He hasn’t missed a day of Derbyshire county cricket since 2010 (when he begged prosecutors to move his court date so he wouldn’t miss his real passion). In 2009 he missed a day as well, when he had tickets for Bruce Springsteen. Since 2000 he thinks he has only missed a handful of games. He refers to county cricket as his “surrogate family”.
One of the family is up the back of the OCS stand with a scoreboard. He’s been a member at Surrey for 25 years. He scores every game he comes to. Nothing is done with the scores, there is no elaborate database, or framed scorebook collection at home. This is just a man who scores to force himself to pay attention to every ball. The more questions I ask, the more agitated he gets that he might miss one.
Another man, a former schoolteacher has The Guardian out and is still fuming at missing the first three wickets of the day – “story of my life”. He does, proudly, tell me that he once captained a “far canal” XI. He hates The Oval, mostly because they sell “crap beer” but he remembers seeing Sylvester Clarke bowl here: “fuck, quick”.
A family sit together. Father, son, girlfriend. They missed the early wickets as well, but they haven’t paid to get in, they are using the free tickets they get from the father’s insurance policy with LV. It makes the insurance policy “worth it”. They aren’t cricket-obsessed fans; they are there to spend a day as a family chatting while the cricket plays as a background. They spend much of the day talking about which shed to buy, and where to put it. They discuss important things like “do the French play cricket?” in between discussing their role in the Croydon Performing Arts Festival.
They’re Crystal Palace fans, but you don’t get a chance to talk sheds at Selhurst Park. This is the girlfriend’s first day at a cricket match, and she is a bit upset that she has missed the first three wickets. But she was excited by the fact that the person who sold her a tea suggested she might be the youngest in the ground. She’s not, but I don’t correct her. In her first self-abridged session of county cricket, she has seen Wayne Madsen and Wes Durston try and hold out for a draw. She is not sure this is the wisest use of her day off.
A retiree reading The Guardian, wearing a cravat, almost sings “Isn’t life just better at a cricket ground?” He spends 60-70 days a year at either The Oval or Lord’s watching county cricket. Every story, whether it be about having an epiphany about batting while watching Ricky Ponting, or being at a Village Cup final, includes the exact part of the ground he sat in as well as great detail about the moment. He sits side-on, as he doesn’t care about the trajectory of the ball, but the drama it produces. In 1955, he saw Hugh Tayfield and the South Africans lose at The Oval and go down 3-2 in his first Test match. He gets excited when talking about the crowd the day Colin Milburn hit a six at The Oval. Milburn only played one Test at the ground, in which he made 8 and 18. But he did hit a six. The cravat-wearing school teacher shows me where it landed, and then shows me where he was sitting.
As he says, “a lot of cricket is anecdote”.
His father saw Warwick Armstrong’s 1921 Aussies, he tells me with a sense of pride in his voice. He tells me that seeing David Gower, mid-afternoon at Lord’s, felt like a private showing, “it’s in the quiet, without much crowd, where you can just marvel at the skills”. One time he left work just to come down and see David Bairstow play because he heard he was a bit of a character. But despite all that, he wants to talk aboutJames Taylor‘s 52 on an up-and-down wicket against Surrey. I tell him I was there, and suddenly his eye’s light up and we sit and discuss this Division Two fifty more than Ponting’s brain, Milburn’s six, Gower’s grace or Tayfield’s flight.
To him it was a found gem. A special moment that only he and a few hundred other people on earth got to see. He shows me where Taylor’s two sixes off Chris Tremlett landed, and talks of the pitch, and Taylor’s knock, as if they were two fierce rivals fighting to the death. Then, to himself, he says: “And they say he is too short. Nonsense.”
A fork-lift driver tells me his shift hours are perfect for watching his Surrey. He loves Surrey, he’s not even sure why, but it’s something to do with Graham Thorpe. An unemployed London-based Sussex supporter moves seats every session. She is not sure why.
Not far from them is a group of amateur photographers, all with expensive lenses that aren’t quite as long as the professional ones, but certainly get them closer to the action. This is the evolving face of county cricket. Every ground these days has this amateur photographers with their semi-pro lenses trying to get that one magic shot. Later, when a batsman complains about his dismissal, people huddle round their screens as they scroll back through to see if the ball hit the glove or not. The footage is inconclusive. But they own that inconclusivity. They are keeping their own historical documents.
The discussions range from what shop they dropped the car off at, the last time they saw this player, or this spectator, how expensive Sky is (and how few have it) and they even talk about Teletext fondly. “It took longer to reload when a wicket happened, that was always the first clue.” The Peter May stand has its customary shouty Surrey fans grouped together close enough to chat, but still far enough apart to have their own room. There are the-behind-the-arm eagle-eyed fanatics. And the long room has older men gently sipping real ale in a spooky unison. The age range seems to run from seven to barely able to breathe and walk up stairs.
During the afternoon a ball spits off the pitch and a batsman is on his way but, first, he spends a long time looking at the pitch. “Delicious, he’ll be thinking about that every time he comes back here,” howls a woman. She grew up loving cricket, but Boycott bored her out of it she says, not like that Ernie Hayes. “Quite a player, and I mean player, not gentleman.” She is a regular in the Surrey smokers’ corner, talking Surrey politics or about Zafar Ansari’s improvement. “Oh, he’s improved. We won’t see him around here much longer I fear. Such a nice chap though.” When in the stand she sits on her own reading Obsession in Death (“It’s crap”) between balls. She loves the way county games unfold. She won’t come to the T20 games at The Oval: “It’s all city drunks and Millwall supporters.”
There is a pause in every conversation in the ground when Sangakarra takes a stunning one-handed catch, that turns to be just off the thigh pad. A few days later Sangakkara will make his highest List A score, for some in the crowd it will be their Sobers 130 moment. During this particular county match people are still saying “penis”, “hack”, and “Twitter” in the same sentence. Something that would have baffled many at Ilkeston in ’74, and, also confuses a few people at The Oval in 2015.
Eventually the Derbyshire wickets fall. Gareth Batty ends the match with a hat-trick. The smoking woman smirks as the wickets fall. Surrey get promoted. The Peter May stand shouts. The Members applaud gently. And the OCS fans smile and start to pack up. The Ilkeston former copper sighs as he moves his camera for the shots of Surrey coming off the ground victorious.
Autograph hunters, young men, a boy, his mum, and an older couple rush over to be in prime place. A BBC commentator is walking around clutching a bottle of champagne. Ansari has a photo shoot. Conversations continue at the ground. Derby fans have left, but the Surrey fans are enjoying their success.
The girlfriend, son and father are packing up. This is her first game of cricket, and she’s seen a hat-trick. I tell her how lucky she is. She doesn’t seem overwhelmed, but happier than in the morning. But I forget to ask if the shed business is sorted.
Earlier in the day I saw two men in a heated statistical discussion about Surrey’s season. Another fan, from a few rows away, offered a potential answer. Just after play all three men were still in discussion, and had moved closer to each other. Their conversation bounced around many different things, but you can be sure it had a lot of cricket anecdotes in it.
County cricket has changed since 1974. The current day Kia Oval is nothing like the Rutland Recreation ground in Ilkeston from 1974.
But then as now, a lot of cricket is anecdote.