A Century at the Oval

In Some Cricket Matches.. by Bill Ricquier

The third Test between England and South Africa is the hundredth Test to be played at The Oval.

The old ground – Surrey first played there in 1846 – thus joins its rival north of the river , Lord’s , the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the Sydney Cricket Ground as the fourth venue to have attained that landmark.

It is the most urban of cricket grounds, located in busy but unprepossessing Kennington and overlooked by the weirdly beautiful gasometers , constructed in 1853 , on the eastern side , and by the slightly forbidding visage of Archbishop Tenison’s School on the south-west.. The ground itself has been much improved by recent development, particularly the new grandstand at the Vauxhall end, opposite the handsome pavilion , built in 1897.

So no one could call The Oval conventionally beautiful. It certainly lacks the unique ambience of Lord’s ; that said , it has a refreshing informality which makes it a better venue for certain types of contest. It’s a big ground, but nothing like as big as the MCG , or Eden Gardens in Kolkata. But whatever its defects , The Oval ranks among the greatest of all grounds because of the number of great Tests it has hosted and the remarkable individual feats achieved there.

The highest individual score in a Test in England was made at The Oval, Len Hutton’s 364 against Australia in 1938. The great Yorkshireman enjoyed considerable success at the ground, making 206 there against New Zealand in 1949 and 202 not out in 1950 against the West Indies. The only other Test match triple century made there has been Hashim Amla’s 311 not out for South Africa in 2012. As befits a venue renowned for the quality of its playing surface there have been many outstanding innings played there. In 2016 the great Pakistani Younis Khan scored a magnificent double century , enabling his team to square the series. In 1987 Javed Miandad , Younis’ s principal rival for the title of Pakistan’s greatest batsman , made 260 out of a massive total of 708. Don Bradman made 232 in 1930 and 244 in 1934 , putting on 451 for the second wicket with Bill Ponsford , in 351 minutes ( yes , Test batting was a slow business in those days). The Chappell brothers both made centuries in 1972 ( I was there) ; the Waugh twins followed suit in 2001.

The Oval Test has traditionally been played at the end of the season when spin bowling has tended to prosper. At no time was this more apparent than during the mid-1950s when Surrey’s spin twins, Jim Laker and Tony Lock , were critical to the success of a strong England team. In 1955 they shared fifteen wickets as England beat South Africa by 92 runs , taking by three games to two the first series in England to produce five definite results. The following year a weak Australian side lost three-one. The series was immortalised by the England victory at Old Trafford , when Laker and Lock shared twenty wickets ( Laker nineteen, Lock one). Earlier in the tour , the tourists had played Surrey at The Oval; Laker had taken ten wickets in the first innings , and they shared nine in the second ( Lock seven, Laker two: the tenth wicket was a run out ). In 1957 against the West Indies they shared sixteen wickets ( Lock five for 28 and six for 20 ) as England won by an innings. Derek Underwood enjoyed some memorable days at The Oval , especially on the last day of the 1968 Ashes ( seven for 50 in 31 overs in a race against time to secure a series-levelling win). Phil Tufnell’s slow left arm secured victories for England against the West Indies in 1991 and Australia in 1997.

On the whole , fast bowlers have found the ground less hospitable , though Dennis Lillee secured two ten-wicket hauls, in 1972 and 1981. There have been two remarkable performances by genuine fast bowlers. In 1976, in a game in which Vivian Richards made 291 and Dennis Amiss 203, Michael Holding rook eight for 96 and six for 53: he got ten England batsmen out bowled or leg before , seven in the first innings. And in 1994, South Africa were routed by a furious Devon Malcolm whose nine for 57 ..

The first Test to be played in England took place at The Oval, in September 1880. England won by five wickets, with their captain, W G Grace making 152 in the first innings. ( His brothers, E M and G F , were also in the side. ) Revenge came soon. In a one-off Test in 1882 , Australia won by seven runs , bowling England out for 76 in their second innings. Fred ” The Demon” Spofforth took fourteen wickets for ninety runs in the match. It was the loss of this game which prompted the publication of a notice In the newspaper, The Sporting Times , lamenting the death of English cricket: ” The body will be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia ”

There have been other ” firsts” at The Oval. Pakistan , India and Sri Lanka all secured their first Test victories in England at the ground. Pakistan’s came quickest. In the fourth and final game of their first series in England , in 1954, the great medium pacer Fazal Mahmood led the side to a great victory over Hutton’s apparent,y all conquering team , with match figures of twelve for 99 in sixty overs.

India had to wait the longest. In 1971 they were on their seventh tour of England , and up against another canny Yorkshireman , Ray Illingworth, who had claimed The Ashes in Australia the previous winter. . The first two Tests of the three-match series were rain-affected draws , with England having much the better of the second, at Old Trafford . Victory in the third was secured by their spinners , notably the unorthodox leg-spinner Bhagwat Chandrasekhar , who took six for 38 as England were bundled out for 101 in their second innings.

Sri Lanka, like Pakistan , secured their first victory on English soil in their fourth match ; the difference was that the matches were spread over fourteen years. They made their fourth tour , each involving a one-off Test, in 1998. Arjuna Ranatunga won the toss and inserted England , who made 445 in almost 160 overs ( Muttiah Muralitharan seven for 155 ). Sri Lanka replied with 591 in just over 156 overs , Sanath Jayasuriya making a buccaneering 213. Second time around England could only manage 181 ( Muralitharan nine for 65 in 54.2 overs ). Sri Lanka won by ten wickets.

Generally though , The Oval is not very famous for firsts. Traditionally it has hosted the final Test of the summer and has therefore had more than its fair share of thrilling climaxes and classic denouements. There also tends to be something of an end of term feel. Many an England player has announced his retirement prior to an Oval Test- Andrew Flintoff , Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart – a great Surrey figure – spring to mind. The greatest of all was Jack Hobbs , the most prolific run scorer and century maker in all first-class cricket. The Oval was his home ground and he bowed out there in the fifth Test against Australia in 1930. He had had a quiet series but in 41 Tests against the old enemy , from 1907-08 , he scored 3,636 runs and made twelve hundreds , in both cases more than any other player in Ashes Tests apart from Bradman. As The Times put it on Hobbs’ final dismissal : ” the Oval spectators , disappointed as they were, cheered affectionately – an old Friend was saying goodbye. The little wicket gate swung. He passed through and disappeared for ever from the Test match scene.”

With visiting players it is a bit different . Sometimes they do announce their departures in advance – Michael Clarke and Curtly Ambrose, for example. More often than not though, there is just a feeling that because of the length of time between tours , we will not be seeing a particular great player again. Thus there was no question of Ricky Ponting retiring after the 2009 Ashes series, yet there was no realistic possibility of his touring England again. English crowds are usually rather good about this sort of thing , but for some reason Ponting was always greeted with boos when he emerged from a pavilion on that tour . Things only changed at The Oval , particularly after his sensational run out by Flintoff in Australia’s second innings, effectively securing The Ashes for England. Then Ponting got the farewell he deserved, the crowd seemingly implicitly realising that he was the first captain since W L Murdoch in the 1890s to lose two Ashes Test series in England.

Of course the most famous Oval farewell was Bradman’s in 1948. It is the most delicious irony of Bradman’s genuinely astonishing career that his single most famous innings – ” b Hollies. 0 ” – lasted a mere two balls.

On three occasions Englained have dramatically regained The Ashes at The Oval after a long period of dominance by Australia. The first time was in 1926. The first four Tests were drawn. For the fifth England appointed a new young captain , A P F Chapman , brought in a new young fast bowler , Harold Larwood , and recalled 48 year old slow left armer and ultimate wily old pro Wilfred Rhodes.

Because of the state of the series it was a timeless Test ( the earlier ones had been limited to three days). Chapman won the toss and batted, England making 280. Australia secured a first-innings lead of 22. The third day was critical; Hobbs put on 172 for the first wicket with Herbert Sutcliffe . Batting conditions were never easy and Australia faced a daunting task when they went in on the fourth day. Larwood made the initial breakthrough ; Rhodes took four for 44. England won by 289 runs. It was their first victory over Australia since the Oval Test of 1912.

Circumstances were similar in 1953. Australia had held The Ashes since 1934. The first four Tests were drawn , some of them very close encounters. It was a tense , low-scoring match in which only four batsmen reached fifty : England captain Hutton’s 82 in their first innings was the top score . England’s bowlers were dominant . Yorkshire firebrand Fred Trueman toon four wickets in Australia’s first innings; Laker and Lock shared nine in the second. Australia were all out for 162 . This left England needing a potentially awkward 132 to win. They got them with eight wickets to spare. Denis Compton hit the winning runs. There was something symbolically correct about this. The victory was Hutton’s , as England’s first professional captain. But Compton represented flair , joy and freedom in an era of unrelenting gloom. In the year of the coronation England was finally moving on.

Eleven years later, in the final Test of a rain-affected and often very dull Ashes series, Trueman became the first bowler to take 300 Test wickets.

2005 was different from 1926 and 1953 in one important respect . England were two-one up in the series but , as Australia held The Ashes ( and had done so since 1989 ) England had at least to draw at The Oval. There were times on the final day when that seemed unlikely. Thousands of English supporters were praying for rain, not a common phenomenon on sporting occasions . In fact , divine intervention was unnecessary. In an innings derived from something approaching genius , Kevin Pietersen , helped by a dropped slip catch by Shane Warne , took his team to safety.

Four years later , in the fourth Test against South Africa, Pietersen became the fourth man to score a century for England in his first Test as captain

The 2003 Oval Test , against South Africa , saw one of England’s most forceful performances . South Africa made 484 in the first innings ( Herschelle Gibbs 183 ) but England made 604 for nine , with 219 from Marcus Trescothick and a century from Surrey’s Grahame Thorpe. South Africa only managed 229 in their second innings and England won by nine wickets ( Trescothick 69 not out).

That game in 1968 will always be remembered , in cricketing terms , for Underwood’s performance on the final afternoon. But the game had a resonance that went far beyond cricket. A key factor in England’s victory was Basil d’Oliveira’s 158. His non-selection for the tour of his native South Africa the following winter had consequences that did not so much rumble as crackle until the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990. Few sporting events can have had the social and political ramifications of the Oval Test of 1968.

Sometimes the drama has been of a most unexpected kind. Pakistan seemed in a very comfortable position on the fourth afternoon of the fourth Test of 2006 , apparently on the way to a consolation victory: Pakistan had a first-innings lead of 331 and England were 298 for four in their second innings.

That was the score at tea. An hour or so before that the ball had been changed , and umpire Darrell Hair had signalled that there was a a five-run penalty ;the subtext was that the ball had been tampered with. There was no immediate sign of discontent from the Pakistan team . But they did not come out to resume play after the tea interval. The captain, Inzaman -Ul -Haq, had been deeply upset by Hair’s decision. A packed house was mystified by the lack of action. Eventually it was confirmed that Pakistan had forfeited the match.

Sometimes, of course , there is , well , no drama at all. That is the thing about Test cricket: you cannot expect a cracking finale every time.

Take the final Test of the 1921 Ashes series. Australia had one of their greatest sides, led by Warwick Armstrong , a fine all round cricketer , and a big man with a domineering personality. His main weapons were his opening bowlers, Ted MacDonald and Jack Gregory, and the impish leg -spinner Arthur Mailey.

In 1920-21 Australia won five-nil, the first Test whitewash. Then the teams shared the same boat to England , and started all over again . After three Tests, it was three-nil to Australia. ( Hobbs was ill and missed the series. ). Changes were made after the third Test A new captain was appointed , the Hon. L H Tennyson ( grandson of the poet ) and his Hampshire colleague , the phlegmatic left -hander Phil Mead, was recalled.

England played well in the fourth Test at Manchester and had much the better of a draw. At The Oval , England batted first and Mead made 182 . But it took a while; and Mead had a style that was all his own , often compared unfavourable with that of his contemporary and fellow left hander , Frank Woolley ( ” intolerably ugly batting” , according to the aesthete Neville Cardus) . England made 403 and by the time Australia had made 389 , in a three -day game there was no time for anything but for England to go through the motions in their second innings.

Armstrong had more or less given up by the last hour or so. The story goes that a newspaper blew across the ground and that the Australian captain picked it up and started leafing through it.

As he explained later ” I wanted to find out who we were playing” .

Bill Ricquier, 1/08/17

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