Lord’s or The Oval: Must One Choose ?

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

One is north of the river, the other south. For some, that is all that needs to be said.

London, The Great Wen, is a multiplicity of small enclaves, marked by fine distinctions and narrow gradations. But winding its way through the centre of the city, the majestic River Thames does mark a true divide. All the bits of London that the average non-Londoner, whether from the UK or beyond, has heard of, other than the great bridges, are north of the river.

In a way The Oval – sorry The Kia Oval (it could be worse, it was once The Foster’s Oval) – is a sort of honorary north of the river place. Many people [Really? Ed] will have heard John Arlott’s commentary from one of the most memorable day’s cricket in Test history, the first day of the fifth Ashes Test of 1948. England had been bowled out for 52, and at around 6 o’clock Australia lost their first wicket with the score on 117. Don Bradman came out to bat in what everyone knew was going to be his last Test match. The crowd gave him three cheers and he took guard. Arlott described his first ball:

“Now here’s Hollies to bowl to him from the Vauxhall end. He bowls and Bradman goes back across the wicket and pushes the ball gently in the direction of the Houses of Parliament, which are out beyond mid-off. It doesn’t get that far, it simply goes to Watkins at silly mid off. No run, still 117 for one.”

Arlott’s reference to Westminster makes you feel the action is taking place at the heart of the capital, which, in a sense it was. The Oval of course is in Kennington, resolutely urban, jammed between Lambeth to the north and Stockwell to the south.

Lord’s, on the other hand, is well north of the river, in the leafy purlieus of St John’s Wood. Not far from Regent’s Park, St John’s Wood has since Georgian and Victorian times been regarded as a desirable place to live. The presence there of Lord’s Cricket Ground came about almost by accident. The original choice of Yorkshireman Thomas Lord and his wealthy aristocratic sponsors for his cricket ground  was at what is now Dorset Square in Marylebone. The club he created to own the plot, the Marylebone Cricket Club (“MCC”), acquired the land in 1787, and MCC played its first game there in 1788. Encroaching development forced Lord to move twice; he settled on the present site in St John’s Wood in 1814; the original turf moved each time. MCC remains the owner of Lord’s and it remains a private members’ club, with about 18,000 members. To say that all human life is there in the membership might be an exaggeration, but it must be fair to say that members are drawn from a reasonably broad section of the community. It is no secret that MCC has had to work hard in the last few decades to drag itself out of the 18th century.

The manor of Kennington had royal connections from the time of Edward the Confessor. James I settled the manor on the Prince of Wales, and the Prince of Wales, by means of the Duchy of Cornwall, still owns various bits of Kennington, including The Oval. A lease was obtained from the Duchy in 1845; Surrey County Cricket Club, which operates The Oval, was established in the same year.

Both of these grounds are rooted in cricket history. The first Test played in England took place at The Oval in September 1880, almost exactly 142 years before the most recent Test there between England and South Africa. Both games finished within three days’ play (the scheduled duration in 1880). Apart from that the two games had little in common apart from the actual result – England won by five wickets in 1880 and by nine in 2022. In 1880 the great W G Grace made 152 in England’s first innings (his brothers E M and G F were also playing).  W G reached his century just after lunch on the first day. Australia were bowled out for 149 and followed on. Billy Murdoch carried his bat for 153 in the second innings and England were set 57 to win. Had F R Spofforth, “The Demon”, not been injured, they might not have made it.

The next time Australia toured England, in 1882, there was again one Test and it was again at The Oval. This time Australia won by seven wickets. This can truly be said to have been one of the most famous Tests of all time. The game was a real thriller: England’s target was 85, and they lost by seven runs. Legend has it that one spectator had a heart attack and died, such was the tension. Spice was added to the contest during Australia’s second innings when Sammy Jones stepped out of his crease to pat down a divot on the pitch and was run out by the incorrigible Grace (W G). The umpire’s attitude appears to have been “Well, if Dr Grace thinks it’s out, it’s out, even if nobody else does, including me.” The Australians were understandably incensed. Spofforth, who had taken seven for 40 in the first innings, took seven for 44 in the second. And that was not the end of it; in a sense it was a beginning. A spoof obituary of English Cricket appeared in the Sporting Post: it had “died at The Oval on 29th August, 1882”. There was a note at the foot : “The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.” There are various theories about the origin of The Ashes, but this obituary must have played a part.

There are now nine other Test playing countries in addition to Australia and England. Eight of them, from South Africa in 1907 to Ireland in 2019, played their first Test match in England at Lord’s (Afghanistan have yet to play a Test in England). Everybody wants to play at Lord’s. So, when there are two touring teams in an English summer, as there always are now, Lord’s stages two Tests and London three. (Yorkshire and Lancashire might complain but the London Tests could probably be sold out twice over.) There were three Lord’s Tests in 1912, when England, Australia and South Africa played a triangular tournament.

There have been five Men’s World Cup finals at Lord’s; no other ground in the world has staged more than two. Two of the Women’s World Cup Finals have been played at Lord’s; no other ground has staged more than one. The inaugural World Test Championship final would have been held there but for the pandemic. For decades the finals of the various domestic limited overs knock out competitions were always held at Lord’s and these were tremendous occasions for the players and supporters of the counties involved. A final is reason enough to be excited – but a final at Lord’s…. In the days when a tour was a proper tour and the tourists played all the counties, the support players were always anxious to play against Middlesex – so that they could tell their grandchildren that they had played at Lord’s.

Looking at the Lord’s fixture list for 2022 issued by MCC, there are all sorts of matches being played. First, there are the Test matches  – two this year and one one-day international. Then there are the six four-day county championship games and four Vitality Blast T20 games played by Middlesex, plus the Vitality Blast quarter final. Then there are the  four games played by London Spirit [Eh, what’s that? Ed] and The Hundred finals day.There is an Armed Forces T20 day, and finals days for the  national club and village competitions. MCC itself has a number of one-day games,  e.g. against  Wales and specific MCC competitions. There are three days set aside specifically for women’s cricket (apart from The Hundred, which, in fairness, has been very good for women’s cricket): 22 April, which was MCC Women’s Day, 24 September when there was a one-day international between England and India, and 25 September, which was the date of the Rachel Heyhoe Flint Final.

Much controversy has been generated by MCC’s decision to end the arrangement which has seen, since what the lawyers call time immemorial, Eton College play its annual match against Harrow at Lord’s. This fixture was first played in 1805, when the poet Byron was in the Harrow eleven (though of course the ground was then in Dorset Square).This year Eton played Harrow on 28 June, one day after the men’s and women’s teams of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge played each other in T20 matches. The University match, first played at Lord’s in 1827, is also under threat from the brazenly iconoclastic MCC. The nation seems to be as violently divided on this issue – particularly Eton v Harrow – as on Brexit.  There is clearly no rationale for staging these games on purely cricketing terms.  This of course has always been the case with schools matches, which have been staged at Lord’s for purely social, not even educational, reasons. As far as the University match is concerned, it was different in the old days when the entrance procedures for Oxbridge appear to have been monitored by the security services and MCC. Those days are long gone and what we used to call the two great universities no longer play first-class cricket. So why on earth should they play each other at Lord’s? The circumstances are very different from the national club and village tournaments where hundreds of recreational cricketers compete for their day in the sun. The fact that something has been going on for centuries does not in itself seem a particularly compelling argument: public executions also went on for ages, and attracted much larger crowds.

Looking at the first Wisden I was given, the 1964 edition, it is interesting to see how things have changed. In the 1963 season, West Indies played twice at Lord’s, a five day Test, which happened to be one of the most dramatic Tests of all time, and a three day match against MCC. MCC also played three day matches against Yorkshire, Surrey and Oxford University; there were two-day games against Ireland and Cambridge University. MCC also played a one day game against de Flamingoes: strangely enough this is the only entry which appears in MCC’s fixtures for both 1963 and 2022. MCC Young Professionals played two one-day matches on the hallowed turf. And in July, the MCC Australian Touring Team (who had been in Australia the previous English winter) played a three-day match against The Rest, who won a low-scoring match by two wickets. (The Rest were led by the Surrey captain Mickey Stewart, father of Alec, who celebrated his 90th birthday the week Surrey clinched the 2022 county championship; for that week the ground was re-branded The Mickey Stewart Oval.) Middlesex played all fourteen of  their home three-day Championship matches at Lord’s, and one one-day Gillette Cup match. The Gillette Cup final between Sussex and Worcestershire was of course staged at Lord’s. That is really quite a lot of cricket.

Then we come to the ”Other Matches At Lord’s.” Naturally the University match was a three day match; well, the Oxford captain, the Nawab of Pataudi, had already captained India at Test level. His Cambridge counterpart, Mike Brearley, was also to prove himself a useful performer at international level. Richard Hutton was also in the Cambridge side. Eton v Harrow was a two day match; Wisden  provided a full scorecard and a full match report, which ended with the rather solemn declaration that “Mr Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, an Old Etonian, watched the cricket.” (Hopefully, it was a distraction from “events”; War Secretary John Profumo had only recently resigned.)  Remarkably, to us, Lord’s hosted no fewer than three other two-day matches between public schools (Beaumont v Oratory was limited to one day, which seems discriminatory). There  was a two day game between Southern Schools and “The Rest” – don’t ask – all the players came from public (fee paying) schools. The Southern Schools captain was the future Hampshire captain Richard Gilliatt and future Surrey and England man Graham Roope was also in the side; Gilliatt got a duck but his side won. Then the Combined Services played Public Schools in a two day match which was drawn. The season had opened with a one day game between an Old England XI and the Lord’s. It was not a limited-overs match; The Taverners declared on 272 for nine, and Old England won by three wickets, Cyril Washbrook top-scoring with 80. The season ended with a one-day game between The Army and The Navy. Perhaps the most fascinating game of all was a one day game between South African Nuffield Schools XI and Canadian Cricket Association Colts. Barry Richards, who was to become one of the greatest batsmen of his age, made 54 for the South Africans.

Anyway you get the point. Everybody wants to play at Lord’s, or wants their precious son and heir to do so.

Why is this ? What is so special about Lord’s ?

It is partly the history of course. So much cricket has been played there, so many memorable games and incidents. To mention a few at random, the Ashes Test of 1930, when Bradman played what he said was his greatest innings; the West Indies Tests of 1950, 1963 and 1984; Graham Gooch’s 333 and 123 against India in 1990; the Men’s World Cup final of 2019, and the duel between Jofra Archer and Steve Smith in the Ashes Test of the same year. All the great players have been there, desperate to get on the honours board, the Lord’s honours board. But much of the same can of course be said of The Oval and its own great history.

In fact, in terms of creating memories of specific matches and moments, The Oval has one singular advantage over Lord’s. The last Test of the summer is traditionally played at The Oval. This has a number of consequences. The final Test of a series is quite likely to be decisive in one way or another, which can add to the excitement as the game moves to its climax ; one thinks of the Ashes series of 1953, 2005 and 2009. Also, great players may be retiring. This brings us back to the beginning and Arlott’s commentary. Eric Hollies’ next ball to Bradman bowled him, and, partly because England were so hopeless, he didn’t have a second innings, so that was that for The Don. There had been similar scenes in 1930, with three cheers and so on, when England’s greatest batsman, Jack Hobbs played his final Test, against Australia. Hobbs played all his county cricket for Surrey, and just as Lord’s has the Grace Gates, in honour of The Great Cricketer, so The Oval has the Hobbs Gates. Lots of people really will remember Alastair Cook’s farewell century against India in 2018. Who knows, in – three ? – five ? – ten ? years’ time we might be giving a standing ovation to James Anderson and Stuart Broad as they walk off the field for the last time at The Donald Trump Oval.

But back to what makes Lord’s special. MCC’s role cannot be ignored. Lord’s as the “home of cricket” isn’t just a cliché. MCC’s part in the history of the game is absolutely fundamental. For decades the Club ran the English game and dominated the world game as well. It doesn’t really matter whether this was a good or bad thing; it’s a fact. Is it better or worse than the game being run by bean counters, businessmen and politicians being advised by consultants who know nothing about cricket?  I couldn’t possibly comment. To this day MCC is the guardian of the game’s Laws. (Cricket doesn’t have rules, like other games, it has Laws.) For decades, too, until the late 1970s, England teams travelled abroad as MCC; the captain was a diplomat as much as anything else. And, more to the point, MCC created, built, developed, administered and operated the world’s greatest cricket ground, and still does so.

Lord’s has an aura, there is no getting away from it. It looks magnificent and it feels magnificent.  The Pavilion is an architectural masterpiece part shrine, part art gallery and part top-drawer watering hole, with a view to die for.  You could happily spend a day at Lord’s when there is no cricket being played. How symbolic it is that although the spoof obituary talks about the ashes being sent to Australia, and Australia have “held” The Ashes for much longer periods than England, the priceless tiny urn rarely leaves its home at Lord’s.

The Oval is hugely impressive but it is difficult to think of it as magnificent; the architectural shenanigans at the Pavilion End have made it a bit messy. What immediately strikes one about The Oval is the vastness of the playing area. The development of bigger and bigger stands means that the ground as a whole feels squeezed tightly into the available space. Walking round the ground on a match day, insofar as you can, feels slightly claustrophobic. That is never a feeling you get at Lord’s, where you are never far away from the charm of the Coronation Gardens behind the Pavilion or the wide open spaces of the Nursery, beyond the J P Morgan Media Centre (even Lord’s can’t avoid sponsors completely).

Inevitably there is a social element to all this. Historically, MCC was dominated by aristocrats and senior military figures. It epitomised the great divide that dominated cricket until the early 1960s between Gentlemen (amateurs) and Players (professionals). As for women..

That has all changed. But it always went deeper than that. The Lord’s Test was part of The Season, along with Ascot, Wimbledon, Henley, Cowes Week, the Glorious Twelfth and all the rest of it. The Eton-Harrow match was a huge society event. Whether it matters as much to the fund managers, crypto-billionaires and oligarchs who now send their boys to Eton is unclear but MCC’s decision has clearly upset someone (maybe the parents will ask for a discount). Anyway, there are still plenty of people who want to go to Lord’s not to watch the cricket, but because, well, they want to go to Lord’s. The Pavilion of course remains heavily male dominated and the ambience won’t appeal to everyone, but the ground as a whole is not like that at all. There is a certain magnetism about it. As Alan Ross said “Lord’s is also about friendship, a kind of staging post in the development of relationships. “I’ll see you at Lord’s” people say to one another.”

The Oval is different, but so is everywhere else. You  probably can say of The Oval, which might be a bit of a stretch at Lord’s, that all human life is there. In the last millennium it was probably easier to perceive some sort of social divide between Lord’s and The Oval. Bearing in mind how much a day at the cricket costs these days there is probably less of a divide now than ever before. I am sure there are as many champagne bars at The Oval as at Lord’s. And they love their cricket at The Oval. Real enthusiasm is more palpable. People talk about the “Lord’s murmur”. There is no murmuring at The Oval. The Oval is just, well, loud.

Except when it is not.

I was there for the extraordinary third Test against South Africa. The first day, Thursday, was, eventually washed out. The Oval had its own rainbow in the late afternoon. People hung around till 5’ish; news reports were coming in on the worrying state of the Queen’s health. Play on Friday was cancelled as a mark of respect. Cricket got it exactly right.

I was running a bit late on Saturday. I got to the ground just after 10.45. There was the usual hubbub you get when there is a capacity crowd at a major sporting event. I had entered through the Hobbs Gates, and started walking round to my seat. Of course I could not see what was happening on the ground but suddenly it got quieter, and then complete silence fell. It was the minute’s silence. Then we got to the anthems, and, of course God Save The King.

I am so glad I was late. Had I been on time I would have been sitting in the air-conditioned, sound-proofed media centre. Of course you can’t hear a silence. But you can feel it.

The Queen was a frequent visitor to Lord’s. Her grandfather, George V, who began the practice of  a Royal visit, was regarded as a good change bowler; a wicket often fell after the players had been presented to him. The Duke of Edinburgh was twice President of MCC. Prince Edward is President of the Lord’s Taverners. The Duke of York presented Eoin Morgan with the World Cup in 2019 [ Enough Royals: Ed]

But it seemed right, somehow, that the English game paid its respects to Her Majesty at The Oval, where a traditional English stoicism prevails and, seemingly, a gentle push will send the ball rolling towards the centre of her great capital.

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