Choice of game
A tumultuous few months, when the prospect of watching any kind of live sport seemed distant, gave way to hope and optimism as I happily passed through the Oval's Alec Stewart Gate. I was there to watch perhaps the most significant friendly game of cricket ever played, ironically between traditional rivals, Surrey and Middlesex. I was one of the fortunate 1000 Surrey members who had patiently dialled and then several more times redialled the ticket office, to be rewarded with a ticket for the first spectator-attended sports event in England for four months. The match in essence was a glorified practice session for both sides, but the occasion itself was of far more importance, a government-endorsed test of how cricket could function as a spectator sport, against the backdrop of Covid-19.
Although the surroundings of The Oval were comfortingly familiar, Surrey had clearly gone to huge lengths to make sure that the venue fully complied with new Covid-19 guidelines. The detailed four-page spectator guide emailed in advance was a taste of what to expect, including rather comical instructions to avoid hugs and to take care when celebrating. Hand sanitiser was placed at the entrance and throughout the periphery of the ground, arrows clearly directed a one-way walking system and stewards politely asked that face coverings be used in the enclosed parts of the ground. These measures seemed very sensible and a minor inconvenience in order to experience the normality of hearing leather on willow.
The lack of genuine intensity in the game was forgivable, particularly as both teams had agreed to bat for exactly one day regardless of the number of wickets lost, indeed Surrey continued to bat after losing 10 wickets and the unlucky Ryan Patel was out twice in the same innings. Pre-season friendlies are usually a good time to give debuts, and Middlesex's tall 18-year-old Blake Cullen will certainly remember his first ball in senior cricket, as he claimed the wicket of Will Jacks, caught at slip. His second spell after lunch signalled how much of an exciting prospect he is, as he ran in hard from the pavilion end and picked up a second wicket.
Jacks began his innings with dazzling strokeplay, fluently driving the ball towards the boundary, and he looked disappointed to be dismissed after reaching his half-century. Surrey have contributed several players to the current England set up, Jacks will be hoping the season ahead means that he's next in line. Scott Borthwick shared the most significant partnership of the innings with Jacks and eventually top scored with 87, and some late order hitting from Jordan Clark was also eye-catching.
Allrounder Clark's clean hit for six over midwicket against a tiring Middlesex attack illustrated his ability to score quickly and his importance as a multi-format cricketer. The other memorable moments of the day involved sharp catching from the Middlesex fielders, despite a long gap from playing the game, most of the fielding didn't show any sign of rustiness. Captain Stephen Eskinazi and Nick Gubbins both made difficult catches look simple.
One Thing I'd Change
The overall organisation of the event was superb, but perhaps so much attention had been placed on ensuring the new social distancing guidelines were followed that communicating the quirky playing conditions was almost forgotten. Basic information about the playing XI wasn't easily obtained but in the grand scheme of things this was a very minor gripe.
The bulk of the 1000-strong crowd were seated in a few blocks of the newly named 1845 Stand - beneath the famous gas-holder - albeit with many gaps in between, the idea being to test crowd management and social distancing within a relatively confined space. This meant warm applause greeting each Surrey boundary and subsequent landmarks was satisfyingly amplified, even if the vast empty stands opposite made the ground look lop-sided. The crowd itself was always good natured, even a rain delay and darkened clouds were unable to dampen spirits and the sense of appreciation.
One of the pleasures of watching first-class county cricket at The Oval is the chance to regularly change seats and take in different views of the middle, unallocated seating being the norm. Understandably on this occasion the PA system regularly reminded people to remain in their allocated seat. Another new experience took place in the morning; a crisply struck cover drive from Jacks sent the ball speeding towards the boundary rope and then deflecting into the stands; as a spectator went to fetch the ball from under his seat, those around him anxiously told him not to. Instead the ball was kicked towards the bottom of the stand and retrieved by a fielder. The issue of touching the ball, perhaps unhelpfully and confusingly highlighted by Boris Johnson, is another part of the new Covid-19 world that we must adjust to.
Marks out of 10
A triumphant 10. The hard work that Surrey had put in behind the scenes meant that the day went as smoothly as possible. Once I was safely seated, it was easy to focus on the contest in the middle and engage in sorely missed conversations about who should open the batting - the value of such seemingly mundane chat now priceless. I can only hope the success of the day results in more cricket for spectators at The Oval and beyond, a safe environment for watching cricket is clearly achievable and hugely desired by countless supporters everywhere.
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