The Series So Far
Both sides have batting frailties which makes for exciting cricket. Root has been the saviour of England, hauling them back into the game at Trent Bridge and Lords and allowing them to dominate at Headingley. On that rained off Sunday at Trent Bridge it could have gone either way although the money was on India. Lords we should have won but a collective rush of blood gave the game away. Last week at Headingley, though, England were near perfect and dished out a mighty thrashing. So one all and two to go. How it will turn is anybody’s guess but it’s mouth-watering.
The teams have changed from the ones that started the series. England finally ditched Sibley and Crawley and brought in Hameed and Malan both of whom played well at Headingley. Wood injured himself at Lords so Somerset’s big Craig Overton gets a game or two. Curran has not impressed so no home Test for him. Instead, to the delight of Dave the Liskeard Poet, stalwart old Chris Woakes who has been dogged with ill fortune is back. Buttler is on paternity leave so at last Bairstow grabs the gloves again – cue chuntering from Surrey members in the Pavilion about Foakes being the best keeper in the land.
India too have had a few changes. The batting line up is the same but in come all-rounder Thakur and bowler Umesh Yadav and out go Shami, not sure why as he has been on the money, and Ishant Sharma who disappointed at Headingley. The big mystery all series has been why world class all-rounder spinner and batsman who tormented England in India in the winter, Ashwin, can’t get a game. He wasn’t one of the changes. Jadeja keeps his place despite whispers of an injury scare.
The Tale of Two Belgraves
For ages now James Rixon, our Surrey mate, has had tickets for Friday and Saturday so my original plan was to miss Day 1 and come up tomorrow. But, hell, a Test match is a Test match and you’ve got to be there for the start. When I was at Lords I could see that the touts were doing their business and I thought “bugger, I’m going to give it a punt!” So I booked an extra night in the hotel and this morning I departed Cornwall at six o’clock, left my car at Plymouth station and caught the 6.55 for Paddington. That’s the way to do it! I was in Paddington by 10 o’clock and half an hour later emerged from Oval station, plenty of time to drop my bag at the Belgrave Hotel two minutes down Clapham Road. Therein hangs a tale. The guy at reception has no-one of my name. I showed him the confirmation email on my phone. ‘Ah, sir, we are Belgrave Hotel. This one you have is The Belgrave.’ Age-related cognitive decline, I had booked the wrong Belgrave: tonight I’m in Pimlico and not on Clapham Road. Too far to drop the bag off now so I lugged it around all day, which actually was fine.
Getting a Ticket
There were plenty of touts outside the Oval station. “Tickets … buy or sell …tickets.” I approached one with a fistful of email printouts which I was a bit dubious about but I had no choice. Sixty quid for a £70 ticket in the Finn Stand! That can’t be bad! “Will that definitely get me in?” “Sure, mate. ‘Course it will.” I joined the melee at the Hobbs Gate, slightly apprehensive, but it did the job. I was in.
DAY 1 Thursday 2 September: Playing the Surrey Member
I got to my seat by the third over with plenty of spaces either side – Matey at the Oval station wasn’t having a good day, I reckon. On a cloudy morning, Root won his third toss of the series and put India in.
What a day! 13 wickets, the most in an Oval Test on Day 1 since 1926. It was a roller-coaster. We scythed through the India top order. Woakes on his return was outstanding. With the score on 28 he had Rohit caught behind off a beauty that hit the seam and moved away. Unplayable. Robinson chipped in with the wickets of Rahul and Pujara and by lunchtime India had struggled to a meagre 54-3.
As the wickets fell I had a great morning texting, WhatsApping, emailing. Love it: all your mates, at the game and elsewhere, joining in the fun. Sitting on my own I didn’t feel one bit lonesome.
I knew that Duncan, whom I had come across in New Zealand and Port Elizabeth, was in the Pavilion so I’d messaged him for a lunchtime pint. As I hadn’t heard anything I heaved my haversack on to my back and had a wander round the ground. What a scrum! It was slow progress but I made it to the Surrey shop. My companions in the box at Taunton, who include a former Tory MP and sundry Plymouth car dealers, live in a past where gentlemen wear ties to cricket. I don’t mind it actually and have a collection of cricket ties, mainly Somerset, of course, which I add to from time to time. I couldn’t resist a brown Surrey tie. Duncan tracked me down in the shop and got me in to the Pavilion where I spent the rest of the day, well attired, I thought, with my Surrey tie.
For the most part the afternoon session belonged to England. Woakes played the starring role. He had Kohli dropped by Root when he was on 22. Our slip cordon is very fragile. Jadeja poked around for 4 runs until Woakes struck again, Root this time taking the catch. Kohli was looking good, driving crisply to reach his 50. It was ominous but some accurate bowling from Robinson tied him down and he didn’t add to the score. This brought Pant to the crease. “How’s he going to go?” buzzed the members. For a few balls it seemed that Kohli must have had a word, as he blocked and left. On the 5th ball the true Pant came alive with a massive heave that hit thin air. Somehow, though, he never got going and on 9 Moeen took a good low catch for Woakes’ third wicket.
127-7, it was definitely all going England’s way. But Thakur came in and showed Pant how to do it with a 50 of T20 proportions off 31 balls, including 7 fours and 3 sixes, the quickest Test 50 in England ever. He hauled India to 190 in the best partnership of the day until an lbw gave Woakes his fourth wicket. Bumrah was run out. Yadav made one run. India ended on 191 making a very satisfactory couple of sessions or so for England.
The Pavilion at the Oval is a fine building with wide staircases lined with photographs of possibility every player who has ever represented Surrey. There are five floors with a variety of bars, restaurants and private function rooms. The best must surely be the Long Room on the first floor overlooking the ground. Here there are portraits of illustrious Surrey men including Pat Pocock, Adam Hollioake, an England cap and a Surrey cap beside him in almost medieval symbolism, and several nineteenth century stalwarts of the Club. Dominating them all are a youthful Alex Stewart next to a portrait of Micky with an inscrutable smile. The bar is busy but the service is quick and at £5 a pint is much more reasonable than the £6 80 you pay in the rest of the ground. By my Cornish standards where I can get a pint in Calstock Social Club for less than half that it’s a bit pricey.
In the last hour three England wickets fell. In the fourth over, Bumrah with his weird stuttering run up like a trotting pony, struck twice. Burns was bowled for 5 and Hameed was caught behind for his second duck of the series trying rather eccentrically to flick the ball over the slips. Root made his entry at 6 for 2, the ground echoing to a sustained ‘Roooo …’
As ever, Root was calm, serene and well balanced, placing the ball deftly in what seemed like a stabilising partnership with Malan. I was meeting J J for a few pints in Pimlico so I left quarter of an hour early. I was in such a rush to drop off my bag at The Belgrave and get to the White Swan that it wasn’t till J J said ‘pity about Root’ that I realised that he had been bowled by Yadav for 21 and that England had ended the day on 53-3. That must have been a couple of wickets better than Kohli could have expected.
DAY 2: Friday 3rd September: In the Balance
After a very decent breakfast at The Belgrave I walked the 30 minutes it takes from Pimlico to Clapham Road where I dropped off my bag. The white Georgian houses with their porticoed entrances with line Belgrave Road are stunning.
Today we’re in the new Galadari Stand where the former Peter May Stand used to be. Who M A R Galadari is apart from a person with shed loads of money I couldn’t find out. Looking at it yesterday from the Finn Stand opposite it is a rather ugly square block. Much as I hate to say it, compared to the stunning architecture of the new Upper Compton Stands at Lords this looks as if it’s been done on the cheap. In fact, apart from the majestic arc of the O2 stand the Oval’s building projects of the last couple of decades have very little architectural merit. The seats, however, were comfortable, although when a very bulky Wycombe joined us there wasn’t a lot of space. We’re here today courtesy of James and Darryl’s good offices with a couple of their finance mates and my school friend, Howard, with whom I have been coming to the Oval since my first Test in 1963!
I seem to have been brokering tickets all summer. Steve’s spare tickets at Edgbaston went to Freddie and Irish, though Irish didn’t make it because his was for Day 4 on that three and a bit days debacle. All this week I have been trying to get rid of Darryl’s spare ticket for tomorrow, finally settling it on Freddie a couple of days ago. Today Wycombe, who at one time was in the running for Freddie’s Saturday ticket, is here because Irish had a last minute spare, although I’m not sure that he is in good odour Mrs W as a result.
We’re on the beer fairly early today, making good use of Darryl and James’s cards to get the members’ discounts in the bar nicely located at the top of the stand. It’s windy up there but there’s a nice good of the ground and the queue for the beer is short.
England’s cricket continued where it left off last night. Craig Overton who had come in a nightwatchman swished aimlessly at a ball from Yadav. He can do better than that! Malan looked pretty good. I’m glad that his return to the Test arena seems to have worked. I reckon he was treated badly by Ed Smith. Still, today he gave Yadav, who like Woakes has had a good return to Test cricket, his fourth wicket and at 62-5 India’s 191 looked rather distant. Pope skipped down the stairs to great applause. However, he and Bairstow took a while to get going. Bairstow, as ever, had belligerent intent, holding his bat like a cudgel but wasn’t inspiring confidence. Then suddenly, Pope gave Thakur a taste of his own medicine and cracked four successive fours to four different quarters of the ground which galvanised Bairstow who hit three successive fours in the next over. They took us to 139-5 at lunch and the balance of the game was swinging back England’s way.
I was due to meet Michael Evans from Somerset at lunch at the Feathers Bar by the Finn Stand but in the concourse behind the Galadari Stand I was waylaid by Freddie who was here today with another Windsor mate. Soon after Saint turned up with the recently married Baby Dave. I never made it to Michael.
By the time I got back to my seat a curly haired Irish had finally turned up. The afternoon belonged to England. Pope’s partnership with Bairstow was worth 89. (We’ll gloss over the idiot who ran on to the pitch in whites to bowl a ball at Pope and thump Bairstow in the back in the process. The stewards, taken in, I think, by his whites, were slow off the mark though in the end it didn’t matter because he stood there more or less waiting to be carted off. Apparently it’s his third pitch invasion this summer.)
Pope was serene – another good return to England colours. Moeen was Moeen with a flurry of wristy drives but on double Nelsons when Jadeja came on he tried to heave him out of the ground and was caught by Rohit for 35. Typical Mo. It should have been more but at 222-7 England were beginning to develop a comfortable lead. Woakes joined Pope and batted as well as he had bowled. ‘Welcome back, Woakes,’ says Dave the Poet. If only Pope could have got a ton on his home ground but sadly not. Thakur did him in the end on 81 and he slammed his bat into the ground in frustration. Woakes was there at the finish making 50 including a last wicket stand of 45 with Jimmy of which Woakes made 44. Great cheers went up when the big screen flashed up that this was Jimmy’s 100th not out in Tests! 290 all out and a lead of 99 doesn’t seem too shabby.
That didn’t account for a solid partnership of 43 to end the day between Rohit and Rahul on a pitch that seemed suddenly to have flattened out. At stumps India trail by 56.
Irish, Wycombe and I walked across Vauxhall bridge into Pimlico for a meal in a Spanish restaurant. When we’re done Irish and I pointed Wycombe in what we thought was the direction for Victoria and walked back towards Vauxhaul. Just before the bridge there was a crumpled figure on the ground which was obviously struggling to get to the vertical. I was the Pharisee who would have walked by but Samaritan Pete knelt down and asked if he was OK which he clearly he wasn’t. There was blood on his cheekbone and eyebrow. He was completely pissed. One of us on either side, we raised him to his feet. I dabbed his grazes with some tissues and some water from Pete’s bottle – he blamed me when he left it behind. Pete cross-examined him and established that he’d been to the cricket, had been drinking beer and wanted to get to Kings Cross to catch a train to Ashford. There was no way in that state that he was going to walk more than a few yards without returning to the ground. Pete stood him to attention and tried to browbeat him into sobriety. “Look at me … What’s your name? … Where are you going.” The poor sod was very compliant but he really needed something more than Irish’s military interrogation to sober him up. In the end we bundled him into a cab and asked the cabbie to take him to Kings Cross. God knows what happened then!
DAY 3 Saturday 4 September: India in the Ascendency
First things first … yesterday my trousers finally showed their age and a rip in the thigh joined the hole in the pocket. Clearly they weren’t going to see the Test out. So I walked through Kennington to Waterloo station where I knew there was an M&S that sold clothing. That is to say, I thought I knew. Covid has done for the clothes section but fortunately there was a Fat Face upstairs. Faute de mieux I purchased a pair of jeans. Not my natural choice but they’ll do.
In the Galadari Stand again today, Freddie, Irish and I are with James & Darryl and some more of their colleagues from the world of finance. The funny thing about these guys, who must be doing OK for themselves, is that they never buy food on the ground but always bring out things like duck wraps, dried venison thins, vegan rolls and boxes of little chocolate brownies. They’re on the beers early though as we take advantage of Darryl and James’ members cards to get it for £5 a pint.
Sharma and Rahul took up from where they left off and made steady inroads into that lead of 99. We desperately wanted a wicket before they reached parity. It finally came when they were on 83 via a thin edge off Rahul’s bat from Jimmy which was initially turned down but was won on Root’s astute review, although Rahul was clearly pissed off as he obviously thought that the noise that Snicko had picked up was off his pad rather than his bat. It made little difference. Pujara was off the mark immediately and Rohit was serene. Soon after lunch he reached a faultless ton, his first in Tests on foreign soil. A partnership of 153 changed the balance of the game. After a wicketless afternoon session the score was at tea 191-1.
Olli Robinson briefly interrupted India’s run-fest when he took the new ball. His first ball hit the top of Rohit’s bat and he skied a pull into the safe hands of Woakes in the deep. Mooen took a catch at slip on the last ball of the over to remove Pujara. Sad to relate, on this road of a wicket India’s relentless progress to dominance. When bad light stopped play shortly after 5.30, Kohli and Jadeja looked comfortable as India ended the day on 270-3. There’s toil for England tomorrow.
I left Irish and the others and made my way to Redhill for a meal with my brother.
DAY 4 Sunday 5 September: ‘Where there’s life …’
As on Day 1 I don’t have a ticket so there’s a bit of negotiation to be done. I was doing full English in the Hanover when a bouncy black guy with a baseball cap reversed on his head flounced in with a handful of print outs. He started off wanting £150! “You must be joking!” I said and moved away. “How much do you want then?” I told him I’d got a £70 ticket on Thursday for £60 so he came down to £100. “Nah! How about eighty?” We split the difference. When I looked, it was a junior ticket in the Upper Bedser that had cost £37.50! I’m not arguing. It got me in and I had a great day.
Who should I see when I got in but Robbo wearing his trade mark pork pie hat sitting on a bench by the calypso band? Covid has not been kind. Soon after lockdown he was told to self-isolate and has spent a gloomy eighteen months pretty much indoors. He hasn’t been to the pub and this is pretty much his first outing.
I touched base with Irish who is with Katy in the Finn Stand and made my way to my seats in the Bedser. I was sitting next to an intriguing Indian family. Next to me was Mum in full Indian blue. Next to her was Mummy’s Boy also dressed full Indian. At every boundary they jumped up and down waving their Indian flag and wildly signalling four. Next to them was Daddy’s Boy, very smart in an England shirt and a Three Lions cap on his head. And next to him was Dad, clearly a highly respectable Indian gentleman with a neat moustache, dressed all in white, England top, immaculately pressed shorts and knee length socks. I leaned across to Mum and said, “Looks like a case of divided loyalties.” “Definitely,” she said. A bit later Dad and Daddy’s Boy left Mum and Mummy’s Boy and went off somewhere together, disgusted perhaps by Kohli and Jadeja’s 50 partnership off 108 balls.
Woakes took out Jadeja and Rahane, and Kohli was rather disgruntled when he plopped a ball off Moeen into the big hands of Craig Overton at leg slip. This placed India on 312 with a lead of 213. Wise heads thought that 250 was the most we would want to chase and with Pant and Thakur new to the crease there was hope. It was not to be. Clearly Kohli has had further words with Pant and has told him to rein it in, much to the disappointment of Mum who kept holding up a big white card that said “Rishabh, we want catching practice.” Pant took no notice. He blocked and left and played for the first time like a proper Test batsman. It worked. Another 100 partnership, between him and Thakur, added to England’s pain. When Moeen took a smart return catch above his head, Pant and Thakur had both made 50’s.
By this time I had teamed up with Irish at lunch and left Mummy, Daddy and the Boys for the Finn stand where Pete spent the afternoon standing in the bar at the top, imbibing heavily I think, and being deafened by the big dohl drum that was banging away beside him. I gather he even got into a bit of an altercation when he ask a big guy who had muscled in front of him to move to one side. I meanwhile sat with Katy in Pete’s seat a bit further down the stand.
In the end, after some big hitting by Bumrah & Yadav, India were 466 all out giving them a daunting lead of 367. England had two hours to bat out the day.
It was enthralling. Burns, eccentric as ever, and Hameed, very correct and comfortable, batted out the day. 77 runs were scored, the lead is less than 300 and every ball was tense and riveting. This was Test cricket at its very best, a session that will remain in the memory for a long time. So tomorrow: three sessions, just about 3 runs an over. It’s possible but England has never chased down that total, not even Stokes’ amazing 359 chase at Headingley. The wicket’s flat and Hameed and Burns give us hope. Tomorrow will either be amazing or anti-climax. The morning session will give me a pretty good idea of which train I will be catching from Paddington.
Pete and I walked over to Pimlico again for very classy meal sitting outside in the evening warmth. I won’t tell you who did most of the talking.
DAY 5 Monday 6 September: It didn’t happen
The buzz of anticipation in the ground was fantastic. There were as many Indian supporters as English and it might just as well have been a home game for Kohli’s such was the cheering when anything went their way. In fact he could be seen ramping up the noise for his team. Irish and I were in the Galadari Stand again. Unfortunately Katy wasn’t well and couldn’t make it. I offered her ticket to Wycombe but today he was too sensible to accept. Yesterday’s tout, who’d expressed an interest in tickets for today, was nowhere to be seen so Pete and I had a spare seat which was nice because it was incredibly hot and it was good to have an empty seat between us.
Burns and Hameed were as untroubled this morning as they had been yesterday evening. In due course Burns brought up his 50 and the 100 partnership up with a boundary. What a great start! Sadly, the rot set in immediately. Burns thin-edged to Pant which brought in a rather scratchy Malan. When the score reached 111-1 Irish told me that an English wicket had fallen on Nelsons 48 times, which sounds great until you learn that a wicket’s fallen on 112 47 times and on 110 49 times. Oh the glories of cricket stats.
Ready for the day
There was no drama on 111 but a while later a rather uppish drive from Hameed was dropped by Siraj at long off when he was 55. We hoped he’d make him pay for it and it wasn’t his wicket fell but Malan’s who was run out by a very sharp bit of fielding from the sub for 5, although I didn’t actually see it because I was unsighted by a rather large lady in front of me who stood up to make way for someone who clearly doesn’t know much about etiquette at Test matches. This brought Root in to the usual hum of ‘Roooo …’ He and Hameed survived the twenty minutes left before lunch.
I’d said before play started that we couldn’t afford to lose more than 2 wickets before lunch and 131-2 was a score that just about kept us in the game. There were plenty of rather naïve optimists, including Wycombe, so Skip told me, who thought we could win. If that was unlikely at the start of play it certainly wasn’t going to happen now with 238 needed out of two sessions. Nevertheless, I still wasn’t able to tell Jennie what time I’d get back to Plymouth.
In the space of 5 overs and 5 runs we lost Hameed, Pope and Bairstow to arrive at 146-5. That was it. It wasn’t going to happen. “I’m off,” I said to Irish. We shook hands and I left the ground. I do confess, though, that my inner optimist made me get my ticket checked in case I madly wanted to get back in which enabled me to do a kindly act and use it immediately afterwards to allow a desperate Indian fan to get in for the last rites.
In the 5 minutes it took me to pick up my bag from my digs on Clapham Road a text arrived from arch-Moeen Ali hater, Ray from Newcastle, that simply read ‘Super Mo…’ I didn’t need to know any more. By the time I got to Paddington Overton and Robinson were at the crease and just after Reading on the dot of tea I could see that Jimmy hadn’t added to his tally of not outs.
We lost by 157 runs which is a big margin but well deserved by an Indian team who put together partnerships in their second innings of 83, 153, 59 and 100 which gave them an insuperable lead. It showed up the weakness of our middle order and the one-dimensional nature of our attack. Overton doesn’t offer anything much different from Robinson and, after a decent game at Headingley, he was pretty feeble. The ridiculous scheduling dreamed up by our money hungry administrators means that Old Trafford starts on Friday. Isn’t that ludicrous? Whether Jimmy and Robinson can recuperate enough to play is debatable. Let’s hope that Woody is fit.