I’ve finally found something I miss about living in England: Cricket. And to celebrate this, I’m posting a piece from a few years back. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed this memorable day at The Oval … well maybe, almost as much.
LOOK NO FURTHER FOR THE PERFECT LONDON BARGAIN
Warren Buffett, an American investment entrepreneur, once said “Price is what you pay – value is what you get”.
In an age of post-hedge fund austerity, a thing of value is a thing of beauty. And so the occasional unforeseen bargain is indeed a cause to rejoice; particularly one so close to the heart of the capital city.
It is not hard to construct a case why joining Surrey County Cricket Club is a must-do for anyone with even a vague connection with cricket or, for that matter, with London. In fact, even forget cricket. Richie Benaud, the former Australian Test player and well-respected commentator, once described a cricket ground thus: “A cricket ground is a flat piece of earth with some buildings around it”. A bit bland, that one Richie, but there’s nothing bland about the buildings surrounding the KIA Oval in Kennington.
As I sit on the sun-bathed top tier of the members’ Pavilion balcony on a glorious May evening, I have an unrivalled view of the London skyline. To my left, beyond cover point, the mighty Battersea power station’s twin towers. And dead ahead, lurking behind the Harleyford Road OCS Stand, the Spooks building – home to MI5, those saviours of the universe. To the left of the gas-holders are the Houses of Parliament, and next to them, beyond fine leg: Big Ben. The London Eye dominates the sky-scape beyond backward square-leg. And last but not least, to my right beyond the deep mid-wicket boundary, is the Post Office Tower.
Two hundred feet below me, Mark Ramprakash elegantly cover drives Glamorgan’s Will Owen through extra cover to the boundary to bring up his thirty-fifth thousand run in first class cricket. This is acknowledged by a ripple of applause from the four hundred and fifty or so spectators in the twenty-three thousand capacity ground – (I did have a go at counting them, but one or two kept moving). Swiftly the business of post-luncheon somnolence or subdued discourse resumes. Some read the paper, some score and I even note one or two souls for whom the accurate drawing of the batsman’s scoring “cartwheel” seems to be the mark of a good day out.
I need a drink. And so I wander inside to the adjacent “100th Hundred” restaurant and bar on the top level of the Pavilion. My companions and I had earlier lunched here on sausage and mash, onions and gravy with perfectly cooked fresh vegetables, followed by coffee and a Mars bar for eight pounds fifty a head. Compare that to my breakfast, purchased from the marquee outside the Pavilion: an egg sandwich on white bread, bottle of water and a coffee for close to a tenner.
Even the smart blazer-attired young man who had rushed to serve me was staggered.
‘Wow! That’s expensive,”’ he’d proclaimed. There was of course, at those prices, no one else to serve.
‘Daylight robbery’, I’d replied, conspiratorially, ‘Glad I beat the rush.’
I order two and a half pints of Marston’s Pedigree for my companions, and take a twenty pound note from my wallet.
‘That’s seven pounds, sir.’ Blimey – £2.80 a pint! In London! At the Oval! Gosh!
And that’s not all; annual membership of Surrey is a mere one hundred and sixty-five pounds – or one hundred and thirty-five for country membership – if you can prove that your residence is more than fifty miles, as the crow flies, from the Oval. And for this you get entry to all LV County Championship, CB40 and T20 matches, in fact all matches other than internationals, and access to that wonderful Pavilion. Of course, the deal clincher is the price of a decent pint of beer, while non-members have to fork out a whopping four pounds twenty for a pint of Fosters.
I return to my seat to find my friend slumped sound asleep; so I sip my pint and wrestle with The Times crossword as Croft sets about trying to uproot the obstinate Davies from the crease.
Success, for both of us, is limited. Croft, wicket-less at the pavilion end, tosses the ball to Cosker, putting me in mind of a comment by the much-missed Brain Johnston on BBC Radio 4’sTest Match Special: “Ray Illingworth has just relieved himself at the pavilion end.” Folding my paper away, I turn to Iain Smythe, a Glamorgan supporting Surrey member, seated on my right.
I ask him if being a member of Surrey has the stigma of the impoverished country cousin when compared to Middlesex membership, with access to the Lord’s Pavilion and all that that entails. Was it, I ask, a bit like driving a Porsche Boxster? Everyone knows that the car you really want is the 911, but you can’t quite afford one.
‘Not in the least,’ he replies, unperturbed by the directness of my question. ‘In fact, it’s actually slightly cheaper to become a member of Middlesex than Surrey and the benefits are pretty much the same as here. Other than the fact that the catering isn’t as good at Lord’s and the price of a pint is more expensive, I’d say there’s not much in it’. Our conversation is interrupted as Davies edges to Wright off the bowling of Owen and departs amid measured applause. Perhaps this reflects the membership’s puzzlement at the curiously timed but highly publicised “coming out” of Davis, the first openly-gay cricketer. Although for most, the question is “Who cares?”
So with the striking revelation that access to the “Home of Cricket” is equally good value, I just have to ask Iain: ‘Why Surrey? Both have a Long Room, both are steeped in history, both host at least one annual test match and both are in easily accessible areas of London. So why don’t you join Middlesex.’
‘I think it’s just that it’s a little less stuffy here, less formal.’
‘And it has comfortable seats, not those damned white slatted wooden benches,’ my friend contributes, awakened from his pre-tea nap by the departure of Maynard, clean bowled by Owen.
There is certainly a more relaxed atmosphere at the Oval. I had visited Lord’s the previous week, coincidentally to watch Middlesex play Glamorgan in the LV County Championship, as the guest of a member. Lunchtime access from the pavilion, to inspect the pitch and to walk on the hallowed turf is only permitted provided that one retains one’s jacket. No jacket: no re-admission. And as for the removal of one’s tie – forget it. The Oval has a less rigid dress code: in fact, none at all, as far as I can see, although most members wear at least “smart casual.”
Both grounds have a vast army of day-glowed custodians of order, without which one must now assume, every public event would degenerate into complete anarchy. I counted almost forty at the Oval; that’s roughly a ratio of one for every ten spectators. Quite how this is justified or what they’re supposed to do is beyond me. The day-glow vest-wearers appear to have replaced the peaked-cap wearers as a body of people wielding disproportionate power. A few months later, on the first morning of the Fourth test against India, one such steward was to acquire national notoriety via the TMS commentary, by refusing to admit Alex Stewart through the Alex Stewart gates!
Time to go. The last five Surrey wickets fall in a flurry, producing a mere forty-eight runs, just enough to avoid the follow-on but Glamorgan have a first innings lead of one hundred and thirty-five so the game is theirs to lose. They have a well-crafted twenty-five boundary double century by Petersen to thank for this. Without this, the Glamorgan scorecard would have looked as scant as the queue for coffee and sandwiches at the marquee.
I’d have loved to have spent the next two days languishing in the sun, eating reasonably priced sausage and mash and drinking the cheapest beer in town. I can think of nothing more appealing than casually watching the prosaic drama of this low-key contest unfold, doing the crossword and dozing in the sun, but sadly, work gets in the way.
Harold Pinter once said: ‘I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth – certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.’
Even if you don’t share his view on cricket; come to think of it – even if you hate cricket, membership of Surrey or Middlesex County Cricket Clubs – either of these great British institutions – makes sound sense. For this is the best value view in town.