Nothing in sport matches sitting in a sparse crowd like a content pigeon savouring the rhythm of the day. It’s like a secret only a few know about
Sometime around a quarter to 12, Mark Stoneman lunged out towards Steve Parry, missed the ball, and was stumped by Alex Davies. Surrey were 66 for two then, and still 85 runs behind. “C’mon lads,” said one of the fielders, his voice ringing out loud around the largely empty ground, “we’re in the game here.” It was the last time in the match that this was true. Kumar Sangakkara was next man in, and in the mood. He batted as if saving the game was as simple a matter as his making the decision to do exactly that. So his score advanced inexorably through the day, passing like the second hand of a clock. And the century he eventually scored seemed as inevitable as the arrival of 10 to five, when the match was called off as a draw, the two captains both happy that there was nothing left for either side to gain.
Sangakkara fell five minutes before the close, bowled for 136. But Scott Borthwick was still in, undefeated on 108. He’d batted from 11am on through. He was unobtrusive as a mouse until he made it to 88, when he rattled to his hundred with three fine, fierce fours, as if he didn’t want to give himself time to worry about what he was doing. It was his first century for Surrey, something, he said later, which he’d “dreamt of for the last five or six months”. Since no one believed there was much chance of the match ending in anything other than a draw, the subplot of Borthwick’s hundred became the lead story of the day. It got the loudest cheers, though the cries of the small band of rowdy Surrey fans in the top tier of the Peter May Stand were hushed by a chorus of irritated tuts and shushes.
It was one of those days that makes cricket seem such a strange game to people who don’t know it. A match ambling along to a draw, seven hours of play ending in handshakes all round and everyone home in time for dinner. Perhaps that was why, in a city of eight million people, only a few hundred seemed to think the Oval was a good place to spend the bank holiday. It would have been more, no doubt, if the sun had been out, or the match more keenly poised. But still, it seemed a shame, Sangakkara here a great actor performing in front of a sparse audience. More than a million fans listened to the BBC’s online coverage of the opening round, but the Championship’s audiences outnumber its attendances by a huge margin. And on Easter Monday, the competition felt like a secret only a few know about.
Sangakkara was like a great actor performing in front of a sparse audience
So we all sat there, content as fed pigeons nesting in the grandstands, some odd solitary birds busily filling in their scorecards, others gathered together in groups making small talk, all glad to be here at the start of another season, another summer. Middle aged men in the main. According to YouGov, the market research firm, a cricket fan is particularly likely to be a man aged over 55. And that will ring true with anyone who has spent much time at a county ground. On Monday there were a handful of women, and even fewer children. A group of five or six played a game on the outfield at lunch, along with a couple of toddlers who, it turned out, were the children of a colleague who had come along on his day off because his eldest was just getting into the game. And besides, they needed to get out of the house.
In the grandstands, the youngest spectators I could find were three students, Archie, Teddy, and James, trainee accountants who were working their way through a bottle of Pimms. They were old school friends. Only one of them had ever played cricket as a kid, but all three got hooked on it during, of course, the 2005 Ashes. Now they had student memberships at Surrey, and come along pretty much whenever there is a game on. Whether it was in the Championship, the Blast, or the Royal London Cup didn’t matter much. Come back here in 20, 30 years, and you’ll probably find them in the same spot. A little fatter and a little balder, perhaps, and visiting a little less frequently too. But still catching up with one another at the cricket every summer, as old friends do, passing the day away in each other’s company.
Because they were hooked, and, like everyone else there, they seemed to relish the rhythm of the day as much as they did the details of the play. The fact that the match was bound to be a draw didn’t matter. Their main worry seemed to be whether or not their bottle of Pimms would last past tea. Championship cricket sometimes feels like sport’s contribution to the slow movement, described by Carl Honoré in his book In Praise of Slowness. “A cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them.” In sport, there is nothing else quite like it.
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