When Geoff left the message on my answerphone I hadn’t seen him in twenty years. And it was a further twenty-five years before that when, as classmates at Trinity School in Croydon, we first met. Now, up at Canary Wharf for the day, he was in a smart suit and we were meeting as fifty-something men for a lunchtime beer. He was the same decent, affable guy he’d always been, and there was a lot to catch up on, but strangely the most important thing we’d done together didn’t come back to me until afterwards. It was with Geoff that I went to my first ever county cricket match.
Back in 1978 we got to the Oval on the 64 bus to Tooting Broadway and then the Tube. Surrey were hosting Somerset, and that first day’s play we saw would have been, I’m now able to verify thanks to Cricket Archive.com, 31 May: half term. The year before A-levels, I believe, which means Geoff’s children are already older than we were then.
The Oval – just the definite article – was still a cricket ground in those days, and a rather ramshackle one at that. I do recall from that fine sunny day the dry, brown, scabby outfield, but also – something it would retain for some years on future visits – a feeling of oasis: you walked in from the traffic of the Kennington Road to behold, improbably, a vast, open cricket field. Memory says it was that same day that The Times (why I would have seen a copy I have no idea) carried an advertising supplement for the brand-new Mound Stand there, a grey, concrete bunker-like construction with – fanfare – corporate hospitality provision.
And these were the days – the golden age, really – when you turned up for a county game and a generous cross-section of the game’s finest players routinely took the field in front of you. John Edrich was still opening the batting for Surrey, along with the New Zealand Test opener Geoff Howarth. Surrey also had two Pakistani Test cricketers in the side, the middle-order batsman Younis Ahmed and the spinner and Test captain Intikhab, as well as two more England caps, Robin Jackman and Pat Pocock. No Ian Botham for Somerset, for some reason, but still Brian Rose and Peter Roebuck. Oddly I’d had no recollection of Viv Richards taking part until I found the scorecard on Cricket Archive, and then I suddenly had an image of Geoff turning to me and cheering, fist-clenched, as the great man was soon sent back to the pavilion for a handful (8, to be precise: caught by Roger Knight in the slips, it must have been, off Jackman).
Somerset lost wickets steadily from the start, Denis Breakwell eventually anchoring the innings with a painstaking 92 and missing out on a maiden first-class century lofting Pat Pocock into the deep. Cricket Archive will tell you that they took 92 overs to inch to 225 all out – the kind of total frequently posted in a T20 these days. Less than two and a half runs an over.
And I remember the two of us being utterly rapt. Geoff had brought his hardback scorebook along and recorded every single delivery. It was slow going, I could see even then, but because it was such a close-fought contest. I have a memory of Robin Jackman, having bowled all day, 24 overs altogether, squatting on his haunches in exhaustion before picking himself up for one last go at removing the tail, which he did, finishing with 5 for 63. That’s what it took to get Somerset out. Every run scored, and yielded, was precious. The game ebbed and flowed; bat and ball were evenly matched: these were good cricketers, playing hard. It didn’t matter that there were no pyrotechnics to thrill the young people.
Thirty-seven years later almost to the day, I was at the Kia Oval again, for an afternoon of Surrey against Middlesex a couple of weeks ago in the Specsavers County Championship. Now I found myself in a stadium, with the spaceship parabola of the OCS Vauxhall End extending round to the Ken Barrington Centre and the Mound (now Lock & Laker) Stand in two brand new sweeps of seating. It wasn’t all quite finished, the member of the groundstaff who directed me to the shop told me, “but it’ll be ready in time for the T20.” So I went for a nose around the bit next to the Mound where he said there was an amazing view.
At the top level, I came out into The Garden, an astroturfed terrace looking out over several rows of upholstered seats each with their own drink holder, attractively planted round with vines and grasses: a place for Pimm’s, cocktails and bubbly, surely. The cricket, with the wicket pitched far over, seemed miles away. The new seating opposite was too high any longer to see the red buses heading down the Harleyford Road. The outfield was as green and glowing as a snooker table. Underneath the OCS end, during the tea interval, I found the conference facility hosting The 12th International Conference of Turbochargers and Turbocharging. On the piazza beyond the pavilion end where the car park used to be there were olive trees in planters. At a quarter to five the floodlights came on.
County cricket grounds often used to be dumps: those squalid subterranean bogs at Hove; the splintery planks of wood straight from the builder’s yard to sit on at Northlands Road; the semi-derelict football end at Northampton – nothing to mourn there. This ground had been modernised, in parts palatially, and greened, but also brought back to its history, with handsome new wrought-iron Jack Hobbs Gates and interpretation panels around the Vauxhall End commemorating all the great Surrey players of yore. Who could object to any of that?
But why did I find myself watching the stadium, and not the cricket? There were schoolchildren in on a visit, not as old as Geoff and I had been, but hundreds of them, in perhaps half a dozen different uniforms, who swarmed and pullulated like bees up and down the rows of seats, in a bright hubbub of shrieks and laughter. They were having a whale of a time, but they weren’t watching the cricket. In this great bowl that distant county match seemed dwarfed, lost, as did we sprinkling of spectators. But also it seemed colourless, suddenly an unfathomable ritual: Surrey’s tail subsided lamely in their first innings, managing to fall 4 short of avoiding the follow-on – and then their openers batted out the rest of the day without a stumble. What was happening, and why? I didn’t even know who any of the players were, or at least care. It didn’t seem to belong here. I’m sure those brand new stands would have been full for the T20, and the crowds would have been as loud and rambunctious as those schoolchildren.