In Next Year’s Exciting Episode … : My Season Ends At The Oval

Surrey v Yorkshire, County Championship, Oval, 27th September 2013

So, officially the end – the last day of the last first-class match of the season, though it proved to be less of a climax, or even an anti-climax, than a sort of coda, or like one of those novels where the publisher tries to interest you in a sequel by appending its first chapter to the end of the book in hand.

When I originally made plans to attend this game, it seemed highly likely that Yorkshire would be confirmed as Champions and Surrey relegated by the end of it.  Since then Yorkshire have been beaten by eventual winners Durham and failed to make up quite enough ground in their other games to overtake them.  Surrey, though, have indeed been relegated.  Both matters were decided by the penultimate round of games, so if I was hoping to witness any scenes of wild jubilation or bitter disappointment I was to be disappointed myself.

I would have enjoyed seeing Yorkshire celebrating a Championship.  I would not, though, have travelled to London specifically to see Surrey relegated, which would have been aa exercise in shadenfreude too far.  There is, though, no avoiding the fact that their demotion has been the occasion for a fair amount of hilarity and general rejoicing around the County circuit.  I suppose this unfortunate juxtaposition rather illustrates the general view of them:

Cash Machines

The current wave of hostility (not that they have ever been very popular) stems from their habit of using their supposedly vast wealth to asset-strip smaller clubs of players such as Tremlett (Hampshire), Davies, Solanki and Batty (Worcestershire), Maynard (Glamorgan), Lewis (Gloucestershire) and (if he can be called an asset at the age of 39) Keedy of Lancashire.  This season they have excelled themselves by acquiring galacticos Graeme Smith and Ricky Ponting to add to the largely theoretical KP and descended into complete self parody by signing Hashim Amla on a short-term contract in a desperate bid to avoid relegation.  Their uncertainty over their future direction is hinted at by the timeline of Surrey history along one of the walls at the Oval, which peters ominously out with the appointment of Rory Hamilton-Brown as Captain in 2010, before disappearing into a gate:

Surrey timeline

All of which is a little unfair.  The old character of the Oval has just about survived the attempt to turn the ground into a kind of Australo-American megastadium: whereas Lord’s sometimes feels like an enchanted kingdom entire unto itself, the Oval, with its ambient music of traffic, aeroplanes and the babble of the playground from Tenison’s School stills tastes entirely of London life and, since I was last there, the view beyond the gasometer has gained a couple of significant additions:

Gasometer, Shard etc

The squad too has some young scions of Surrey – Burns, Dunn, Edwards and Harinath would all have had birth qualifications to satisfy Lord Harris, as does the 18-year-old Dominic Sibley (born in Epsom and educated at Whitgift), who created the main story of the match by becoming the youngest ever double centurion in First-Class Cricket (which, needless to say, I missed).  Whereas at Leicester the talk is all of the need to supplement our young home-grown players with some imported experience, the feeling at Surrey seems to be in the opposite direction, and I had the sense that Sibley’s exploits have sent the Surrey contingent away with more hope in their hearts for next season than regret for the season just passed.

Sibley was out shortly before I arrived on the Friday and Surrey declared soon after to leave Yorkshire 200 to avoid an innings defeat.  Lyth, Lees and Jacques were all out quickly to a mixture of some early September morning movement from Linley and Dunn and some last game absent-mindeness to leave Yorkshire on 21-3.  I thought, at this point, that I would be back at St. Pancras shortly after lunch, but some steady batting by Kane Williamson and a bold counter-attack by Bairstow took them to within sight of safety at 133-5, at which point Gary Ballance (who had already scored one century in the match) took over and steered Yorkshire through with a second and – as far as I can remember – chanceless hundred.  It is hard to know what to say about Ballance’s batting, which is in no way distinctive, except that he has no obvious weaknesses, played seam and – for most of the afternoon – the spin of Ansari and Batty with equal ease and appears to be a model of discipline and solidity, while having the ability to cut loose with a display of physical power when required (as he did with three boundaries in an over off Ansari to reach his century).

It was hard not to make a comparison with Bairstow’s flawed skittishness and, given that Bairstow must suspect that he is about to be supplanted at no. 6 in the England side by his team-mate, it was rather poignant that he was the first to embrace him as he left the field:

Ballance and Bairstow

Whether Geoff Boycott would have been quite so tactile if he had suspected – say – Brian Close was about to take his place in the England side I doubt.  And what “Ticker” Mitchell would have made of all this kissing and cuddling in the Yorkshire ranks doesn’t bear thinking about.

So, there we are.  Yorkshiremen can congratulate themselves on a fine season, and tell themselves that they would have won the Championship if they hadn’t had so many England calls.  Surrey members can retire to Guildford, down a few gins and dream of a new, Sibley-inspired, Golden Age.  England “fans” can look forward to hearing of robust resistance from the middle order in Australia in the small hours of December.  I hope to be back next year.  Winter well, one and all.

I realised, looking back at the photographs I’d taken of the match, that I’d inadvertently made a cameo appearance in one of them myself.  So here I am.  Looking forward or looking back? Hard to say.

Reflections

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