While we wait, and wait, and wait for the baseball season finally to get some traction, it behooves me to mention that back across the pond in the Mother Country our English brethren are feeling just as antsy about the shutdown of the cricket season. As a culturally amphibious fan of both games, I thought I might share some memories of my favorite cricket game which occurred a couple of years ago on a beautiful August afternoon in London. I’ll try to make the game as comprehensible in a short span as possible but, with centuries of evolution behind it and a rich lexicon all its own, I’ll also leave some gaps in hopes of encouraging some of you with active curiosities to look into the game a little more closely. It’s great fun.
Kennington Oval, or simply “The Oval,” is a venerable cricket ground in Lambeth on the south bank of the Thames. It was originally built in 1845 as the home of the Surrey Cricket Club and has been the site of legendary regional, national and international test matches too numerous to mention. Not long ago the board of the club succumbed to the nauseating practice of renaming the ground in a corporate sponsorship. You can go look up the current name if you want. I will not mention it here.
Let me first set the scene:
Most Americans who don’t know the game of Cricket know things like it can go on for days, if not geological epochs. This is really true; only the most dedicated of aficionados still relish those interminable test matches anymore. In this impatient era the game as it was, was losing its cachet and attendance was down. The Lords of Cricket—notice how much more natural “lords” sounds in the Commonwealth—created the 20/20 or T20 game, in which each team plays one innings restricted to 20 overs. A T20 usually takes about three hours to play, with each inning lasting around 90 minutes with a ten- to fifteen-minute break. It horrified the purists at first but interest and attendance surged. And you can go home on the same day the game starts.
You reach...er...one reaches The Oval via underground (mind the gap!), departing South Kensington station...
...a breezy five-minute walk from our London flat at Chelsea Cloisters (our annual summer “home away from home”) on a District or Circle Line train, changing at Embankment station to the Northern Line and thence a few stops southward to Oval station, thence across the street to the ancient cricket palace in all its glory. If like me you’re a visiting American with a sense of history you can’t keep the old place from exerting its spell over you as you enter the ancient gate:
My ol’ pal Dave Holloway drove down from Sheffield with the tickets. After a breakfast of eggs Florentine and chocolate croissants at Bibendum at the top of Fulham Road we tubed it to Oval station and walked through an elegant neighborhood of Victorian flat blocks and entered by the pavillion gate, where we were immediately solicited by a few “Save the Rhinoceros” activists, duly donating a couple of quid to a good cause. Thence to the obligatory ale bar for a glass of the “house” ale, Greene Park (or some such thing) IPA, which, to be honest, is awful. Think Budweiser in a country of which you have grown to expect better from its beer. It was fizzy water for me from then on.
Yes, you can get hot dogs—British sausages, really, which were once described by the classic political satire series Yes, Minister as “unemulsified high fat offal tubes.” Much of the food at these games has been Americanized, including hamburgers, chips (i.e. French fries), fried fish fillets, and then more London-like fare like curries, meat pies and pickled onions. It may affect an American digestive system a little differently than the ballpark fare back home. Be warned.
We came up through the grandstand tunnel to a splendidly sun-drenched green oval (the shape of the cricket ground, hence, “Oval”) on which the teams in their Chlorox whites were taking batting, bowling and fielding practice. The cricket ground in a professional club’s stadium is as green and spectacular as a baseball diamond but of course you have to accustom yourself to the shape. Like the diamond, it is a charm of geometries, the rectangular pitch contrasting with the circular or oval field which can be anywhere from 65 to 90 yards long and wide. Runs can be scored in bunches if the ball is batted over the outer boundary on a fly or bounced to the boundary before a fielder can get to it. Otherwise, the batter must run back and forth the length of the pitch, a distance of 22 yards each way, to score his runs before the fielder returns the ball to the defenders at the pitch.
The warm sunny day, so oddly un-London, encouraged the fair maidens of the Angel Isle to attend in all manner of short hemmed, low-cut sun dresses, adding to the general feeling of relaxation and contentment as an elephant walk of A-380 superjumbos lolled across the sky on their way to Heathrow, hemorrhaging operating expenses. In conversation with some of the cricket fans sitting around us (“‘Ey! You a Yank?? Come far ‘ave you?”) we learned that there had recently been a test match and then a women’s cricket feature at the grounds and the surface of the pitch, the long rectangle of usually packed earth or artificial turf between the bowler and the batter, was likely soft and rough, not great for fast bowlers. This is because the bowler bounces the ball in front of the batter, using speed, angle, and spin to achieve a variety of effects to the bounce. A soft pitch normally dulls the movement of the ball and makes it a bigger target for the batsman. A slow bowler, on the other hand, can use the same techniques of spin, velocity and angle to deaden the ball so the batsman swings over it. This bowler is right at home with a softer pitch.
In fact this proved to be the undoing of Sussex Sharks’ fast bowler David Wiese, pummeled for a century (a total of 100 uninterrupted runs scored by a batsman) by Surrey’s Australian cricketeer Aaron Finch, who crushed seven sixes (i.e. hit on a fly into the stands, one of which was a monster shot that sailed well over our heads) and seven fours (bounced or rolled along the ground to the boundary line around the field without being interdicted by a fielder). The Sharks’ Chris Nash batted a half century in his over but Surrey bowler Gareth Batty took his wicket (that little Blair Witch-like construction of sticks behind the batter) with a yorker, a bowled ball that bounces right at the batsman’s feet, to end the threat. Poor bloke almost spun off his feet trying to inside-out that ball.
Finally Sussex prevailed, 193 for 2 to 176 for 7. As the ninth…eh, I mean, second innings wound down and it became apparent Surrey wasn’t going to catch up, we left a little early to beat the crowds to the tube, and headed back to South Kensington for a superb nouveau-Levantine dinner at Ceru on Butte Street, a couple of short blocks down Brompton Road from the underground station. The memory of their sublime roasted pears in an orange blossom infused harissa yogurt with a lemon, cardamom, cinnamon and rose water sauce would stay with me all the way home to Miami the next day.
So: I got my classic summer London vacation, complete with cricket, theater (we saw the RSC production of Queen Ann at the Theater Royal Haymarket), lots of varied cuisines in the culinary fantasyland the museum district of South Kensington has become, and ackcherley made it through two solid weeks without once leaving my umbrella someplace.