Published: 15th July, 2017
Earlier this year, cricketing periodical the Nightwatchman published a special edition in honour of The Oval’s impending 100th Test, which is now less than two weeks away.
The issue is still available to buy for just £10, but over the next ten days we will be publishing short extracts from some of its finest articles, where some of the world’s finest cricket journalists have unburdened their soul on what makes our ground such a wonderful and special place.
Today, it’s the turn of Jon Hotten.
The Oval’s Soul
Jon Hotten writes a love letter to the people’s ground
The Oval deserves a love letter. It is a ground of the people. It is vast, by English standards, and it has a sad grandeur about it. It is London’s Leviathan, watched over by its creaking steel sentinel, Gasholder No.1. When I think of it I think of late summer, the final Test, long shadows, the last of things.
If I could watch one innings from all of cricket history, I would choose to watch Grace’s 224 not out for All-England against Surrey at The Oval in 1866. Grace was 18 years old, and about to reshape the game in his image. It was the first of his 126 centuries, and the innings that he interrupted overnight to nip to Crystal Palace to win the 440-yard hurdles, wearing his pink racing knickerbockers. The ground was not old then but a symbol of modernity, and here was the true shock of the new, an innings and a player more significant than any before or since. The last decade has seen nothing short of a revolution in batting, but even this advance was shaped by that innings, played when overarm bowling was new and wickets were minefields, and the whole concept of batsmanship was simply to survive. It was this mindset that Grace was, in his words, “determined to test”, and over two days in Kennington he introduced a philosophical shift that would change cricket forever and usher in its modern form.
Imagine being able to watch that happen. It’s possible to leap across centuries to Kevin Pietersen’s innings of 2005 and know that it’s kindred, fed by the same earth. It had the same spirit – to challenge the bowlers, to challenge the game itself. Four weeks after he made that 224, WG returned to The Oval and scored 173 for the Gentlemen of the South against the Players, an innings said to have been even better, and one in which he hit so fiercely he broke his bat.
How the Grand Old Man must have loved The Oval. He made both of his Test match centuries there, and 20 hundreds in total.