Hence, necessity being the mother of invention, the Oval can also be regarded as the English home of the slower ball. Jade Dernbach did so much to popularise his particular form of that delivery, releasing it out of the back of the hand, his wrist twisted 180 degrees; and Tom Curran too. When Liam Plunkett joined Surrey, he had a sympathetic environment in which to prepare for England’s World Cup victory.
Not only the modern home, however. Ranjitsinhji, no less, thought Lockwood the most difficult bowler he ever faced because of his slower ball. “It took the cricket world by storm when it made its first appearance,” wrote WA Bettesworth in 1898. “The bowler has mastered an extremely difficult art of changing from very fast to slow without apparently altering his action in the slightest degree.”
CB Fry proclaimed: “Lockwood was medium size [5’ 10” in fact], well-built, loose-shouldered, and he had a long bounding run and a lovely action”, and both he and his partner Tom Richardson “on the truest wicket could break the ball back from outside the off-stump to hit the leg.” I wish we had footage of these ancients, or even a photograph of Lockwood’s grip for the slower ball; or could listen in on a zoom call between Curran, Dernbach, Plunkett and Lockwood.
The sheer numbers of Lohmann and Richardson are staggering. Lohmann still tops the all-time Test bowling averages with his 112 wickets at only 10.75 each, bowling all sorts of medium-pace. From 1886 to 1892 inclusive he took more than 150 first-class wickets a season, and twice in that time he also toured Australia and bowled most of the winter too. Surrey, and Alcock, used their resources to send Lohmann to South Africa to rehabilitate when he got TB, but he was burned out and died aged 36.
Bowling pace, flat out, did not do much for Richardson’s longevity either. In three consecutive seasons in the mid-1890s he delivered more than 1,300 overs and took, respectively, 290, 246 and 273 first-class wickets – with a tour of Australia on either side in which he did most of the bowling in the five Tests. Who bowls more than 8,000 balls in a competitive summer nowadays? He was dead at 41.
County cricket’s biggest draw
Some people dislike Surrey, for their strutting in the past or their signings in the present. I have a soft spot for every county. I used to go to the Oval quite regularly around 1970. My stepmother was not wicked but she was unable to cope with marriage, at any rate to my father, and her flat in London was not my idea of home. It was painted dark green and I have hated dark green ever since. She would stub her cigarettes out in a plate of food and hit the sherry bottle. Contemporaries headed to the Isle of Wight festival or the south of France to indulge teenage desires, while I took the Northern line and sat on the empty terracing.
Robin Jackman, the Cockney Sparrow as Alan Gibson dubbed him, ran in a long way, scattering the pecking pigeons; and the wily Intikhab — he was always “wily” or else “burly” — would wheel away. The Oval was the ideal place after visiting the dentist, before the anaesthetic had worn off. This cricket was as far as could be from village greens, flowers and cream teas. It was either the Oval or back to that flat, if she hadn’t trashed it, and listen to Leonard Cohen.
The liveliest place to watch county cricket day-in day-out must have been the Oval before the First World War. The quality of air would not have been great with all the belching chimneys of the South Bank and buses fuming, although the stage was never reached when play was suspended for air pollution, as it has been of late in Delhi. But there was not only great bowling to be seen; and Hobbs at his peak (he scored more centuries after the First World War, but only because the standard of bowling had naturally plummeted); and Abel the Guv’nor; and Hayward (who never made a pair until his final game when he was run out and cried in the dressing-room), but the crowd itself to observe.
The biggest attendance for a county match — no precise number because members did not have to go through turnstiles — has probably been that for the Surrey v Yorkshire match in 1906: more than 80,000 attended the Oval over the three days, including 66,923 who paid for admission, plus members. Never has the county championship bulked so big in the British consciousness as it did at the turn of the last century but one. “Cricket has never been more popular than it is now, and for much of this popularity the skilled county teams in their keen competition for the championship are responsible,” declared The Times in 1896.
So large were the crowds that a poet made a living out of them. In the West Indies a generation ago a record would be quickly made to commemorate an event on the cricket field, but Albert Craig would compose a poem the same day, and print it on a hand-press he carried with him, selling the sheet to spectators for two pence. To give Craig credit, he never called himself “the Surrey poet” or even a poet at all, only “a rhymester”. The following, to mark Hobbs’s 162 against Worcestershire at the Oval in 1906, gives the flavour:
Joy reigns supreme amongst the Surrey throng,
Patrons break out in one triumphant song;
Young Hobbs we loved as hero of today,
Gaily he steers along his conquering way.
Instant verse, however clanking, must add to a sporting occasion, as much as a few tweets. I like the fact that Craig used to say that anyone could write verse like his but that it took talent to make people cough up tuppence to buy it. The Prince of Wales sent a letter to Craig when he was gravely ill. Abel organised his funeral, and it has always been rare for players to care much about their supporters — until they started ringing around county members at the start of Covid. So Craig must have struck a chord.
It was a man in the Oval crowd who was captured for posterity by Dudley Carew, who was rich enough to go round the country watching cricket in 1926 when the General Strike was on. He went to the Oval for a game and, so he wrote in his diary of that season England Over, met “an elderly man who will talk to you for as long as you care to listen of Abel and Richardson, Lohmann and Lockwood. One notices the square-toed, unpolished boots, the rucked waistcoat with the spot or two of grease on it, the clean, ill-fitting collar, and one wonders, if one has an inquisitive mind, what manner of life this man has led… Who is his God, and what in life or in death does he most fear? One wants desperately to pierce to the reality behind the clothes and talk, and it is only after one has been listening to him for some time that one begins to realise that the reality may lie precisely in those words — “Abel,” “boundary,” “slow-bowler” — he is perpetually muttering… Looking at the particular old man to whom I spoke, the conviction grew on me that this was reality for him, this ground, this score-board and these slim, yellow stumps, and that he would carry out with him into the darkness, not the recollection of a women’s lips against his own or of the laboured, weakening breath of a child, but rather of Richardson walking back to begin his run or of Hobbs lifting his cap after completing his century.”
England expect, Surrey supplies
Surrey’s playing staff was somewhat depleted at the start of last season:
- Hashim Amla – Stuck in SA, could not get visa or flights
- Gus Atkinson – Still rehabbing (back)
- Gareth Batty – Unavailable for red ball
- Scott Borthwick – Available
- Rory Burns – England bubble
- Rikki Clarke – Available
- Jordan Clark – Available (suffered side strain in the first BWT game and subsequent ankle injury, out until T20 Finals Day)
- Sam Curran – England bubble
- Tom Curran – England bubble
- Jade Dernbach – Injured (groin, out for the season)
- Matt Dunn – Available
- Laurie Evans – Still with Sussex
- Ben Foakes – England bubble
- Will Jacks – Available
- Nick Kimber – Injured (back and knee patella tendonitis, out for the season)
- Conor McKerr – Injured (knee, required an operation, out for the season)
- Daniel Moriarty – Available
- Morne Morkel – Stuck in Sydney, couldn’t get visa or flights. Once he arrived, required ankle operation after standing on a ball having played one game. Has now returned to South Africa
- Jamie Overton – Still with Somerset
- Ryan Patel – Available (subsequently suffered knee injury which required an operation and put him out for the season)
- Liam Plunkett – Injured (hamstring)
- Ollie Pope – England bubble
- Nico Reifer – Stuck in Barbados
- Jason Roy – England bubble
- Jamie Smith – Available
- Mark Stoneman – Available
- James Taylor – Available
- Reece Topley – England bubble
- Amar Virdi – Available
So last season Surrey had seven players in one England bubble or the other. No other county laboured under such a handicap. It is therefore to some extent understandable, and justifiable, that Surrey should use their unique resources to sign more players from other counties and countries than anybody else.
But the other viewpoint should be considered. When Surrey visited Durham in 2016 and Alec Stewart took Scott Borthwick and Mark Stoneman out to dinner and made them an offer they did not refuse, Durham supporters said goodbye to the first division of the county championship. They finished fourth in 2016, their 11th consecutive season in the first division. In 2017 they were demoted, as might have been predicted, having lost two proven batsmen at the top of their order, and being in no financial position to replace them. Some Durham supporters will not live to see their side return to the first division.
In the whole history of the county championship nobody has had any reasonable objection when one county has come along and signed a player of another county who has not been able to find a regular place in his first team. When Surrey signed Jamie Overton last season, there was an argument that he wanted to take the new ball, and that would be the best thing for him and perhaps eventually England. But in the Bob Willis Trophy final the pitch at Lord’s was less responsive to seam than the county pitches on which Somerset had played their qualifying games. Had Overton still been available, they might have looked at the immense obstacle that is Sir Alastair Cook and decided the extra pace of the two Overtons with the new ball was the likeliest way of dismissing him early, instead of Josh Davey’s seam-up accuracy. Somerset supporters could also feel aggrieved at Surrey for depriving them, not of their first championship title, but of the stepping-stone to it, the Bob Willis Trophy.
It was different when Surrey signed two of the first three batsmen to score 100 centuries. Cambridgeshire was one of cricket’s earliest nurseries: the university and its colleges needed skilled cricketers to maintain grounds and coach and bowl at students. Hayward’s father Daniel was in charge of Parker’s Piece, “a huge responsibility given that more than 40 cricket clubs played there during the summer” according to Leo McKinstry in his biography of Hobbs, England’s Greatest Cricketer. But Cambridgeshire did not have the ground and crowds to support a professional team, so Hayward went to the Oval and arranged for Hobbs, the son of a college servant, to follow him (after Essex had rejected an approach by Hobbs, without giving him a trial).