The urn is going back with Australia but England can focus on maintaining the visitors’ winless run of series since 2001. © Getty
No one knows how to put on a shindig quite like the Oval.
The anointed (and self-proclaimed) people’s ground, it often takes cues from it’s shirt-and-tie rivals north of the river and follows a different path. The values of cricket are held dear with the plaques documenting Surrey and England’s rich history on the inside of the outer walls, not to mention the gasometers which gives this venue an extra touch of recognition. But they know how to throw a celebration.
Their Twenty20s are some of the most well-attended in the country. And while there has been complaints there regular clientele see-off more than they actually see, the club have created a more family-orientated vibe this term. That should be reflected in the crowds for this final Ashes Test.
Activities around the game will be plentiful, including Chance To Shine’s appeal day on Friday (day two), with various stalls around the ground as well as collections for the charity which the ECB will match. The lyricist Tim Rice has also pledged to donate GBP 15,000 for a century and five-wicket haul, and GBP 5,000 for a fifty or three wickets. Perhaps on his accountant’s orders, it is specifically for England players.
If you are attending, you’ll get to choose your own adventure to cap off what feels like one of the longest summers in English cricket. Either enjoy the fun and bonhomie of a Royal Wedding street party or revel in the crescendo of a hall-of-fame bar crawl culminating at one of the game’s best watering holes.
The cricket often delivers, too. Last year gave us the trio of “I was there” moments of Alastair Cook’s farewell hundred, James Anderson nipping past Glenn McGrath on the wicket-takers charts and Rishahb Pant blitzing the first of what will hopefully be many Test centuries.
In 2017, Moeen Ali finished off South Africa with a hat-trick and, the year before that, Younis Khan’s 218 gave English fans the chance to consume and congratulate a modern great. They really do get spoiled here.
But something feels different this time. And it will have something to do with the fact the Ashes are gone. This is no dead rubber, as it was in 2013 and 2015.
Both occasions the urn was safe but these matches, while not played at full tilt, did at least present English fans down south with a chance to congratulate their heroes with huge ovations. Even Australia used it as an opportunity to find comfort. Steve Smith notched his first hundred in 2013 and 2015 was the first of six wins in seven Tests, which only a Ben Stokes miracle act prevented from extending to seven in eight.
No matter what, the urn is going back with Australia, not coming home like the World Cup. Even Stokes, pride of the kingdom, is merely half the man he was last week. He plays as a specialist batsman only. Even then, one imagines the right-shoulder holding him back will effect his work with the bat.
The smile has gone from Joe Root, too. His pre-match press conference addressed all the usual queries urn-spurning captains field.
Who is to blame? Are you the right man to lead? Do you even want to? What of the players – should they be stripped and paraded through the streets in a storm of rotten fruit and veg?
Perhaps a simpler question should have been asked – “Are you OK?” His opposite number Tim Paine, impressive throughout with a microphone in front of him, was gracious enough to offer empathy Root’s way.
Nevertheless, here England are, at a familiar venue with alien emotions. A location brimful of love that may, if tested, drone out in groans if there are more home batting woes to groan about. Even on day-minus-one, there was a hint that whatever bunting is to be hung out needed to be tempered by the mood of the hosts.
A moment that encapsulated the sombre nature of today came when members of the public were scolded for standing in front of the nets when England were batting on Wednesday morning.
It was here, just two months ago, when England’s ODI side paraded the World Cup the Monday after they secured it at Lord’s. Such was the turnout that The Oval had to impose impromptu barriers to ensure the huge crowds were safe. Some fans were “stranded” in the stands in front of the Archbishop Tenison School and, having been spotted, a handful of England players made their way over to pose for selfies and sign all sorts.
Even here, those fans were only trying to get a closer look at the players who have done so much for them, unaware they were causing such interference. It was nothing to be taken personally, and not a complaint to be taken much more seriously beyond the context it was in.
Nonetheless, it was indicative of the agitation around the England set-up. The summer has been long and the players have given a lot of themselves. But it has taken much, too.
This is no dead rubber and the Ashes, as a series, are not gone. England can, and should, focus on maintaining Australia’s winless run of series since 2001.
The question, though, is how much does anyone have left?