All square, so it's over to the Oval

The final act of this summer's cricket drama will unfold on a perfect stage. Simon O'Hagan reports
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The Independent Online
IF LORD'S is where one goes to be seen, then the Oval is where one goes to see. Other grounds may have more character, or be more conventionally attractive, or more widely loved. But when it comes to cricket on the grand scale - and what, in prospect, could be more epic than the deciding sixth Test between England and the West Indies starting on Thursday? - none in England can match the Oval.

As a county ground, it is a dead loss. Pity the Surrey players who have to motivate themselves in this vast arena when a handful of spectators are watching. But play a Test match there and, as that great Surrey and England man John Edrich says, the atmosphere is electrifying.

It is perhaps the least English of the six Test grounds. Where the others find some greenery in the vicinity by way of concession to the game's rural roots, the Oval is unremittingly urban. Leafy Lord's manages to be a haven within the city, cocooned from the clamour and the concrete beyond. Its poor relation south of the river, for all that it has been modernised in recent years, seems part of an organic whole of which the gasometer and the old London County Council flats - arguably the best residential vantage point in all sport - are merely the most distinctive elements.

Oval Tests are different. Tradition - though not an unbroken one - has been that they come last in a series, and the final outcome that is often at stake heightens the drama. But it's the fag-end of summer, Millwall have just kicked off down the road, and there is melancholy as well as dust in the air. Oval Tests involving the West Indies used to be especially different because of the number of "away" supporters who came. That, sadly, is no longer the case, and there has been much speculation on the socio- economic reasons why south London's second- and third-generation West Indians will not be a significant presence in the stands this week, and have not been for many years now.

My own earliest memory of the Oval is of going past it in a car as an eight-year-old early on the morning of the Saturday of the fifth Test in 1966 - the era of Sobers, Hunte, Butcher, Nurse, Kanhai, Gibbs, Hall and Griffith. The queue of people waiting to get in - the vast majority of them West Indian - seemed to stretch for ever. That was the day, as we could just make out on a crackling Roberts radio on the long journey to Wales, that Tom Graveney scored 165 to set England up for a face-saving victory after they had lost three of the previous four matches.

Contrary to what many people seem to believe, series like that one, when the outcome was decided before England and their opponents reached the Oval, are the exception rather than the rule. There have been 77 Tests at the Oval, of which 67 have been final Tests. Of these, no fewer than 43 have been "live" - i.e. going into them, the series could still be won or saved. What is unprecedented is the pattern of results - two victories each and one draw - that we have had this summer. The nearest parallel is 1955, when England won two Tests, then South Africa won two, before England came back at the Oval to take the series.

Not, by all accounts, that there was anything particularly special about that match, a low-scoring affair, other than the context in which it was played. What we'll be looking for this week is something to add to the list of Great Oval Moments: Fred Trueman's 300th Test wicket in 1964; Derek Underwood's seven for 50 against Australia in 1968 when a thunderstorm looked as if it had scuppered England; India's incredible fourth-innings charge towards the 438 that would have given them victory in 1979 but which ended nine runs short; Ian Botham's record-breaking 356th Test wicket against New Zealand in 1986; Pakistan's 703 in 1987, including 260 for Javed Miandad; Devon Malcolm's nine for 57 against South Africa last year.

As far as England-West Indies Tests at the Oval are concerned, the year that stands out is 1976. A scorching hot summer like this one, it came to a climax with one of the all-time great bowling performances, Michael Holding's eight for 92 that destroyed England on the final morning.

England have had their moments there too, not least Dennis Amiss's 203 in 1976. And then there was the last time they met the West Indies, in 1991 - the year of Phil Tufnell and Ian Botham's winning hit. It's a big place for big men, the Oval. Who will rise to the occasion now?