Brian Viner: Kennington's venue of epic deeds

From Bradman's duck to historic wins for India and Pakistan, The Oval has seen it all
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The Independent Online

Whatever unfolds these next five days, whether indeed England's Test cricketers will even need five days to apply one final devastating heave to the tumbling self-confidence of their Indian counterparts, or whether India can resurrect some of their old authority with the bat, if not the ball, one thing is certain: The Oval has a special place in the hearts of Indian cricket lovers old enough to remember 1971, which will not be diminished even by another mauling as comprehensive as that at Edgbaston.

In Kennington 40 years ago this week, India won a Test series for the first time on English soil, igniting celebrations on the subcontinent that lasted for days. India in 1971 was a turbulent and benighted country, on the brink of war with Pakistan and vulnerable to natural disasters such as the cyclone that struck the Bay of Bengal in October, leaving more than 10,000 people dead. So the significance of unprecedented victory over the former colonial masters on a London cricket field can hardly be exaggerated.

Moreover, they did it in style. England's first-innings total of 355 made defeat for the home team seem unthinkable, especially when India mustered 284 in reply. But then came an extraordinary burst of fiery wrist spin from the polio-withered right arm of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, whose six wickets for 38 runs much later bagged him Wisden's award for the Best Indian Bowling Performance of the Century. Brian Luckhurst, John Edrich, Keith Fletcher and skipper Raymond Illingworth were among those deceived by Chandra, as England collapsed to 101 all out in the second innings and subsequently lost by four wickets.

While most of the Indian team went home to a ticker-tape parade, Farokh Engineer, the feisty little wicketkeeper-batsman whose first-innings 59 had done much to keep India in the match, headed back to Manchester, where he was playing for Lancashire the following day in a Roses match. "And when I went out to bat at Old Trafford I was given a standing ovation all the way," he recalled yesterday afternoon, as he climbed out of a taxi outside The Oval. "I had a tear in my eye at such sportsmanship."

What is striking about The Oval as a Test venue is how large it looms, in some cases even larger than Lord's, in the cricketing heritage of countries other than England. Heady as the celebrations may have been in India in 1971, they surely did not match the euphoria felt by the millions huddled around their radios in the infant state of Pakistan on another August day, in 1954.

They had been following the thrilling exploits at The Oval of Fazal Mahmood, and his figures of 12 for 99 resonate still, because they resulted not merely in victory by 24 runs but a drawn series. From a distance of 57 years it does not seem like that much to shout about, yet it meant that Pakistan had been indelibly inked on the map – it was no less symbolic than that – and not long before he died Fazal told The Independent about his return home, of how the train from Karachi to Lahore was repeatedly stopped simply so that villagers could get a glimpse of him, of how 30,000 people awaited him at Lahore railway station, and of how his open-top Pontiac was full of flowers by the time he reached the family home, where he asked his father, Professor Ghulag Hussain, why he had not been at the station. "And my father said, 'I would not have been able to bear the powerful emotional experience'."

Maybe that moving tale lends a shaft of perspective to the exultation that erupted at The Oval and everywhere else in England on 12 September, 2005, not that winning the Ashes for the first time in 18 years seemed that afternoon like insufficient reason to kiss the nearest stranger. And there were similar scenes four years later, when on the fourth day of the fifth Test England magnificently regained the Ashes they had lost so limply in Australia in 2006-07.

It is partly the venerable ground's traditional role as host of the final match in a Test series that has made it the home, more than any other venue in England, of the beer-fuelled knees-up outside the pavilion, yet those knees-ups also owe something to the nature of The Oval itself. As Kennington is to St John's Wood so is The Oval to Lord's, less well-heeled, less correct, but in many ways more characterful, and blessedly lacking the proprietorial airs of the MCC members, some of whom seem to wear their egg-and-bacon ties in NW8 as a reminder that it's their party, to which everyone else, up to and including the players, is a barely-tolerated guest. To put it another way, if English cricket grounds were English cricket captains, Lord's would be Mike Brearley or Colin Cowdrey, genteel, Oxbridge-educated and officer-class, while The Oval would be Alec Stewart or Ian Botham, an NCO with a bit of an accent.

Besides, while Lord's is for ever sacrosanct as the Home of Cricket, The Oval has an even more meaningful place in the sporting life of the nation. It was there that the inaugural FA Cup final took place, in 1872, and there in the same year that England's rugby union players took on Scotland for the first time on their own turf. A decade later, it was also at The Oval that England's cricketers lost for the first time at home to Australia, prompting the famous mock obituary in the Sporting Times of English cricket, "deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances, RIP. NB The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia".

It is enduringly apt, therefore, that many of the greatest deeds in Ashes history should have occurred in the shadow of the old gas-holders. In 1938 it was Len Hutton's 364, the bedrock of England's mammoth first-innings total of 903 for 7 declared. Australia, the team of Bradman, McCabe, Hassett and O'Reilly (though Bradman injured himself in the field and did not bat) lost by an innings and 579 runs. India's efforts at Edgbaston last week might by comparison almost be described as battling.

Ten years after England's humiliation of Australia, which incidentally is still by far the most emphatic Test-match victory of all time, another packed house at The Oval witnessed the most famous non-deed in Ashes history, as the great Bradman, needing only four runs to retire with a Test batting average of 100, succumbed second ball to Eric Hollies. To the first ball, according to John Arlott behind the BBC microphone, Bradman pushed "the ball gently in the direction of the Houses of Parliament, which are out beyond mid-off". Then came the second ball.

"Bradman bowled Hollies 0. Bowled Hollies 0," growled a disbelieving Arlott. "And, what do you say under those circumstances? I wonder if you see the ball very clearly in your last Test in England – on a ground where you've played some of the biggest cricket of your life and where the opposing side has just stood around you and given you three cheers, and the crowd has clapped you all the way to the wicket? I wonder if you really see the ball at all?"

It might be the most replayed snatch of cricket commentary of all time, but for the immortal "Aggers, for goodness sake stop it" exchange between Brian Johnston and Jonathan Agnew, also in Kennington, during England's fifth Test against the West Indies in 1991, after Ian Botham had removed his own bails by failing to get his leg over. Yet there was once a greater, if lesser-known act of mischief at The Oval, when in 1946, for Surrey against Old England and bowling to Frank Woolley, the long-retired maestro making a rare foray back to the crease, Alec Bedser delivered three balls and then surreptitiously handed the ball to his twin, Eric. Evidently Woolley went to his grave believing that Bedser had the remarkable gift of being able to vary his fast-medium pace with off-spin.

And so back to today's Indians, whose own remarkable gifts have been so well-concealed these past few weeks. At a reception on Tuesday evening, the Indian High Commissioner exhorted them to step onto The Oval turf today playing "for the pride of your country" and Farokh Engineer, who was among the guests, believes that his countrymen will rise to the challenge and not allow themselves, this time, to be outplayed by England. "They are fairly optimistic that they can redeem themselves," he reported yesterday. "I asked them to repeat what we did in 1971 and I think they can do it. Certainly, Dhoni is the captain to inspire them, and I also hope and believe Sachin [Tendulkar] will get his hundredth hundred."

Not a few Englishmen hope so too. And if he does, the old ground will rock with appreciation, as it has so many times before.