Nine days on, and what a difference at the Oval

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The Independent Online

Just nine days ago the explosive events at The Oval kept a nation rapt as the England cricket team edged towards a famous victory over Australia in the Ashes. Fans paid over the odds for black-market tickets. The daring and the desperate clung to rooftops outside the ground for a view. Kevin Pietersen's heroic match-winning century on the Test's final day was cheered throughout the land.

That was then. Yesterday all but 2,000 of the 23,000 Oval seats were empty for the final match of the county championship between the relegation-threatened Surrey, the home side, and their fierce rivals Middlesex.

The empty banks of seats starkly underlined the fact that while the national side is currently more popular than its footballing counterpart, the county cricket game from which its stars emerge is still a fringe sport in terms of attendances.

The new OCS stand opposite the main red-brick pavilion, a £25m extension opened this season in time for the fifth Test, was closed. So were many of the bars and lounges that helped to keep England supporters lubricated as the moment of victory approached last week. Surrey County Cricket Club enjoyed revenues estimated at £7m for the five-day Test match against Australia. But four-day county games fail with depressing regularity to make a profit.

Paul Sheldon, the chief executive of Surrey, admitted that it had been a disorientating experience to oversee such fluctuating levels of interest. "It's a bit strange but it doesn't surprise me because there is nothing new about it," he said. "We are not going to spend thousands of pounds on marketing this form of the game when we know it is usually very difficult for children or most adults to get here. I think it is regrettable that we don't have more people but that's the way it is." In common with other clubs, Surrey views the county championship as a talent pool for the national side, the game's cash-cow, which helps to fund the counties via the England and Wales Cricket Board. The average Surrey crowd for such a game is little more than 1,000, each paying about £10 a head. Even the Roses match between Lancashire and Yorkshire, which is one of the highlights of the domestic calendar, attracts only about 10,000.

Instead, clubs rely for their income on international matches, Twenty20 games, a shortened and "funkier" form of the game, and corporate events. Surrey even stages an annual Australian Rules football match, flying the teams in from down under, and is considering hosting baseball matches at The Oval.

In the 1950s, packed houses would have watched the exploits of the multi-championship winning teams of Jim Laker and Peter May. But this week the club, a dominant force in the past decade, looked to be doomed to relegation to the second division as Middlesex scored an impressive 404-5 in the first innings.

"We certainly hope to capitalise on the phenomenal rise in popularity in cricket," Mr Sheldon said. "The way we will do that is by going out to the schools and clubs and helping to coach youngsters." In the meantime, the Ashes summer, and those jubilant sun-drenched crowds are only a memory.