The first day of summer

The sound of leather on willow? No, the first day of the county cricket season was marked by the sound of drizzle falling on damp grass

It's nearly midday, and the traditional sights and sounds of a brand-new English summer are all around. That is to say: dirty clouds drift low over the rusty south London gasworks; traffic and building machinery roar relentlessly; and the Oval cricket ground is more or less empty.

It's nearly midday, and the traditional sights and sounds of a brand-new English summer are all around. That is to say: dirty clouds drift low over the rusty south London gasworks; traffic and building machinery roar relentlessly; and the Oval cricket ground is more or less empty.

Specifically: blocks 1 to 20 - 270 degrees of the stadium's circle - are entirely empty. So is the Peter May stand (another 10 degrees). There are 12 people in the Laker stand, three (including me) in the Lock stand, three in the Bedser stand and about 50 in the Pavilion stand, which completes the circle. Many of these people turn out, on inspection, to be stadium staff; I think the officials may outnumber the public. It would be neat to add that the cricketers outnumber the public, but there aren't, at the moment, any cricketers.

It isn't actually raining, but it has been drizzling for much of the morning, and, an hour after the official start-time, there's a cold wetness in the air that suggests more to come. Old raindrops linger on the edges of the turned-up plastic seats, and there are puddles on the concrete below. Anorak collars are turned up; as, in some cases, are hoods. It's a bit like being on the deck of a cross-Channel ferry.

As for the pitch, it is wrapped in grey-green covers, with a few ground staff standing moodily around. "We're hoping to start at about 1.40pm," says the lady selling scorecards. "So perhaps there'll be some more along later." I hope she's right. This is supposed to be a red-letter day in the sporting calendar: the opening of the county cricket season, and, in some minds, the true beginning of the English summer. It's doubtful, however, that more than one sports fan in 20 will be aware of the day's significance. It's not immediately obvious what the other 19 are missing.

"We should have started out later," say Graham Cox, a railway worker from Newton Abbot who came up from Devon on the 7.30am train and is halfway through his first pint. "We'd seen the forecast. Still, it's clearing up."

"It would be better if it could be fine now and rain later," says his friend, Chris Wade. "Then we could get back in time to watch the football."

By the time they get home, Graham and Chris will have spent six hours travelling. ("But the tickets are free, because of work.") Was it worth the journey? "Definitely," says Chris. "I do this as often as I can. People at work think I'm mad - I don't know anyone else who likes county cricket. But I love it. My father used to take me when I was a kid and I was hooked. I must be old-fashioned."

Barring a spectacular reversal of recent trends, scarcely half a million people will go to traditional county cricket matches this season. Modern cricket-lovers prefer the more action-packed pleasures of the one-day game, or, failing that, the glamour of Test matches, which are not the rarity they once were. Yet there are still some people for whom the word "cricket" denotes the kind of four-day ritual that is supposed to be being enacted before us now.

"County cricket is much- maligned sport," says Chris. "I admit, you don't get much atmosphere at a big ground like this. And there's always the weather, of course. But it's still a great day out. It's a different game - a different rhythm." That rhythm can only be described as slow. Moving on to the Laker stand (revised population: nine) I make the following notes:

12.35: PA system brings us up to date on the rest of the day's cricket. Still no play at Chelmsford; Worcestershire 87 for one against Derbyshire.

12.40: Some tracksuited players appear on the pitch and start warming up. Then they disappear.

12.45: Bloody hell, it's cold.

12.46: The numbers on the scoreboard, which previously all said 888, flick noiselessly to 999.

12.54: Aeroplanes seem to be wheeling above us every two minutes, before heading upwind for Heathrow. If you think about them, you can hear them. Otherwise, the noise is lost in all the thundering, clanging and whirring of the local building sites. Feels as if it is about to rain.

1pm: All but two of the people in our stand are sitting alone. The female half of the one couple - a small, middle-aged lady - appears to be getting on her partners' nerves. "Is that why you wanted to come back?" she keeps asking. "To see how it had all changed?" "I think," he says, "that I might go for a quick wander."

1.10pm: The Laker stand now contains more pigeons than people. Many of the people are having lunch - think sandwiches, Thermoses and plastic carrier bags - and the birds are picking irritably for crumbs.

1.15pm: Sussex have won the toss, says the PA system.

1.30pm: The players appear. Applause.

1.38pm: A drop of rain.

1.40pm: Match starts.

1.53pm: A patch of blue sky appears above the half-finished OCS stand on the far side of the ground. A single blackbird is singing, above the piledrivers and drills and grinding lorries.

2.13pm: Something happens. One of the Sussex players is out. Caught, I think. The burst of applause is sharp but short. Several people eagerly record the dismissal on their scorecards.

2.16pm: Patch of blue sky has vanished. Temperature plummeting. Two of the 11 people now in the stand are immersed in books: one in Wisden, the other in Playfair Cricket Annual 2005. If you don't count me, that's 10 per cent of the audience, not watching.

2.33pm: Someone else is out. Applause.

2.45pm: I spot a non-white face in the Peter May stand - the first I've seen that doesn't belong to a steward or a player.

3pm: Several people leave.

3.15pm: Get a coffee from the Middle Bar. "Nice one," says the barman. "It's the only way to keep yourself warm."

3.30pm: Fingers so numb I can scarcely write. Menacing clouds looming. More people leave. And so on, for the rest of the day and, for the truly dedicated, for three more days to come. Can anyone really be enjoying this?

"Yes, it's great," says Anthony Jones, a pensioner from Rotherhithe, beaming through crooked teeth. "Young people don't understand the game, but it's marvellous. I come when I can - you get used to the cold. Mind you, it isn't cheap - £10, they charge now. That's nearly as much as watching Milwall. Just look around you, though - marvellous."

And so I do, and, to keep warm, wander around, marvelling at the quiet, self-contained people, whiling away their Wednesday in quiet contemplation while, outside the ground, the rest of the metropolis roars and rushes around them. A few are deep in conversation - one pair are chattering loudly about how inconsiderate people are who talk on mobile phones in cricket grounds - but most speak only when spoken to. The stories they tell are broadly similar - retired, unemployed, taking the day off, learnt to love the game as a child ... But the overwhelming impression they leave is of silence - and, despite the cold, of happiness.

I have no idea how the cricket clubs sustain this sort of occasion - apparently it's all to do with preparing players for Test cricket, which is where the real money comes from. But there's something seductive about a summer spectator sport that continues so blithely in the absence of either spectators or, today, summer. In fact, as the day approaches its close - the rain still holding off - I am almost beginning to enjoy myself, sharing in the collective trance of the few hundred people who have defied common sense to shiver in the south London damp while watching not very much happen.

"Young people don't understand," repeats Anthony Jones. "And it's not really that cold, is it?" To prove his point, he holds his hand against my cheek. It is icy.

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