Nobody knows this better than Sunil Gavaskar, and as he gazes at the Oval from the commentary box, it’s likely he does so with mixed feelings The original cricket Master was here in 1971, 52 years ago, fresh from a sensational debut in the West Indies where he made 774 runs in 4 Tests.
In that momentous game, Ajit Wadekar’s India beat England with Chandrasekhar getting 6/38.
But the great man himself had a forgettable match – he bowled one over of seam but made 6 and zero, dismissed both times by John Snow. Years later, at the Oval in 1979, Sunny corrected the record scoring a monumental 221, a truly epic fourth innings knock. But this time India did not win, falling short by eight runs chasing 438. At one stage they needed just 110 in the last 20 overs with nine wickets in hand.
The Oval is steeped in history – and every brick, every stand has a story to tell. The ground goes back to 1845, earlier than Lord’s, its richer and better known venue in London. Compared to Lord’s, Oval is less glamorous and less snooty, but more accessible. Getting club membership is less expensive and far quicker. At Lord’s, if you apply now chances are your grandchild will make it when he becomes an adult.
From a cricket standpoint, the game at the Oval is no less glorious than at Lord’s. It is the home of Surrey county, its cricket bossed by legends Jack Hobbs (60,000 first class runs, 197 hundreds), Alec Bedser (1900 first class wickets), John Edrich (triple hundred in Tests), Ken Barrington (Test average almost 59). Presently, Surrey is the county champion with Sam Curran, Jason Roy, Ollie Pope, Reece Topley and Kemar Roach the main players. Hashim Amla was a Surrey player till last year.
Interestingly, Surrey is a curious mix of the old and the modern. While most of England’s 18 counties struggle financially, Surrey is profitable largely because of its diverse non-cricket revenue from being a preferred venue for conferences and events. The club has adapted to the changing landscape of sport to remain commercially viable.
Its former leaders Richard Thomson and Richard Gould currently hold key positions in the ECB as chairperson and CEO. Alec Stewart (133 Tests) is another Surrey hero. Later, as Surrey’s Director of cricket, he guided the club for almost a decade.
More than other counties, Surrey represents the multi-racial, multi-cultural nature of the UK. This is reflected not only in the background of its 17,000 members, but in other parts of its functioning. Intikhab Alam and Waqar Younis are Surrey all-time stars and the current squad has a fair number of Pakistani origin players. Among women players is Nikki Chowdhary, a fast bowler. Azhar Mehmood, former Pakistan all-rounder, is on the coaching staff as a bowling consultant.
India too is well represented at the Oval. The venue has an India room which showcases great players from the past. Also, till last year, the Udaipur-born Vikram Solanki was head coach of Surrey, a position he resigned to take up the director-cricket role with Gujarat Titans in IPL.