AUSTRALIA TOUR OF ENGLAND, 2018
Fans at the Oval bantering Australia’s fielders with sandpaper during the 1st ODI. © Getty
There’s a degree of smugness that comes with travelling to the Oval and getting out at Vauxhall tube station. The understandable mistake is to reach the station with the same name as the stadium.
As the escalators take you up from the platforms to ground level at Oval, classical music hits your ears as cricket-themed mosaics come into view, right before you’re greeted by the book donation housed on black grate shelves. Close by, a whiteboard features a “Thought of the Day” that, at the very least, leaves you walking through the ticket gates wondering if “advanced calligraphy” is a required skill for a job on the London Underground.
Out the door, it’s a short turn and bang – there it is: the sandblasted brickwork of the Surrey Pavilion staring back at you over the tops of the glistening Hobbs Gate. Skip across the road, stroll through and you’re in, with time to spare. The reality is very different. On match days, it’s a free-for-all.
If the impatient crowd doesn’t get you, the heat will. Punters jostle for position on the elevators, security herding you to the exits like cattle. The library is nowhere to be seen and the sweat of the hoards coat the cricketers on tiles as if they have had a day in the dirt. By contrast, Vauxhall flows smoothly. There are crowds, yes, but space and an extra elevator to deal with them.
The sun hits as you walk out, and though your route to the ground is longer and not as pretty, a couple of watering holes along the way make the walk more amenable. There is no one ushering you on your way, just a straight road and ample opportunity to sip the hour away before the first ball is bowled. Some don’t even make it into the ground in time for that. On Wednesday, ahead of the opening ODI between England and Australia, it could not have been smugger.
“GET YOUR SANDPAPER!” bellowed a handful of volunteers as they handed out small yellow sheets – one part viral marketing to two parts “stick it up ’em”. Each a meme come to life. Each recipient a retweet. They were waving them outside the Beehive pub, like referees cautioning the wind, fervently when an Australian jersey or anything else in canary yellow was spotted. Just before entering the ground by the Alec Stewart Gates, an A4 size card with Steve Smith’s agony-ridden face under which the caption read “We’re only here for the tears.” Most of them were.
Perhaps it was the handshakes. Perhaps it was because the protagonists – Smith, Cameron Bancroft and panto-villain extraordinaire David Warner – were not in attendance. Perhaps it was because some of the sandpaper was confiscated by stewards at the gate. Or perhaps it was that England were only set 215 and, in winning by three wickets with six overs to spare, neither flexed their muscles nor fell flat on their faces. But the humiliation never materialised, nor the occasion to point and laugh at what Australia had become. What they were. Shorn of five first XI players, this was an Australia side that has never been.
Even the cheers that greeted Australia’s fall to 90 for 5 in the 20th over were subdued. Fans stuck in that quandary only cricket fans find themselves in: win, sure, but not too quickly. We paid good money for these seats. When they decided to boo Glenn Maxwell – your guess is as good as mine – he responded with an immaculate half-century that earned his side some respect.
Up on the roof of the OCS terrace, used on match days to entertain corporate dignitaries, ECB head honchos and friends and families of the players, a couple of cat calls were tossed around as England were reduced to 38 for 3 in their innings. A disgruntled, well-sauced soul objected to particularly exuberant celebration from one of the fielders. Immediately came the defence: “Oh no, don’t say that. I’ve met him. He’s lovely.”
There was one fleeting moment when the guffawing threatened to flood the stands. Tim Paine, chasing a top-edge, put in a valiant dive – fell flat on his face – and dropped the ball. Jos Buttler, on five, the man you should never drop, was the lucky recipient. It didn’t matter though. A run later, Buttler was undone by a Andrew Tye knuckle ball, finding the hands of mid on.
And so the game whimpered out. A fan valiantly tried to start an “Aussie Aussie Aussie – Cheat Cheat Cheat” chant going, but thrice failed to garner any momentum, as David Willey got behind a length ball and pushed it back to the bowler. Over the failed jibe came a louder, more purposeful growl: “Come on, England, you need SEVEN, you d*cks!”
It was only online, when former coach Darren Lehmann objected to a bit of basic reporting from BBC’s Alison Mitchell, that fires really got stoked. Even then, they were doused with a whimper. Nevertheless, the redemption tour cracks on – to Cardiff, Nottingham, Durham and Manchester.
Here in London, they came for a public shaming and all they got was a game of cricket. And not a particularly good one.