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‘It’s lovely to be here’: county cricket fans return to the Oval | Sport



It was only 10.30 on a quiet Sunday morning in Kennington, south London, but the beers were already flowing. And for good reason.

After four months of cardboard cutouts warming the seats of silent stadiums across the UK, spectators finally returned in the flesh to sport for a friendly county cricket fixture between Surrey and Middlesex at the Oval.

“It has been the highlight of the lockdown, as it were,” said Neil Fraser, who attended alongside his partner, Jenny. “This has been something that I’ve missed – we’ve been waiting for cricket to come back and this is the first time we have been out in the whole time.”

They were two among an exclusive and fortunate group. Surrey county cricket club boasts 13,500 members and the Oval, its home ground, has a capacity of 25,500, yet just 1,000 seats were available. Surrey Cricket had been uncertain about the number of fans who would even be interested, but on Wednesday morning the dozen staff members manning the phones were overwhelmed by 10,000 calls placed in the first hour alone.

“I rang quite a few times, got horrible lift music for half an hour,” said John, a 15-year-long club member from Chelmsford, Essex. “I complained a bit, and that worked. At 3 o’clock I got through. Ten thousand calls in the first hour! I don’t know how I got a ticket in the end.”

Spectators sanitise their hands as they arrive at the Oval.

Spectators sanitise their hands as they arrive at the Oval. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

By midday, most fans had arrived and they were sequestered in the cosy 1845 stand, separated two seats apart in each row and with every other row of seats left vacant. After months of artificial background noise at sporting events, even the smallest facets of a real, live crowd were to be cherished: the spontaneous oohs after a peachy cover drive, the volume of applause rising and falling according to the crowd’s enthusiasm in the moment. Even the ambient chatter felt like a positive feature rather than an annoyance in these strange times. Another sign of life.

Genuine applause – rather than artificial background noise.

Genuine applause – rather than artificial background noise. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Those who made the trip left their fears behind, but the walkways of the Oval were still a microcosm of a society that does not agree. As fans trickled in, some marked their arrival by tearing their masks from their faces and they insisted on speaking with voices unmuffled. Others rushed to ensure that their masks were tightly fastened as soon as they noticed this journalist approaching.

Sue, a member since her retirement four years ago, aligned firmly into the former camp. Asked if she was at all wary of being among people again, she immediately shook her head.

“Not in the slightest,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to get here. I’ve been out and about as and when I’ve been allowed to. Throughout the whole process, I made a point of going out every day, walking a lot.

“[Lockdown] started frightening, then I got very angry. Just the whole frustration of it all. We’re not used to it, are we? Not used to being told what to do.”

A group of friends sit together – without wearing masks – though spaces were left between rows of seats at the Oval.

A group of friends sit together – without wearing masks – though spaces were left between rows of seats at the Oval. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Throughout the day, fans acted sensibly, keeping their distance in the crowd and beyond. Richard Gould, Surrey’s chief executive, suggested that club members were even more incentivised to be reasonable in order to ensure that they could return once more. As they told stories of their affinity to the Oval, many seemed to agree. One fan, who did not wish to be named, likened his return to “coming home”.

Another, Natalia, explained that she moved to Britain a decade ago. When she recently reapplied for her work visa, her host family provided a testimony in her application.

“One of the reasons we put for why she should have her work visa renewed is because she has become assimilated to British culture and has a membership at Surrey. I think that went a long way into renewing her permit,” said Christine, her host mother, laughing.

Still, this spectacle was not simply to please fans. As the government sets into motion its optimistic plans to bring audiences back to stadiums in October, this marked the first test. Members of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport were on hand to watch as the day unfolded. Further tests follow next week at the world snooker championship and the Goodwood horse racing festival.

Gould asserted that with 100 staff on hand to just 1,000 spectators, not even a 30% capacity of the entire stadium would be financially viable. Attendance accounts for 90% of Surrey Cricket’s annual £3m matchday revenue and it is currently also missing out on the £6m usually generated from conferences and events at the facilities. His view of a sporting world without sufficient crowds for too long is bleak.

“We need to be back to normal next summer,” Gould said. “If we’re not back to normal next summer, the structure, not just of our sport but all sports, will need to change.”

As they returned to watch the sport they love in person, such concerns were far from the minds of the fans. They were too busy soaking in the view once more.

“On a hot summer’s day, there is nothing nicer than sitting and watching cricket,” said John of Chelmsford. “Even if it’s boring as hell, it’s still lovely to be here.”

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