The Times first mentioned Kennington Oval on May 18, 1818. The report, however, had nothing to do with cricket. It read: “Yesterday, about 3 o’clock, a body of another man was found drowned in the creek near Kennington Oval.”
27 years after that, in 1845, the Otter Trustees, the proprietors of the market garden of Kennington Oval, reported to the Duchy that they were “desirous of letting it to a Gentleman who proposes to convert it into a Subscription Cricket Ground.” The lease was duly transferred, for a duration of 31 years, to William Houghton of Brixton Hill, the President of the Montpelier Club, and the rent was £120 per annum.
The first cricket match was played on the ground in July 1845. The ownership soon changed to the Surrey Cricket Club. Houghton, a chemist by profession, soon lost interest in the ground after getting the lease.
The inaugural First-Class match was contested between Surrey and MCC in 1846.
A Saturday afternoon at The Oval gradually became one of the best-known pleasures of London life. Stands evolved, scoreboards started and the pavilion was built and would be rebuilt. Some features like the ice skating rink at one end disappeared forever. Some like the gas fittings were destined to stay for at least another century and a half.
By the time the first Test match was played in 1880, the first Test ever to be witnessed in England, the circle of embankments round the ground was completed using earth excavated for the enclosure of the Vauxhall Creek — the same creek that had seen the unfortunate demise in 1818.
Pre Great War
In the first Test match in 1880, the hosts rode a serene 152 by WG Grace to triumph over Australia by 5 wickets.
137 years later, when England and South Africa will face off for the third Test of the ongoing series, The Oval will register its 100th Test match.
Through the years, a lot has changed. But the cricket has remained almost uniformly riveting. The ground has evolved into one of the most historic of arenas.
And although deaths have not taken place through drowning as in 1818, there have been physical, and metaphoric, deaths that have been part of the folklore of the ground as Tests have continued to be played.
In the very second Test played in this historic ground in late August 1882, Fred Spofforth and Harry Boyle destroyed the English batting as they tried to make 85 for a win. Australia thereby won a thriller by 7 runs. The action was too heart-stopping, in a literal sense. George Spendlove, a 48-year-old resident of 191 Brook Street, Kennington, fell dead in the stand, unable to handle the excitement.
Then there was the metaphorical plane. In Sporting Times the young journalist Reginald Shirley Brooks, writing under the pseudonym Bloobs, composed the mock obituary:
In Affectionate Remembrance
which died at the Oval on
29th AUGUST 1882,
Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing
friends and acquaintances
N.B. — The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.
Yes, as explained deaths did continue and that was the Birth of the Ashes.
The drama remained a constant component down the years.
In the next Test, in 1884, Hon Alfred Lyttelton came up from behind the wickets, did not bother to remove the pads, and as WG took up position of the wicketkeeper he bowled parabolic lobs at the Australian batsmen. The result was 4 wickets for 19 for the wicketkeeper, and the first success of lob bowling in Test cricket.
In 1890, Fred Martin and George Lohmann overcame the twin threat of Charlie Turner and JJ Ferris to win a low scoring thriller by 2 wickets.
In 1902, England tottered at 48 for 5 while going for 263 in the final innings, with Hugh Trumble picking up wickets by the bushel, when Gilbert Jessop, the great hitter, walked into essay one of the most devastating innings ever witnessed in Test cricket. He got 104 out of 139 in 75 minutes, and finally, George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes took England past the final threshold with one wicket to spare.
In August 1912, The Oval saw the conclusion of the first Triangular Test tournament as England defeated a second string Australian side by 244 runs. That was the final Test at the ground before the First World War.
On August 5, 1914, after rain had ruined the last day of the Surrey versus Nottinghamshire match, The Oval was occupied by the military. It was the first open space of London to be taken over. One of the first from The Oval to join the Territorials was A Attwater of the Bowler’s Staff.
Some cricket was played during the five years of madness, but the ground was also used for other purposes. Recruitment of soldiers was carried out and because of the increasing Zeppelin raids on London, The Oval was used as a site for filling balloons.
It was on August 5, 1918, that the public flocked through the turnstiles again, as an English XI took on a Dominions XI to signal that the game had returned and all was good with the world again.
Between the Wars
As cricket resumed, the drama of Test matches continued on the ground.
With the venue being granted the final Test of the series, fascinating climaxes were bound to be played out. The first such took place in 1926, when Percy Chapman took over captaincy from a disgruntled Arthur Carr even as the Ashes remained poised at 0-0, Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe scored incredible centuries on a sticky pudding of a wicket, and Wilfred Rhodes, aged 48, and Harold Larwood, aged 21, bowled England to a series clinching victory.
In 1930, Don Bradman took his tally of runs in the series to 973 with a metronomical 232, while Jack Hobbs played his final Test match, and Australia triumphed 2-1 in the Ashes.
Four years later, Bradman scored 244 and Bill Ponsford 266 as Australia won by a mammoth margin of 562 runs to clinch another series.
But four more years later, in 1938, Len Hutton batted 797 minutes to pile 364 and England declared at 903 for 7, much to the displeasure of the groundsman Bosser Martin who felt 1000 was there for the taking. With a victory by an innings and 579 runs, England squared the series.
A year down the line Hutton and Wally Hammond put on a masterclass of batsmanship, adding 274 as the match against West Indies winded into a draw, signalling the end of peacetime yet again.
On the night of November 10, 1940, three bombs fell on The Oval, one on Surrey Tavern, one on the Mound Stand and the last in front of the pavilion. The blast from the bombs caused damage to the perimeter wall of the ground.
In March 1942, the War Office hit upon a novel use of the ground, as a Prisoner of War Cage, to be filled with captured German paratroopers. In fact, more damage was done to the ground by British Army efforts than the German bombing during the Second World War. Deep holes had been gouged and had been filled with sandbags, something that would plague the ground for many years to come.
But the ground recovered quickly enough for cricket to resume as the madness ended. In 1946, India played England and Vijay Merchant got a hundred before being run out by a football kick essayed by Denis Compton from mid-on.
In 1947, Bruce Mitchell scored hundreds in both innings to save South Africa and take them to the brink of an almost impossible victory.
And a year later, England were dismissed for 52 by a hostile Ray Lindwall and Don Bradman walked in to bat in his last Test innings to be bowled by Eric Hollies for a second-ball duck.
In 1950, Hutton carried his bat with an unbeaten 202 in vain as Alf Valentine, combining with Sonny Ramadhin, inflicted innings defeat on England to win West Indies a 3-1 verdict in a historic series.
But only three years later. England was to rejoice under the captaincy of Hutton, their first regular professional skipper. With the series tied 0-0 yet again, they had the Surrey spin-twins Jim Laker and Tony Lock bowling them to a historic Ashes triumph in the coronation year of 1953. People sprinted into the ground in a spontaneous show of national emotion as soon as Denis Compton hit the winning runs.
A year later, however, Fazal Mahmood’s 12 wickets in the match resulted in an astounding win for the new cricketing nation of Pakistan.
In 1955, Lock and Laker did it again, clinching a narrow 3-2 series win against the resilient South Africans.
The two of them were at it again in 1957, when Tom Graveney and Peter Richardson got hundreds and England won by a whopping innings and 237 runs, to complete a 3-0 rout of the West Indians.
Two years later England beat the Indians through the machinations of Fred Trueman and Brian Statham to clinch their first 5-0 series verdict.
In 1966, the year of the World Cup football triumph, England got their Oval-revenge. Brian Close took over the captaincy, 39-year-old Tom Graveney and JT Murray added 217 and the juggernaut of Garry Sobers was stopped at last with an innings win.
And in 1968, Basil D’Oliviera stroked his way to a cricket-landscape changing 158 as Derek Underwood bowled Australia out with minutes remaining on the clock. This was after skipper Colin Cowdrey had appealed for help from the spectators to dry a ground submerged in water. D’Oliveira thus became a major contender for a place in the squad for South Africa. His subsequent inclusion, after immense drama, brought forth the expected protest from the southern country’s apartheid government, and resulted in the seclusion of the land for 22 years.
In 1971 the Englishmen, one of the strongest sides of the world at that time, were destroyed by Bhagavat Chandrasekhar and India won their first ever series in Old Blighty.
A year later Dennis Lillee picked up 10 wickets in the match and the Chappell brothers hit hundreds to enable Australia square the 1972 series 2-2.
In 1974, Zaheer Abbas gracefully compiled 240 as the series remained locked 0-0.
Two years down the line, Michael Holding bowled straight and fast to capture 14 English wickets as West Indies completed a 3-0 rout over Tony ‘grovel’ Greig’s Englishmen. Before that Viv Richards had struck 291 and Dennis Amiss responded with a double hundred of his own, underlining that the wicket was flat and in spite of limited help from the track, Holding was a good enough bowler to be devastating through his speed and accuracy.
In 1979, a spectacular effort of 221 in the final innings by Sunil Gavaskar almost saw India pull off an unbelievable win. However, some rather quixotic batting order changes in the final moments ruined the opportunity.
The 1980s were rather sad for England. In 1984 and 1988 the West Indian pace attack pulverised the English batsmen. The first series ended in a 5-0 Blackwash, and the second, a series of four captains for five matches, managing to end with a marginally less disastrous 4-0 defeat. The only bright spot at The Oval was perhaps when Graham Gooch and David Gower added 351 against Australia in 1985 and Australia surrendered to Richard Ellison’s swing bowling to embrace a 3-1 defeat.
Gooch and Gower played important hands five years later, when they hit 88 and 157 respectively to help England draw the 1990 Test against India and clinch the series 1-0.
A year later, in 1991, England found unlikely heroes in Phil Tufnell and David Lawrence as West Indies were forced to follow on and were defeated by five wickets to square the series 2-2.
The happiness of finally restricting a side that had vanquished them every time they met in the 1980s did not last long. In 1992, the hosts fell away to the pace and swing of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis as Pakistan took the series 2-1.
Devon Malcolm, Steven Watkin and Angus Fraser did bowl England to a win against Australia in 1993, but that was a consolation victory only, with Australia having already won 4 of the previous 5 Tests.
However, the following year the victory was more impactful. Malcolm, staggered by a bouncer, breathed fire and decimated a South African batting line up. England thus managed to square the series 1-1.
But two years later, in 1996, Akram and Younis were joined by the leg-spin of Mushtaq Ahmed as Pakistan triumphed by 9 wickets to clinch the series 2-0.
The following year, in an underrated Ashes thriller, Tufnell’s 11 wickets and Andy Caddick’s 8 resulted in a 19-run victory. The series was lost, but the win remained memorable.
There was another memorable win in 1998, but the victors were Sri Lanka. Sanath Jayasuriya hammered 213, and Aravinda de Silva 152, while Muttiah Muralitharan spun his magic to capture 16 wickets. Sri Lanka won by 10 wickets in the only Test for which ECB had bothered to invite them.
Another year down the line, things reached a new low for England as Chris Cairns, Dion Nash and Daniel Vettori bowled New Zealand to a fantastic series win.
The new millennium
By 2001, Australia were well into the process of routing the hosts through a combination of superlative batting and exceptional bowling. In this Oval Test, hundreds were struck by Justin Langer and the Waugh twins, and Shane Warne got 11 wickets as the innings defeat was achieved.
But better days were on the way. In 2003, South Africa piled 484 and the series seemed lost. But Marcus Trescothick hit 219, and Steve Harmison and Any Bicknell dismissed the Proteans for a low second innings total before Trescothick returned to finish things off with a 66-ball unbeaten 69.
By 2004, England were whitewashing West Indies, and a ten-wicket victory at The Oval ensured a 4-0 scoreline.
And in 2005 came the epochal moment when Kevin Pietersen’s 158, after Shane Warne had dropped The Ashes, saved England in the final Test of the fascinating series and earned them the urn after 18 years.
A year later, however, The Oval witnessed one of Test cricket’s darkest day. A pig-headed Darrel Hair decided that he had waited for Inzamam-ul-Haq’s men long enough. When smarting under an allegation of ball tampering the Pakistan team refused to emerge on the turf, this controversial umpire awarded the match to England by forfeiture. Seldom has a sport and the relationship between countries ruined to this extent by a man too full of himself.
2007 saw the maiden century of Anil Kumble some 17 years after the champion leg-spinner had made his Test debut.
Two years later, Jonathan Trott’s bat and Graeme Swann’s spinning finger took England to another Ashes series triumph.
The current decade has also seen some memorable matches at the historic venue.
In 2011, England completed a 4-0 rout over India in spite of an unbeaten 146 by Rahul Dravid in the first innings and a fighting 93 by Sachin Tendulkar in the second.
2013 saw an otherwise tedious and rain-interrupted Oval Test come to life on the final day as 447 runs were scored. The Ashes Test ended in a draw but only after the game had balanced on a knife’s edge.
In 2014, the English seam bowlers destroyed India for 148 and 94 to clinch a 3-1 series win from behind.
Finally, in 2016, a magnificent 218 by Younis Khan followed by a Yasir Shah special enabled Pakistan to square the series 2-2.
Hence, through all these years the drama and epics generated in the ground has remained constant. Generations of players have come and gone, entire eras have given way to the next, but the venue has seen riveting contests all through.
With the series between England and South Africa keenly poised at 1-1, we can be in for a rather special encounter in the hundredth Test in the arena.