The text of Sir John Major’s article on “The Memories of the Oval”, published by The Times on 7th September 2005.
SIR JOHN MAJOR:
It is over fifty years since I first entered The Oval: now, welcome shadows from the past are my companions on every visit. For me, The Oval has so many happy memories that my heart lifts the moment I arrive – even for the most mundane of games. It even provided sanctuary on the day of my departure from Downing Street: the spectators gathered there that afternoon expressed words of sympathy upon my defeat before turning to the more important matter of cricket.
As a young boy at The Oval, clutching sandwiches and a bottle of Tizer, I sat on the wooden benches opposite the famous Gasometers watching the greatest County side of all (sorry, Yorkshire) win the Championship seven years in a row. The Oval was always my first destination during the long summer holiday.
Games from those early years are still bright and clear in my mind. Stuart Surridge – the only man I ever saw who seemed able to scratch his ankles while standing up – snaffling impossible catches with his elastic arms. Alec Bedser, stately as a galleon, as he bowled over after over, and Laker and Lock making the spinning ball spit and turn off a length. When Bert Lock, the groundsman (no relation) swept the wicket and the dust rose high, the Surrey supporters roared in anticipation much as the Romans must have done as the lions entered the Colosseum.
We, too, expected carnage – and we got it.
Memories crowd in. Aged 10, I couldn’t get a ticket for the Final Ashes Test in 1953. I heard a tout had some for sale, and rushed up to him eagerly, money clutched tightly in hand, but he looked at me with scorn and named a premium far beyond my means. With wet eyes, I withdrew and had to settle with disappointment for the radio instead. But I did see Denis Compton’s final Test Innings in 1956: 94 caught, right in front of me, backward of square, and sweeping of course.
Once, I attempted to time how many seconds it took a Peter May drive to hit the Pavilion fence. In doing so, I dropped my father’s precious gold stop-watch which fell to the stone terracing – and died. In pieces, I took it home, apprehensive and guilt-ridden. My father held the broken screws and springs in his left hand and delicately lifted them with thumb and forefinger from his palm to the kitchen table. I waited in trepidation: “Tell me”, he said, “about this Peter May”.
Other shadows are ever-present: Clyde Walcott, massive and powerful, enchanting a West Indian crowd in calypso mood. Vic Wilson of Yorkshire, cutting and glancing his way to a charming 40-odd late on a summer’s afternoon. Ian Botham, smashing a double hundred against India that threatened the very fabric of the Pavilion – memory is an unlimited treasure trove to dip into at will.
Sometimes, it rains (please, not today) and Oval habitués fill the wet gaps with their reminiscences. As a boy, on the old raked wooden seats, I heard gnarled old-timers speak of Jack Hobbs. Years later, as one Test Match day drew soggily to an early close, I was talking to some former Test players, one of whom remembered it was Don Bradman’s birthday. We phoned the Don from the Committee Room and he chatted amiably as we reported the rain-curtailed play. “So what’s the weather like in sunny Australia?” I asked. “Dunno” said the Don, “it’s 4 o’clock in the morning down here!”
Bradman was much on our minds that day as, during an earlier break, there’d been a discussion as to which end he was batting in his final Test Match, when Eric Hollies famously bowled him for nought.
“Surely you must know,” one of the group said, turning to Arthur Morris, who was quietly sipping a glass of wine: “Yes”, said Arthur placidly,
“I was at the other end. I scored 196”.
Those who visit The Oval today will see the new Stand that Surrey has built at the Vauxhall End which is, I think, as fine as any in cricket. I was privileged to be President of Surrey for two seasons when this project began and played a small part in bringing it about. We began fundraising with an England v Rest of the World team led by Sachin Tendulkar. Alas, Sachin fell ill the night before the game, and was confined to his hotel room. But the crowd forgave us. The sun shone. The game was played, and the memory bank was fed again. So were the coffers, and Surrey went on to build the Stand.
As the crowd pours into The Oval on this first day of the Final Test, there will be high hopes and expectations. From the very young, to the very old, England’s second greatest invention – after its language – has once more gripped the nation.
Many years ago, when I was a young Whip in the Commons, I had to sit for hours on the Treasury Bench listening to (often rather boring) speeches.
I passed the time writing brief poetic sketches of the Parliamentary characters of the day (best not published in their – or my – lifetime).
Trapped on the bench during a Test Match, I scribbled a “Cricket Prayer”, a fragment of which I still recall:
“Oh, Lord, if I must die today,
Please make it after Close of Play.
For this, I know, if nothing more,
I will not go, without the score …”
Hardly Wordsworth, I know, but it is a sentiment that many will share over the next five days. On the field will be some of the greatest talents in world cricket of whom, one day, old men – now small boys – will babble in awe.
This Ashes Series has been the stuff of legend. Drama has been commonplace and, in at least two cricket-loving nations, many millions will focus on this final game. As for me – oh, lucky me – I’m off to The Oval …