The final day of the Oval Test match between England and Australia in 2005 has, in the years since, achieved semi-mythical status as the most memorable day of the most memorable Test series most of us have ever had the pleasure of watching. I was at The Oval on that day, having paid just £10 for the privilege. On the eighth anniversary of that day someone reminded me that those eight years had gone by, and it prompted me to pour out some of the random memories which have occupied a small corner of my mind’s eye ever since. As a day at the cricket, it had its moments.
A short, fitful, uneasy sleep. Up before 1.
Wash, shave, dress. Get the bag together. Don’t forget the ticket. The £10 ticket. Bought in the spring and now as prized as gold dust. You could sell it for a hundred times as much but you never would. Taxi into town. On the coach to London by 2. More semi-sleep. M5, M4, along the Embankment and into Victoria. London is dry, cloudy, humid.
There is tension in the air. In London, even at 6.15 in the morning, there always is. The tension of the incipient working week, of course, but something else. The tension of expectation. Of anticipation. The Ashes will end today.
Side street café breakfast. Over Vauxhall Bridge. Down to The Oval. People are everywhere. Touts and their would-be clients. How much?
God, this is different. Perhaps this is what 1953 was like.
Into the ground and take your seat. Block 18, Row 24, Seat 568. Right at the back in front of the gasholders.
The players net, do their fielding drills. The noise rises as the ground fills. After the players have left, some broadcasters walk across the pitch from the old pavilion to the new OCS Stand, where their commentary boxes are located. They are cheered.
In a sense this is surprising but then again not. This is the mood of the day. And they are Tony Greig, Geoff Boycott and Ian Botham. Richie Benaud, of course, is less conspicuous. But this is his day. He will be cheered by the whole ground later.
10.25. Bowden and Koertzen. Australian fielders, led by Ponting. Chewing gum, meaning business. Then Trescothick and Vaughan. Hopes of a nation and all that.
Warne on straight away. This is chaos. Second ball, full-toss, Vaughan, always elegant and alive to the chance, hits it straight for four. The ground erupts.
McGrath at the other end. A maiden to open. Soon Lee is on too. Erratic, but high pace. Boundaries come at both ends.
Two overs only to Lee then Warne is back. He will bowl long today.
McGrath gets Vaughan and then Bell, first ball. This will be mighty tough. Now Pietersen is there. No hat-trick, just.
Trescothick holds out against Warne but it is hard, so hard. Later Haigh describes him as being ‘like a London bobby trying to quell a riot’. The description fits like a glove.
Pietersen settles in. We know that he is good but how good? Today will tell. He is dropped. Warne off McGrath. Next over Warne is hit for six. Salt in the wound.
Then Trescothick goes. To Warne, of course, lbw.
Now Flintoff is there. The summer’s hero of heroes. But this is not his time. You feel he cannot last and he doesn’t. Warne gets him and England are on the brink.
Time for consolidation. Collingwood gets his head down. Sniffs the ball as he was taught to do on the capricious tracks of the north-east, far from here in place and time.
Lee bowls a bouncer. 93.7 mph. Pietersen, desperately hurried, arches his back and jumps to evade it. Shit. The mind scrolls back to the West Indies, years before. Hearts beat faster.
Lunch. It is needed.
Early afternoon. Sun. KP opens out. Really opens out. Lee is hit for six, then six, four, four. The boundary boards in front of us take a battering, as does Tait. He tries to save the runs but is left on his knees, head down, gazing into the dirt like a boxer taking a count.
Collingwood is still there. Virtually scoreless but no matter. Pietersen will provide the runs.
Then Collingwood goes to Warne and Jones to Tait. Trouble.
England must bat the day to secure the urn, but the doubts are strong now. Someone has to stay with Pietersen. Giles?
The afternoon wears on. Warm for September and racked with anxiety. Giles and Pietersen bat. And bat. The overs tick down. Safety draws closer. Pietersen’s ton is passed and the possibility of relaxation starts to present itself. But not now. They must bat some more, and they do.
It goes on. Giles ungainly but full of guts and common sense, Pietersen turning the screw with flamboyance. The overs tick down and things start to look good. Then very good. Giles is hitting fours now. The Ashes are coming back.
With the pressure released, it feels like time to go to the bar. But it has been drunk dry. Three bottles of Red Stripe is all they have. Take them, drink them.
Back to the stand. Now people are happy. Langer fields on the rope, further down. He smiles through gritted teeth as the songs and jeers crank up and the Spanish flags are waved. This feels special. Like a time you will remember well enough to write about, years later.
Pietersen goes, but his job is done now. As is Benaud’s. It is announced and the ground rises.
Giles and Hoggard stick around for a bit. After Giles finally goes for a quietly epic 59, England subside, but no matter. It is done.
Australia bat, but time and light are against them. They cannot win. The Ashes are England’s again.
Presentation. Fireworks. Lap of honour.
Back to Victoria in a muck sweat. On to the coach. Exeter in the early hours. Taxi home. The driver forgets to engage the meter, but you pay up anyway.
Bed for a few hours then up for the open-top bus and Trafalgar Square.
Cricket in England has never been like this. You wonder if it ever will be again.
Eight years on, you’re still wondering.
Different Shades of Green, 12th September 2013