“They choppered in the T-bones and the beer and turned it into a beach party. But the more they tried to make it like home, the more they made everybody miss it.”
It was the sound that really got you. The delivery was slightly over-pitched from Shaheen Afridi, bounding in a little wildly from the Pavilion End. Will Jacks is a tall batsman. He didn’t move much, just leant forward from the knees and flashed his wrists through the line of the ball with a controlled kind of violence.
First came the crack of the bat. Then, as necks craned and heads swivelled, there was the cheer, something soft and deliciously moreish, tickling your ears, running its feet up and down your spine, entering the body in a warm chemical rush.
Oh, that noise! Earlier on Rory Burns had taken a brilliant running catch on the square leg boundary and there was a kind of whoosh around the ground, like a gust of warm air.
A little later Hashim Amla lofted Afridi over mid-off and there it was again, that shared gurgle of pleasure, the sound of a sporting crowd speaking to itself. Albeit, as the night wore on there was something else too, a kind of sadness, like peering in through the window at someone else’s family Christmas.
Nobody really knows what to expect from these test events. Surrey versus Hampshire in the T20 Blast at the Oval on Thursday night was another stage in the joint efforts of government and sporting bodies to trial the return of live crowds.
This is frontier territory for everyone involved, and huge credit must go to Surrey’s administration and stadium staff, who did a fine job of the logistics. There was spread seating, carefully laid lines of traffic, discrete family bubbles, sanitising stations, informed stewarding.
For long periods it was easy to lose yourself in the spectacle. Looking down from high in the 1845 Stand, watching 2,500 county members sit close but not too close, feeling the hospitality furnaces fire, the engines of London’s largest summer beer-processing machine begin to turn, it was even possible, if you squinted a little, to see some workable version of the new secure sporting reality.
At which point the rain began to fall, arriving in a haze over the lip of the stand. The bodies below headed for the safety of the Oval’s covered walkways, coalescing into a single mass as they reached the stairwells. And looking down I noticed a large, semi‑transparent, woodlouse-shaped viral germ, about the size of a man’s fist, crawling across my laptop keyboard.
This was the bad moment. Like so much of the current adapted chaos, it’s really no one’s fault. But at the rain break you felt the limits of this delicate construct.
The problem here isn’t a lack of planning or good intentions. It is instead the basic incompatibility between fear of contagion in