Kennington Oval, circa 1850 © Getty Images
Kennington Oval, circa 1850 © Getty Images

It was the third Test of the series between England and South Africa, played at the Kia Oval, home of the Surrey County team, at Kennington, at the fag end of July 2017. With scores of 353 and 313 for 8 declared, England had totalled 666 runs in the Test, the Devil’s number. In their first innings, the visitors had been dismissed for 175 in the face of penetrating bowling by James Anderson (3 for 25) and debutant Toby Roland-Jones (5 for 57). When South Africa began their second innings in the post-tea session of the fourth day, they were all of 491 in arrears.

The last day of the Test began with South Africa still with 374 to score for a highly improbable win. By lunch England had sent down 66 overs and South Africa were on 205 for 7, only Dean Elgar carrying the flag with a gritty 113*. In the middle session Joe Root had Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes bowling in tandem, both entrusted with the task of getting the last three wickets for a victory.

Off the fifth ball of the 75th over, Moeen’s 15th, Elgar’s defiant vigil of 332 minutes and 228 balls faced ended when he edged to slip to be snapped up by Stokes for a heroic 136. Elgar trudged back to the pavilion to appreciative applause from the knowledgeable Oval spectators. The new man in was Kagiso Rabada. In a virtual action replay of the previous delivery, Rabada edged his very first delivery to Stokes at slip. At the end of the over, a double-wicket maiden, Moeen, having taken 2 wickets with consecutive deliveries, was on a hat-trick and South Africa were 252 for 9,withthe writing plainly on the wall for all to see.

Keshav Maharaj then played out a tense maiden over from Stokes. The ball was back in Moeen’s hands. Tension mounted all around the stadium as Root and Ali went about adjusting field placements with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker of yore. Finally, all was ready for the first delivery of the over, the hat-trick ball, and Ali skipped in with his easy action. Morne Morkel lunged forward and the ball smacked into his front pad. The entire stadium erupted in a frenzied appeal.

Umpire Joel Wilson had a long, close look before negating the appeal. The incredulous English players decided on a review. The perspiration ran down copiously and fingernails were chewed right down to the quick before the on-field umpire’s decision was over-turned and a verdict of OUT flashed on the screen sending everyone into raptures of delight.

The 100th Test at the historic Kennington Oval (recently renamed after the sponsors, Kia) thus ended with a hat-trick, the first ever on the ground, the first in history to involve three left-handed batsmen, and the first to involve both an opener and a No. 11 batsman, historic landmarks all.

The title of the tome has an authoritative ring about it, as follows: The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Lambeth and the Archiepiscopal Palace, in the County of Surrey. The contents are no less impressive. It was written by Thomas Allen and published from London in 1827. The Parish of Lambeth, Allen goes on to say, is situated “on the South side of the River Thames, opposite to Westminster.”

Regular occupation of the area goes back to the time of King Edward the Confessor, around 1062. About 18 miles in circumference, the Parish was said to measure about six-and-a-half miles in length and about two miles at the greatest breadth. At the end of the 18th century there were several unoccupied areas within the Parish, one of them being the 24 acre Kennington Common, already well-known for the quality of its grass.

The Survey of London: Volume 26, Lambeth: Southern Area, originally published by London County Council in 1956, makes for very interesting reading. It seems that in a survey carried out in 1615, The Oval, part of the Kennington Common, was found to afford “not only the advantage of a large, open space, for the free circulation of air; but, also, a pleasant and agreeable object … to look upon.” The

Oval roadway, oval in shape and enclosing what was originally a cabbage garden and later market garden, was laid out in 1790, and the lease for a10-acre plot, encompassing the Oval itself and six surrounding fields and meadows, including the nursery ground, was purchased at a public auction held in 1826 by Rev. William Otter, minister of St Marks’, and later Bishop of Chichester. When Otter had put up a proposal before the Prince’s Council of the Duchy for erecting some buildings on the premises, one of the Honourable members of the Council, Lord Bexley, had proposed a holistic “General Idea of Improvement” for the area.

The idea was to “Inclose an Oval of an Acre or an Acre and a half in the Centre, and plant it with Lime Trees, to form an open Grove, with Gravel Walks round and across it, under the Trees”. When no action had been taken on his original plea for a construction permit, Otter had made another petition in 1836 for a building permit. Procrastination being a prerogative of the bureaucracy in all countries through the ages, negotiations dragged on till the demise of Otter in 1840, and continued thereafter with his trustees, who later filed another petition for permission to build upon the premises.

With no headway in sight as far as permission for construction was concerned, the Otter trustees put up a proposal to the Council in March 1845 that they were “desirous of letting it to a Gentleman who proposes to convert it into a Subscription Cricket Ground” for an annual rent of £120 plus taxes amounting to £20.

The new lessee turned out to be William Houghton of Brixton Hill, President of the Montpelier Club. The Club had been formed about 1840 and usually played their cricket on the grounds of the Bee Hive Tavern at Walworth; these were, however, required for building in 1844. Soon afterwards the Treasurer, W Baker, and William Ward, M.P. (who had already helped to preserve Lord’s Cricket Ground from being built over) entered into negotiations with the Otter Trustees, nominating William Houghton as lessee. The tenacious Otter trustees had put up a final building proposal in 1851, but at the instigation of the Prince Consort (Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) himself, the plan was shelved permanently, and The Oval remained a pristine open space, to the relief of many.

The first cricket match played at the Kennington Oval for which a scorecard survives to this day appears to have been a one-day game between Montpelier and Clapton on July 17, 1845, a drawn game. Considerable labour had to be put into arranging the match, the surface being in a deplorable condition at the time. It was reported that the Oval, having been previously used as a cabbage patch and then as a market garden,  was then “in a most ruinous condition and from the effluvium arising from decayed vegetables a nuisance and a source of ill-health.”

Writing in Wisden on the occasion of the celebration of 100 years of Surrey cricket, ‘Shrimp’ Leveson Gower had this to say: “Let us now imagine that we are entering the Oval in the year 1845. In the spring of that year an interesting ceremony was performed: the first sod of turf was laid on the present ground; 10,000 turves came from Tooting Common. Only a year before the same ground was nothing more or less than a market garden. In the early months of this year the members of the famous Montpelier Club had to vacate their ground adjoining the Bee Hive Tavern, Walworth, required for building purposes. It was due to the personal influence of their treasurer, Mr. W. Baker, a fine all-round cricketer, that a lease of 31 years was secured from the Otter family, who held the ground on a 99 years lease, granted to them by the Duchy of Cornwall in 1835.”

History tells us of several trees still in existence in and around the ground and that it was only in 1847 that permission was granted for some of them to be cut down.

Having secured the lease on the premises, however, William Houghton, President of Montpelier, seems to have become disinterested in the activities of the club. Becoming encumbered with debts, Houghton tried to utilise the premises for other, hopefully profit-making enterprises, including the setting up of a public house enterprises. However, complaints of ‘rowdyism’ soon put a stop to his ambitions as a publican. By 1855, Houghton, unable to come to terms with his debts, assigned the lease to his brother George in settlement of part of his own debts. In 1855, the Otter trustees granted a new lease to the Surrey County Cricket Club.

All the while, a series of events were gradually unfolding that would have a profound impact on cricket at the Kennington Oval. The idea of forming a Surrey Cricket Club was first mooted in 1844. A cricket match was then played at the Kennington Oval on August 21 and 22, 1845, between Gentlemen of Surrey and Players of Surrey. After the game had ended in a draw a dinner was held at The Horns, Kennington, with Ward, MP and a keen follower and patron of cricket, in the Chair.

The issue of the formal establishment of Surrey CCC was discussed at length at the dinner, most members being in favour of the idea. However, the formalisation of the scheme was completed at a subsequent dinner held later in the same year, with the Hon. F Ponsonby, later Earl of Bessborough in the Chair. It was during the second meeting that the resolution was taken to use the Kennington Oval as the home ground of the newly formed Surrey CCC, a situation that persists to this day.

By 1847 the original market garden dwelling had been converted into a Club House. By 1855 the Kennington Oval could boast of its own Members’ Pavilion.A new pavilion was built in 1858, only to be replaced 40 years later by a newer structure.

In 1874, Surrey CCC were able to buy out the entire lease on the premises for £2,800. Raising the money was possible through a new 31-year lease, enacted in May 1875 that clearly defined the purposes for which The Oval could be utilised, as follows: “that no game of sport other than the games of Cricket, Baseball, Football, Tennis, Fives and Racquets and Amateur Athletic Sports shall be played.” Revenue from these games helped to pay for the new lease.

A report entitled London Gasholders Survey: The Development of the Gasholder in London in the Later Nineteenth Century, originally prepared by Malcolm Tucker in 2000, gives a wonderful background to the existence of another set of iconic structures associated with the Kennington Oval.

An Act of Parliament of 1805 is known to have initiated the formation of the Company of Proprietors of the South London Waterworks, who were to supply piped water to the parishes of St Giles, Camberwell, and parts of the parish of St Mary, Lambeth, and some other parts of Surrey. The company constructed an engine room, sluice house, offices, reservoirs, and a canal to the north of the Oval for the purpose. The Company became operational in 1807. In 1834 the nomenclature of the organisation was changed to the Vauxhall Waterworks Company.

The site of the waterworks was purchased by Phoenix Gas Company (established by an Act of Parliament in 1824) in 1847 as a holder station on behalf of the Bankside and Vauxhall Gas Works. It is clear, therefore, that gas was merely stored in the vicinity of The Oval, never actually produced.

The landmark gasometers (or gasholders) of the Kennington Oval were then gradually put into place. The 3.1 million cubic feet capacity No. 1 Holder was built between 1877 and 1879 (replacing an earlier structure of 1847) according to the design drafted by Sir Corbett Woodall. The No. 2 gasholder was erected in 1950 (replacing one built originally in 1854-55). The third, a smaller structure, did not last long, being built in 1869 and demolished in 1975. The fourth and fifth, also designed by Sir Corbett Woodall, were put up in 1873-74 and 1875-76. The remaining four gasholders are listed in the Lambeth Council’s List of Buildings of Local Architectural or Historic Interest.

Alas, the march of time has called a halt on the existence of the famous gasholders of The Oval and on many others in the land. Bowing to advancements in technology, members of a high power committee have decided to decommission the famous structures in a phased manner. The committee has earmarked 55 sites for demolition by 2020 at an estimated cost of £30 million. It seems that a total of 111 gas holders across the country are likely to be dismantled by 2030. Sadly, the famous gas holders adjacent to The Oval, sitting on a 12-acre prime site, may soon be only a much-loved nostalgic memory.

From records that are available today, it seems that the first First-Class match played at The Oval was between Surrey Club and MCC from May 25, 1846, MCC winning the contest by 48 runs. The pioneering round-arm bowler William Lillywhite had a large role to play in the victory with 10 wickets. There was another First-Class game played in the same season at the sane ground, between Surrey and Kent, from June 25 that Surrey won by 10 wickets. The floodgates had opened and one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in England had begun its historic journey to fame.

It may be noted that cricket was not the only sport played on the ground. Both Rugby and Association football have been played here over the years. Indeed, between 1870 and 1892, The Oval had become one of the principal grounds staging football games, including the Football Association Cup semi-finals and finals for many years. The first international football match at The Oval appears to be the contest between Queen’s Park Football Club of Glasgow and English Football Association, in 1873, primarily because of the initiative taken by Charles William Alcock, an influential English sportsman and sports administrator, who was responsible for international football and cricket being played at The Oval.

The story of the first ‘international’ cricket match at The Oval must begin in the early 1860s. Two young members of the Edenhope Cricket Club, William Hayman and Thomas Hamilton, began teaching the rudiments of cricket to the Aboriginal staff working on their Victorian ranching heartland. Hayman took it upon himself to arrange a series of cricket matches between indigenous Aboriginal players and others, including one at Melbourne on Boxing Day, 1866 against Melbourne Cricket Club, thus setting the tradition of the Boxing Day cricket match at Melbourne. The father figure, coach, and captain of the indigenous team at the time was Tom Willis, a First-Class cricketer. From contemporary accounts, it seems that the matches had attracted anything between 8,000 and 10,000 spectators.

Bernard Whimpress, the Australian sports historian, writing in Passport to Nowhere, makes the following comment on the issue of the involvement of the indigenous population with cricket:  “Since cricket was played by the rulers, some Aborigines quickly came to understand the prestige afforded by playing it… Cricket was initially presented to Aborigines as a path to civilisation and socialization…They would learn to speak English, become accustomed to wearing clothes, learn to eat like the British, and to all intents and purposes adopt manners of ‘civilisation’. Playing cricket was part of this continuum.”

The next important figure in the story was businessman William Broughton-Gernett, who made a contract with the indigenous team to play matches in Victoria, Sydney and Brisbane, followed by a projected tour to England. The team toured New South Wales in 1867, playing fundraising matches, and defeated the Army and Navy team at Sydney in front of 5,000 spectators. Prince Alfred (second son of Queen Victoria who became a naval captain and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1866), on an official visit to Australia was among them. Unfortunately, however, the funds raised were embezzled (Broughton-Gernett turning out to be a fraud), some of the team members became ill, and some passed away. The entire project, therefore, had to be shelved temporarily.

The team then found a new mentor in Charles Lawrence, a professional cricketer from Middlesex who had remained behind in Australia after playing with the English visitors of 1861-62. Lawrence first arranged a series of benefit matches to enable the players to return home.He then embarked with a team comprising 13 Aboriginal cricketers from the western districts of Victoria, and set out from Sydney on the Parramatta, a clipper bound for England with a cargo of wool, on February 8, 1868 for a tour of England, the first Australian cricket team to tour the Mother Country, in the summer of 1868.

The boat trip to England lasted about 13 weeks, ending at Gravesend, Kent, on May 13. Local interest in the hitherto unseen Aboriginal cricketers was evident from contemporary press reports. The Sportsman had this to say: “We understand that these sable cricketers, who have for some time been expected, were telegraphed off Penzance yesterday afternoon, so that in all probability, they will appear in metropolitan cricketing circles during the present week.” Daily Telegraph added: Nothing of interest comes from Australia except gold nuggets and black cricketers.”

The first official engagement of the visiting team was against Surrey Club at The Oval. The match was won rather easily by the hosts, by an innings and 7 runs. Despite the early setback, one of the batsmen, Unaarrimin (better known as Johnny Mullagh) showed promising skill in scoring 33 and 73 in team totals of 83 and 132. A crowd of about 7,000 had turned up to witness the first day’s play. It was reported that a total of about 20,000 had witnessed two days of cricket and another of athletic activities (these included boomerang throwing, running, jumping, and spear throwing). The red shirts and blue sashes of the Aboriginal cricketers (the “blackfellas” as they were called in their native country, each wearing a cap of a different colour to identify him) added a new exotic flavour to the proceedings.

Ashley Mallett makes special mention of the athletic skills of one of the team members, Dick-a-Dick (Jumgumjenanuke), whose hand-eye coordination was known to be so highly developed that he was in the habit of arming himself with a boomerang and a parrying shield and challenging anyone from the stands to hit him with a cricket ball from 10 paces for a wager of 1 shilling.  If anyone could strike him or get a ball past him, the thrower was rewarded with 10 shillings. It is said that during the game at The Oval, seven men had thrown in unison at him without a single ball finding the mark.Total gate receipts from the first match of the tour had amounted to £603, 2 shillings and sixpence. After expenses, the tourists’ share came to £309, 9 shillings and 1 penny. All in all, it was a very satisfactory launch to the tour.

The staid British press were all praise for the efforts of the Aboriginal team. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted: “This most interesting match, decidedly the event of the century, commenced to-day at the Oval, and the weather having cleared up there was every prospect of a large gathering to witness ’the blacks’ perform. Contrary to general expectation, the aboriginal team turned out to be really a fine body of men, of superior type for Australians, and in build and physique not only far removed from the low, negro type of the genus homo, but able ‘to take their own part’ with well-developed Europeans.We cannot particularise in the limited time and space at our disposal, but we take the liberty of assuring those who have been led to believe that the Australians are a set of humbugs that they are very widely mistaken. These men show very superior cricket indeed.”

The last match of the tour was also played at The Oval, against Gentlemen of Surrey, the game being won by the hosts by 9 wickets. The tourists played a total of 47 gruelling games on the tour, spread over six months, winning 14, losing 14 and drawing 19. The weary travellers finally landed back at Sydney in February 1869, having been away from their native land for about a year.

The next Australian tour to England would be in 1880, and the first Test on English soil would be played on the historic Kennington Oval.