August 15 2011
The fourth and final test match of the series between England and India takes place at The Oval between August 18 and 22, and it promises to be an enthralling climax to the summer. The famous old ground in south London is one of the most atmospheric sports venues in Britain and, as the traditional setting for the last test of the season, has witnessed many dramatic outcomes and farewells to the stage.
It was here in 1882 that the Ashes story was born after England’s humiliating defeat by Australia resulted in a mock obituary in The Sporting Times: “In affectionate remembrance of English cricket, which died at the Oval, 29th August 1882. The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”
Six years ago a titanic Ashes series all came down to the last of 25 days, when badger-haired Kevin Pietersen lit up The Oval with one of the most defiant innings the game has ever seen. The flamboyant KP repeatedly hooked 94mph deliveries to the boundary, smashing 158 runs off the Aussie bowlers and ensuring that England would regain the famous urn. But the emotion cut both ways and when the great Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne walked off the field for the final time in a test match in Britain, the entire ground rose to acclaim him.
In August 1997, England finished an Ashes series with a thrilling 19-run win at The Oval and the man of the match, with 11 wickets for 93 runs, was gifted left-arm spinner Phil Tufnell. The likeable Londoner should have featured in many more such performances, but, outrageously to anyone who prefers flair over more journeyman qualities, he played only 42 tests between 1990 and 2001.
There was a well-founded suspicion that “Tuffers”, who cited Oasis’s Cigarettes and Alcohol as a favourite song and never concealed his enjoyment of a gasper and a beer at the close of play, was deemed “unsuitable” by a rigid management who lacked the imagination to get the best out of a personality who didn’t fit into a straightforwardly functional mould.
Not that Tufnell has exactly faded from view since retiring. The public took him to their hearts and he went on to enjoy fame of a different sort by winning the 2003 edition of I’m a Celebrity… and is now a regular in the eminently respectable commentary box of BBC Radio 4’s Test Match Special.
He’ll be particularly busy during The Oval test. As well as his commentating duties, he will host the new Phil Tufnell VIP Club, which is located in the glass-fronted Laker restaurant adjacent to the pavilion. Up to 70 guests a day can be accommodated, and the lavish package includes a three-course lunch with wine, a complimentary bar, morning coffee and afternoon tea, and regular appearances by the man himself, who promises to bring along a few of his old England contemporaries to give their view of the action.
The emotional highpoint of this month’s game will come when the incomparable Sachin Tendulkar, who I wrote about in February, walks off the field after what is likely to be his final test match innings in England. Expect a prolonged ovation. But whether England’s bowlers can get the better of the “Little Master” and his big-hitting colleagues is a moot point. In February, I also tipped India to win the World Cup at 7-2 and they duly delivered on a night of ecstatic joy in Mumbai. I’m backing them still to be the world’s top-ranked test side come September, at 15-8 with Fitzdares.