I must confess that although I’ve personally never taken a particularly active interest in cricket I was genuinely bowled over by what I was to experience during my visit to The Oval Cricket Ground. I’d seen images of The Oval of course on television, but to experience for the first time this expansive and very imposing cricket ground was nothing short of breathtaking. However, even more extraordinary for me was how much I was to learn about the Surrey County Cricket Club (SCCC), who have made The Oval their home for over 170 years.

My coach on all things cricket was Richard Gould, the chief executive of the club. As I entered his office I almost froze to the spot in complete disbelief. Don’t worry – it wasn’t Richard, who was most welcoming – it was purely and simply the magnificent panorama that dominated the room from beyond its windows. There, laid out in full view, was the whole expanse of The Oval. The beautifully maintained pitch stretched out in all of its green glory in every direction, the imposing stands visible on all sides, and the towering electronic scoreboard. But, best of all, is the fact that Richard can watch every match – literally without having to leave his desk!

He almost had to cough to catch my attention, but thereafter it didn’t take Richard long to have my full attention with the fascinating story he began to tell.

“The cricket club began at the Oval in 1845. Prior to that this was literally a vegetable patch, it was quite a rural area.” Richard’s hand waved a descriptive path across his window scene. “The Duchy of Cornwall gave permission for the land to be leased and we’ve been here ever since, and at the time of course this wasn’t even a London borough.” That last point neatly resolved my puzzled bewilderment that Surrey’s county club is based in London’s Borough of Lambeth. What Richard was to recount next served to stoke up my interest even further.

“Then there was this chap, Charles Alcock.” Richard’s tone of voice hinted that this was going to get very interesting. “He was outstanding in that he invented and created so much. He put this place firmly on the map. For example, it was Alcock’s idea to stage the first ever FA Cup Final here in 1872 – and he even managed to get to play in the final! It was him too that created The Ashes here. He’d heard that Australia were touring, and in those days they used to only play against the county teams really. So, he arranged a game whereby England would play against Australia. And that was the first one in 1870. Although not long after, in 1872, Australia beat us for the first time”.

I noticed Richard glancing out of the window at a match in play on the pitch below. I was about to ask him about the game when he bowled another googly at me. “The Oval at the time was in effect a mix between the O2 Arena and the Wembley of its time. They even had a walking race here – one thousand miles over a week and a bit, with competitors only allowed a 15-minute break every hour. And much of the first ever flood-lit sport took place here too. It was the entertainment and sports capital of the country – and believe it or not the first rugby international in England was held here as well”.

I was about to steer Richard back in the direction I really wanted to explore. How the modern-day club not only staged high profile cricket competitions at the ground but also engaged at grass roots level in Surrey. However he had already eyed-up that wicket. “Fortunately, this place is mostly left to cricket nowadays, playing three different formats of the game. Championship cricket, which is the county version of test cricket played over four days; one-day cricket competitions in which the teams bat and bowl for 50 overs each, and then there’s a version of Twenty20, which is the most popular in terms of driving attendance on match day. The only games we don’t play here are when we go down to Woodbridge Road in Guildford”.

At that moment a huge cheer could be heard from the ground. Richard excitedly raised both his arms and shouted loudly: “Got it. Got it. Well done Virdi – another LBW for Virdi!” I couldn’t but help feeling a little jealous of this very unusual and positively-charged office atmosphere. Richard explained that the Surrey bowler was one Amar Virdi and he’d just taken the wicket of one of Hampshire’s strongest batsmen in the Championship Match currently in play. And the real magic was that Amar is one of the county’s up-and-coming young players – which brought us back totally on pitch.

“Surrey has been playing cricket at Guildford since the early part of the century and it is effectively our home away from the Oval. We’ve been recently working with the council to refurbish the pavilion there – and the council have done an excellent job. The pavilion opens this season, which will be great news for cricket in Guildford. It also means that we’ve got excellent facilities we can use when we come and visit. It’s a great facility for the whole of Guildford too because there are good meeting and event rooms there. We do a lot with Guildford and our academy works out of there.”

Noticing that I had glanced quickly out of the window distracted by action on the pitch, Richard nodded in the direction of the match adding: “Surrey has got seven home-grown players out there today. From Guildford, our academy recruits players into our county teams from schools and cricket clubs throughout Surrey. We work with them and provide the best possible coaching, so that they can hopefully one day come forward and represent Surrey, and perhaps England. But if not, we encourage them just to really enjoy their cricket and to play to their best possible potential”.

SCCC also works closely with the Surrey Cricket Foundation who have 15 officers working throughout the county, and who have their very successful Chance to Shine inner-city cricket initiative. This has engaged nearly 27,000 young people since 2008 with a fast-paced version of tape-ball cricket. Another successful youth initiative that Surrey has engaged with is the English Cricket Board’s Kwik Cricket. This is tailored specifically for children up to the age of 11, playing in teams of eight players with a plastic bat and ball over only eight overs.

Having satisfied my interest in the county’s grass-roots initiatives to actively engage local communities’ interest in cricket, I had also unwittingly reminded myself that as well as Guildford Cricket Club providing great opportunities to play and watch cricket – they also have a very popular Beer Festival at the Woodbridge ground every June.

Just before I left Richard, leaving him to carry on enjoying the Championship Match from the comfort of his office chair, he perfectly summed up what makes SCCC so successful.
“We do have a really supportive club here – and I think it’s because the club is owned and managed by its supporters, all of whom are focused on the long-term interests of the club. No one is trying to make a quick buck. We are trying to make sure that cricket continues to thrive and appeal to the widest possible audience – and that we just do things in the right way.”

Phil Kemp is a Godalming-based writer and photographer. www.weyriver.co.uk

The Kia Oval is the home of the Surrey County Cricket Club www.kiaoval.com
Guildford Cricket Club promotes, organises and encourages amateur cricket in the Guildford area. www.guildfordcc.com
The Surrey Cricket Foundation supports communities, schools and clubs by providing funding, knowledge, coaching and competitions in Surrey and South London. www.surreycricketfoundation.org
Kwik Cricket is a fully inclusive game where the emphasis is on participation and enjoyment. It is specifically tailored for children up to the age of 11. www.ecb.co.uk/play/junior/kwik-cricket