I take my place in the banked rows of white plastic among the humming mass of grey and shining heads, some already bent over pre-prandial pints, others perusing a paper.
Though the sun has not yet rounded the building behind us, some brave the early spring air in no more than a tweed jacket; anoraks and fleeces huddle others against the unwarmed plastic and concrete.
The spectacle that has ostensibly attracted them lies far below and away across the grass in bright sunshine, but these men—for we are almost exclusively men—seem content not to seek a better favoured vantage point.
A healthy but well-modulated hubbub of conversation rumbles good-naturedly across the slope, as constant but unobtrusive as meltwater in spring, a little lower-pitched. A few outcrops of back hunch over pen and paper, but no more than add texture to the eddying voices and ripples of laughter.
The wide plain below is as yet distant, favoured only by occasional showers of applause.
For this is the very beginning of the thaw; these rivulets up here have not yet combined into a steady attentive stream that gravitates downward until it is unerringly linked to the ebb and flow played out down there. Give it time.
The English County Championship has many months to meander its stately course, and a single day’s cricket may lose and find its way again before the close.
It is the first day of the full county season, and today’s morning session between Surrey and Gloucestershire at the Oval has not been one to quicken the senses. The hosts’ new signing Andre “Gunter” Nel has ousted adopted Gloucesterman Craig Spearman with the fifth ball of the day—Springbok dismisses Kiwi for a duck, for the naturalists among us—but Hamish Marshall and Kadeer Ali make otherwise serene progress toward a well-earned lunch.
The more alert members here in the pavilion dart out an over or two before the clock strikes one for a quick single at the bar before the field closes in. Bags and coats reserve deserted places; this place seems untouched by theft or terror. It could be almost any time in the last 30 years or more.
Below, play resumes promptly after lunch, but the bell is unheeded here among the white-wisped gods—unlike the unheard dinner gong. It is over an hour before the area is fully repopulated, and perhaps they have not missed much.
For all the Surrey attack’s sterling efforts, charging heartily or wheeling cannily to the crease, only Marshall has been dislodged. Two sessions played, two wickets down, two hundred runs amassed. I have found a corner of the pavilion in sunlight and am adding to the drowsy murmurs of placid indignation at the home side’s impotence.
After tea the game livens up and the audience focuses on the action in the centre more closely, as a contest unexpectedly erupts. Benning nips one out and Dernbach changes ends to deliver two thunderclap yorkers that each uproot a stump. The trickles of applause turn to a roar; a well-modulated one, of course.
The ante is duly upped and more wickets fall to get the sleepy hive buzzing hopefully. Gloucestershire end on 293-7, Surrey are back in the game and their members are stirring from cricketing hibernation to the welcome chirrups of leather on willow.
The county season is underway and all is well with the world. For today at least, reports of its death have been very much exaggerated.
The atmosphere is by no means entirely grey-tinted, as anyone walking round the ground at lunchtime could see. A group of teenagers played an impromptu session of hit-and-run opposite the club shop, while the sunnier non-member stands offered a cheerful array of more vibrant, youthful colours.
On a working weekday an audience of pensioners and children is as much as one could ask for; young shoots are showing and the more weathered faces are not yet ready to end their innings.
The game will not wither and die when its old blooms drop.