Hold the criticisms of day/night cricket for just a moment. As a contest, it’s hard to deny that Surrey’s match with Lancashire has been enthralling. Rarely has the batting side looked comfortable, but not because the pink ball has done anything spectacular; both teams have simply bowled very well.
The wicket has taken turn increasingly as the match has worn on — Matt Parkinson’s delivery to bowl Ryan Patel, off an under edge, had already spun sharply from well outside off stump and would probably have hit the stumps without the edge — which has made batting all the more difficult.
It’s true, too, that Lancashire’s batting in the night session on this third day looked like a real struggle. From the moment the final session began — and despite a 50/50 split in shade and sunshine across the ground and the floodlights coming on, nothing had really changed — suddenly the innings went from genuine batting to complete survival mode.
Amar Virdi, having strayed from his ideal length far more than Surrey would have wanted in the first innings, suddenly found his spot and caused problems. With Rikki Clarke having dismissed Dane Vilas with his fifth ball after the break, Surrey’s 20-year-old off-spinner caused all sorts of problems.
It was as though the batsmen had seen a ghost in the fading daylight. Shivnarine Chanderpaul was twitchy as he pushed forward and edged Virdi to first slip, and a handful of overs later Rob Jones got into a complete muddle trying to advance Virdi, ballooning the ball to forward short leg.
Jones had batted tidily, turning from stylish to gritty, just as Alex Davies had done at the top of the innings. Davies raced to 30 from 26 balls but added just five more before falling in the same manner as Jones would later; albeit to a brilliant one-handed catch by substitute Will Jacks.
By the time Lancashire all but abandoned any pretence of scoring many runs — just four boundaries came off the bat in the final 32 overs — they looked more likely to remain five wickets down at the close. It was the sensible tactic, with Josh Bohannon and Steven Croft both unbeaten to bat in the best conditions on the final day. And Surrey are a bowler down, with Jade Dernbach’s sore groin enduring his batting but just one over of his bowling.
As the final session of floodlit Specsavers County Championship cricket this season, it proved entertaining. But it could well be the last this country sees, and that wouldn’t be surprising.
On this third day, with a result possible, more people came in between 6pm and 7pm than on the previous day — with entry free from 6pm onwards; a fact barely promoted by Surrey, presumably expecting that everyone would know given the same applies at 4pm on a normal Championship afternoon.
But even that increase is relative: fewer people were in the ground to begin with on Tuesday. Just 353 people came in on Monday evening compared to 719 on Tuesday, but the latter ended with a total crowd seven fewer. Looking on, the crowd looked to be no thinner nor stronger than usual in the final session.
If The Oval, easily accessible in a city of eight million, cannot drag in a substantial number of spectators for a fascinating match, then where will? If there’s no genuine benefit — and, so far, one good game doesn’t quite do it — it may well be time to shelve this idea.
Lancashire had set up the excitement by bowling Surrey out for 306, with a 51-run partnership between Dernbach and Morne Morkel crucial in the hosts setting a competitive target. Dernbach played in typical fashion and attempted to clear the OCS Stand on several occasions.
Sam Curran bottom edged behind a wild waft against Tom Bailey early on, before Ben Foakes edged behind Joe Mennie. Graham Onions did for Clarke and Morkel, with Virdi bowled first ball to leave Lancashire an imposing target of 271.
With 94 remaining to win, five down, no longer does it look imposing.