Surrey 253 for 3 (Pope 92, Foakes 68*) trail Leicestershire 375 (Evans 138, Hill 70) by 122 runs
It is cherry blossom season in South London. The pubs in Vauxhall have started to open their doors again, and 30-somethings sat outside cafés as the sun burst through the clouds on Friday morning. A stroll through Kennington Park confirmed that this was the first day of the county season in this part of the world on which a thick coat was not required, and there was a sense of wistful optimism for the summer ahead among the handful of staff inside The Oval before the start of play.
Jamie Overton finished an over to Leicestershire’s homegrown centurion Sam Evans that was interrupted by bad light on Thursday evening, and Amar Virdi twirled in from the Vauxhall End for two balls. And then, a deafening noise: Vvvvvvvvvvvvrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmmnnnnnnn. That sound, from the building site neighbouring the pavilion, was the incongruous soundtrack of a low-key day which saw Surrey edge their way into a position of dominance, thanks primarily to an unbroken 160-run stand between Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes.
The new development that caused such a racket, One Oval Square, will provide an extra 2000 seats, additional events and hospitality spaces, and new facilities for members including a restaurant and bar. Surrey hope that it will be completed by the end of May, in time for their T20 Blast campaign and England’s ODI against Sri Lanka, by which point fans will be back in the ground and the summer will be in full flow. It is a tantalising prospect which has loomed over the Championship, where the absence of a gentle murmur from the members has been keenly felt in the opening two rounds of the season.
The loud backdrop added to the sense often present during County Championship fixtures at The Oval: that while the game itself has a certain importance, it is a prelude or a postscript to something altogether more significant. The Surrey side this week features six internationals and three other players – Overton, Virdi and Jamie Smith – who expect to graduate to that level at some stage in their careers; the contrast with a Leicestershire side with 13 international caps between them (for Germany and the Netherlands) is stark.
It has been epitomised by those who have played the lead roles in the first two days of this fixture. Evans, an academy graduate whose determined hundred was his first in a Leicestershire shirt, was the protagonist on the first day, but it was Pope and Foakes who dominated Friday’s play. After Surrey fought back to bowl Leicestershire out for 375 – a useful first-innings total, but not the one they had eyed at 298 for 3 – they needed a significant partnership after slipping to 93 for 3 on the stroke of tea, but a wicketless final session means they can press on towards a lead in the morning.
But again, the game at hand is only one part of the equation, especially for the pair whose runs were particularly important. Pope has averaged 23.00 for England since the start of last summer, and came into this match after scores of 22 and 0 against Gloucestershire last week. While Leicestershire’s bowlers were generous, straying on to his hip too regularly, a pair of straight drives back past Ben Mike’s right hand betrayed portrayed a man in form; England’s selectors will be hopeful, on this evidence, that his lean run in Tests has been nothing more than a blip.
For Foakes, too, these were useful runs, backing up his 133 in the opening round of games. Foakes’ brilliance behind the stumps means that he is unlikely to play international cricket as a specialist batter, but the prospect of Jos Buttler – and even Jonny Bairstow – being away on IPL duty during the first Test against New Zealand in June opens the door for him to play a fourth consecutive Test as England’s keeper. He rode his luck, dropped twice on 33 – by Hassan Azad, at short leg, and by Harry Swindells behind the stumps – but grew in fluency, cracking a pull through midwicket to reach fifty as the floodlights took over from the haze.
When the sun was still high, Leicestershire had been well-placed to press towards 500, which would have been their first such total in the Championship since May 2017. Instead, Lewis Hill and Evans fell in quick succession, and it took some bottom-handed clubbing over midwicket from Mike to ensure that they secured a fourth batting point, which was achieved with two balls to spare. Kemar Roach took his first Surrey wickets in a fiery burst, knocking Swindells’ middle stump out of the ground and having Callum Parkinson caught at slip while fending at a short ball, and Virdi cleaned up the tail.
As was the case against Hampshire in their opening fixture, Leicestershire leaked runs too freely, straying onto the pads and dropping short and wide all too often. Gavin Griffiths was the pick of their attack, strangling Mark Stoneman down the leg side and pinning Hashim Amla lbw with a quick yorker, and Parkinson won a tight lbw shout against Rory Burns on the stroke of tea. They will reflect tonight that the game has started to slip away from them, but on a flat pitch, they still have every chance of forcing a draw.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98