Essex 477 for 8 dec (Westley 134, Harmer 102*, Vijay 80, Wheater 68*) and 134 for 9 (ten Doeschate 53*, Morkel 4-28) beat Surrey 67 (Porter 4-26, Cook 4-27) and 541 (Roy 128, Pope 114, Stoneman 86, Jacks 53, Coles 5-123) by one wicket
The chairmen of the first-class counties were holding a meeting at The Oval on this final day of the 2018 season. One would like to think they could not give much attention to their agenda. One hopes they looked outside and saw the County Championship offering its final blazon of the summer. One hopes they watched Essex defeat Surrey by one wicket and realised they hold a priceless game in their hands. And there is no harm in hoping these things; hope and reflection are the staple foods of cricket lovers in autumn.
Yet for almost all of this remarkable day there was no time for gentle elegy or fond recollection. Instead there was only the keen blade of battle as Essex dismissed Surrey for 541 and then sought to score the 132 runs they needed to inflict a first defeat of the season on the 2018 champions. No team in the history of first-class cricket had ever conceded a first-innings deficit of 410, as Surrey had here, and gone on to win. Only the early afternoon shadows suggested late September; the cricket itself was of such intensity it could have played in mid-June with the title still in the hazard.
The climax of this extraordinary game saw the Essex captain Ryan ten Doeschate pitched against the three-man Surrey attack. Inspired by the final challenge of defending a mere 131 before receiving the Championship trophy, Morne Morkel, Jade Dernbach and Amar Virdi had set about their task without restraint. On the Harleyford Road the 436 went to Paddington by way of Marble Arch and the 185 to Lewisham by way of Denmark Hill. Inside the Oval a few thousand watched in the sharp afternoon sunshine as Morkel straightened one up to knock back M Vijay’s off stump. Then Martin Saggers agreed that Nick Browne had edged Virdi to Rikki Clarke at slip. The batsman was unconvinced but the visitors were 25 for 2, still over 100 runs from their target.
Like many batting sides before them, Essex got a severe attack of the jitters. Dan Lawrence edged Dernbach to Clarke at slip and Ravi Bopara ambled off miserably when given out caught at short leg off Virdi: 47 for 4. Eight runs later the Dernbach/Clarke combination got rid of Tom Westley for 20 but suddenly ten Doeschate began a counter-attack against Virdi, who conceded 30 runs off three overs as he was swept and reverse-swept to the fence.
By now a crowd which had turned up partly to watch the trophy presented and the champagne dutifully sprayed were fully engaged in the latter stages of an epic contest. Ten Doeschate and Adam Wheater took the score to 97 but Wheater then edged Morkel to Ryan Patel at second slip. Two balls later Simon Harmer nicked a catch to Ben Foakes off Morkel, who four overs later claimed his 59th and final wicket of the season when he had Jamie Porter lbw for 4: 111 for 8.
Matt Coles put on 13 more with ten Doeschate before being called by his captain for a third run which he had no hope of making. Ten Doeschate, you see, can run like the wind; Coles cannot. Mark Stoneman stopped the ball on the boundary and dragged it back to Will Jacks, who hurled it to Foakes. Coles was run out by the length of a long jump pit and went off with the air empurpled around him.
Now Matt Quinn joined ten Doeschate and the Surrey fast bowlers put in one last effort. Singles and twos were scampered. Morkel did not spare himself. His devotion to this county could not be greater had he been born in Virginia Water rather than Vereenging. He rattled Quinn’s helmet and hit him on the hand but he could not dismiss him. Then ten Doeschate nudged Dernbach to long leg and both game and season were done.
The players gathered together in mid-pitch and exchanged handshakes. As county cricketers have done on countless occasions for over a century they agreed what an incomparable game this is. Coles, who had earlier taken completed a five-wicket haul to set up his side’s victory, offered his congratulations to Surrey’s players on their title. Rory Burns and his colleagues then devoted themselves to the serious celebrations. Unfortunately, though, Colin Graves, the chairman of the ECB, was not available to present the trophy to Surrey. This was a shame. Graves has many responsibilities but presenting such worthy champions with their prize was an honour he should have accepted and relished. His absence did him no credit.
But perhaps it hardly mattered. The thousands who gathered in front of one of cricket’s greatest pavilions did not miss Graves and neither did Surrey’s players. They will, though, remember one of the great summers of their lives, a summer which ended with a glorious contest played between two sides neither of whom spared a sinew. If this was the day when the 2018 season withdrew from our sight and took its place in our memory, we can at least be sure it will occupy an honoured place.
For our cricket ended, much as it has been played, under a cloudless blue sky. It ended on a day when only one game was taking place. Both these things were entirely fitting. They brought a proper sense of closure to an idyll which, regardless of its off-stage rumblings, has been one to treasure. It will take more than the absence of one man, however grand, to remove the gilt from that gingerbread.