We take a closer look at the venue for the final Test match of the 2013 Ashes, The Oval.
London's history is an often-told tale. First established in 43AD its population rose under the Romans and dwindled on their departure, and it was not until the 12th century that the city was properly established as England's capital. The 14th century's devastating Black Death and the Great Plague of 1665 killed thousands of Londoners, but by the Victorian era numbers in the city had begun an inexorable rise which shows little sign of abating even today: according to the 2011 census, there were 8,174,000 inhabitants of Greater London, making it comfortably the European Union's largest conurbation. From Roman to Saxon, Viking to Norman, London has received many an unwelcome visitor through the ages, but today the city embraces immigrant workers from all parts of the world. Australians are as keen as anyone to visit - in 2011 the capital's 'cobber' community was a cricket squad short of 54,000 - and the familiar 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie' chorus will be out in force again at Lord's and The Oval this summer.
The Oval has come a fair way for an area of south London wasteland which began life as a cabbage patch in the late 18th century. The garden market which evolved there was no more when, in 1845, the Montpelier Cricket Club upped sticks from Walworth and fetched in 10,000 Tooting Common turfs to lay a cricket pitch in the heart of Kennington. The land, as it still is now, was leased from the Duchy of Cornwall - hence the Prince of Wales' fleur-de-lis on the county badge - and in the same year Surrey County Cricket Club was formed. The Oval, in cricketing parlance, was a handy all-rounder in its first few decades: in addition to hosting the country's first Test in 1880 the venue was used for the first England-Wales and England-Scotland rugby union internationals and also witnessed the First FA Cup final in 1872 (Wanderers beat Royal Engineers 1-0, for all you pub-quizzers). The current five-storey pavilion was completed in 1898 but, for many, the most recognisable edifices in and around the ground remain the famous gas holders which date from the early 1850s. Naming rights to the stadium were first sold in 1988 - years before English football cottoned on that lucrative wheeze - and the innovation continues, with redevelopments of the pavilion and the OCS stand ongoing.
Partly by design and partly due to its place at the end of the English Test summer, The Oval often provides a pitch which gives everyone a fair crack of the whip. Traditionally considered the most fast bowler-friendly surface on this country's circuit, a quick glance at the venue's top 10 Test wicket-takers tells you that spinners have had no little success in south London either: four of the 10, and three of the leading four, were slow bowlers. And while Devon Malcolm's famous 9-57 against South Africa in 1994 is still celebrated, Muttiah Muralitharan's 16-wicket haul in 1998 remains equally as memorable. Oval pitches are at their most competitive when the ball comes onto the bat, and amid talk of England's groundsmen preparing dry strips this summer to suit Graeme Swann there is one glaring note of caution: on a subcontinent-style surface last summer South Africa racked up victory by an innings and for the loss of just two wickets. Whatever happens, Pitch 13 (the number strip customarily used in Oval Tests) is likely to prove unlucky for someone: it is six years since the ground last staged a drawn Test.
The Oval is the most significant venue in Ashes history. Host to the first Test match on English soil, against Australia in 1880, it was after an 1882 defeat to the Aussies in Kennington that the Sporting Times published English cricket's obituary, suggesting the "body be cremated and the Ashes sent to Australia". So began one of sport's most enduring rivalries, and the old south London arena has witnessed many a memorable Ashes moment down the years: from Len Hutton's record individual score of 364 in 1938 to two Donald Bradman double hundreds. During Australia's period of dominance towards the end of the last century, The Oval became synonymous with the salvaging of home pride at the end of a fraught series, England twice recording meaningless victories with the Ashes already lost. Redemption came in 2005 as Kevin Pietersen's first Test hundred secured a draw which regained the urn for England, and four years later it was debutant Jonathan Trott's somewhat-less-swashbuckling century which laid the foundations for a series-winning victory.