Fortress Oval

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CHRIS FOY reports on why history suggests England have the beating of Australia - yet again - this week

THE GREAT and the good have been bombarding Surrey's switchboard for the last week - A-list film stars, sportsmen and musicians desperate for access to Fortress England, sensing that history will be made there yet again.

If the Ashes were a one-Test contest, England would demand to stage it at The Oval every time. The famous ground in Kennington, south London - within sight of the Houses of Parliament - has been at the vanguard of Anglo-Australian cricketing hostilities for 125 years and, in that time, the old country have dominated.

The teams have met 33 times there, with England winning 15, drawing 12 and losing six. No other venue has witnessed such consistent English success.

At Lord's, Australia hold a 15-4 advantage; at Trent Bridge they lead 7-4 ; and at Headingley they just edge it, 8-7. Old Trafford has hosted seven victories apiece while Edgbaston favours England 5-3.

So The Oval is the stronghold, a beacon of waning imperial defiance.

Even in the barren years since 1986-87, the host nation have won two of the four Ashes Tests played there, drawing one and losing another - the latest, in 2001.

No wonder the rich and famous are being drawn there as never before.

The people who advise them have no doubt discovered that if England are to regain the Ashes, this is the place where the odds are in their favour.

Surrey chief executive Paul Sheldon said: 'We have spent so much of our time fielding questions about tickets. There have been very big names contacting us - footballers, rugby players, golfers, film stars and pop stars. We have been inundated by people who don't normally follow cricket.' In fact, Surrey could have sold up to another 100,000 tickets as long ago as last November and Sheldon added: 'We could have filled the stands five times over.' The current series, with England 2-1 ahead going into this fifth and final npower Test, has generated unprecedented public hysteria.

But The Oval is not just about partisan pleasure, there is also a fair chance of seeing something momentous.

It was at the former market garden that England first played Australia on these shores, back in 1880. A hastily- convened home side featuring WG Grace edged to a five-wicket victory.

Having contributed in full to the birth of the Ashes in 1882 (see opposite), The Oval staged an unfitting farewell for the greatest talent to grace the event in 1948. Don Bradman strode to the middle for his final Test innings to a thunderous ovation, only to be out for a second-ball duck, leaving him with an average of 99.94.

Cricket was not alone in blazing a trail at The Oval. The ground staged the first FA Cup Final in 1872 - thanks to Surrey secretary Charles Alcock, who held the same post at the FA - and England's first home football international, against Scotland in 1873.

All in all, the authorities at The Oval are well versed in handling a big occasion, but none will have been anything like as big as the Test starting on Thursday.

Security is the biggest headache, with a team of 400 stewards on duty each day. Surrey have been guarding the wicket round the clock, in case vandals decide to wreak untimely havoc.

Sheldon said: ' The security operation is massive. We are working in conjunction with the police and Special Branch. But the size of the event is the other issue which creates pressure.

' We have to stop impostors coming in and there have been tickets selling at a ridiculous rate.

But we have been able to pick 1,500 tickets a day off eBay using sophisticated tracking systems, and if we find the culprits we cancel their tickets and allocate new ones to people on the waiting list.' This year is a momentous one in the history of The Oval, as a [pounds sterling]25million redevelopment of the Vauxhall End has been completed in time for the Australians' arrival. …