Competitive cricket welcomed back supporters for the first time this season in the T20 Blast game between Surrey and Hampshire at The Oval.
A total of 2,500 fans were allowed inside the south London ground, about a tenth of the capacity, five weeks on from the delayed start to the 2020 campaign.
In a match reduced to 11 overs per side by rain, Hampshire made 77-5, with Surrey debutant Jamie Overton conceding 12 runs off his only over.
Surrey reached a revised target of 80 with two balls to spare to complete a nine-wicket win, their first victory in this year’s competition, helped by an opening stand of 64 between Hashim Amla (29) and Will Jacks (45 not out).
Elsewhere, Northants Steelbacks stretched their lead at the top of the Central Group by beating Glamorgan for their fourth victory in five matches, while 442 runs were scored in the game between Somerset and Worcestershire, Somerset winning by 16 runs.
The other two South Group fixtures saw Kent Spitfires hold off Sussex Sharks for a one-run victory at Hove and Middlesex beat holders Essex Eagles at Lord’s.
A glimpse at the future?
The game at The Oval was domestic cricket’s first tentative step in getting back to some sort of normality amid England’s coronavirus restrictions.
A similar sized crowd had been due at Surrey’s Bob Willis Trophy opener last month before the government stopped it following a spike in Covid-19 cases.
The only supporters previously allowed into county grounds this summer were for two pre-season friendly games in late July at The Oval and Edgbaston.
There is still no indication if other grounds might allow fans in and when, although it is hoped Edgbaston might be allowed up to 8,000 spectators for T20 Finals Day in early October.
While the socially-distanced spectacle for 2,500 members at The Oval may have been a little unusual, the familiar sight of rain in this year’s competition saw the start delayed by an hour and each innings shortened to an initial 17 overs.
A further shower soon after play got under way meant Hampshire’s innings was reduced to 11 overs and they stumbled along, captain Sam Northeast top scoring with 31.
Former South Africa batsman Amla and 21-year-old Jacks made sure the Surrey supporters went home happy, with Amla’s dismissal by spinner Mason Crane in the ninth over the only blemish.
BBC cricket reporter Kevin Howells, who was at The Oval, said it was fantastic to see supporters enjoying some live cricket again.
“It was a great atmosphere and it appeared to do Surrey the power of good,” he said.
“People seemed grateful to be there. Even though it’s a big ground it felt a bit more normal. One of the biggest cheers of the night was when Rory Burns took a good catch on the boundary. The players must get a real lift from that. There have been some fantastic catches in the competition that haven’t got the applause they’ve deserved.
“I understand representatives from the ECB were here, people from the local authority, notes were being taken, so who knows what will happen now?”
The South Group’s other evening fixture saw Middlesex pick up their first victory in the competition to leave 2019 champions Essex still searching for a first win.
An opening stand of 97 between Stevie Eskinazi (51) and Max Holden (46) set the platform for Middlesex’s 167-7. A number of Essex batsmen got starts, but no one could build a match-winning innings as they finished on 156-8.
‘That one was for you, Capes’
An emotional evening for Northants Steelbacks saw the players wear black armbands and hold a minute’s silence in memory of club legend David Capel, who died on Wednesday after battling a brain tumour.
The 2013 and 2016 T20 Blast winners are again looking like one of the teams to beat in this year’s tournament as they chased a target of 161 against Glamorgan with four balls to spare.
Andrew Balbirnie’s 58 helped Glamorgan to 160-7, with Steelbacks seamer Nathan Buck claiming 4-29.
Northants’ big-hitting opening pair of Richard Levi and Paul Stirling blasted the ball to all parts to take their side to 50-0 after four overs, before both were dismissed in the same Marchant de Lange over.
Glamorgan continued to chip away but Alex Wakely’s unbeaten 36 took Northants to a four-wicket win.
Crawley stars as Kent win thriller
Earlier on Thursday, England batsman Zak Crawley continued his good form with a half-century for Kent in the T20 Blast as they beat Sussex Sharks in a nail-biting final-ball finish at Hove.
Crawley, who made 267 for England in the third Test against Pakistan last month, struck six fours and two sixes as opener in his 67 off 49 balls.
Kent’s 195-5 looked to be under-par when Phil Salt (33) and Luke Wright’s (40) opening stand of 58 in 4.2 overs got Sussex off to a flying start.
Delray Rawlins (30) and David Wiese (38) continued the momentum, but Wiese fell in the penultimate over leaving Sussex eight to win off six balls.
With two needed off two deliveries, Ravi Bopara nicked Fred Klaassen behind and Ollie Robinson was run out off the final ball to leave the Sharks short on 194-7.
In Thursday’s other lunchtime match, Somerset beat 2018 champions Worcestershire Rapids in a high-scoring encounter at Edgbaston.
Somerset piled up 229-8 with Pakistan T20 captain Babar Azam making 42 and former Worcestershire batsman Steven Davies scoring 60 in an opening partnership of 90.
Ed Barnard took some heavy punishment with the ball, conceding 55 off three overs, as Somerset hit 11 sixes in their 20 overs.
Worcestershire were never in the chase, falling to 62-4 and 117-6, and only some late aggression from Jake Libby (75 not out) and Daryl Mitchell (45) saw them finish on 213-7.
The Rapids have now lost three of their opening four games, with one no result, while Somerset have won back-to-back matches in the Central Group.
Meanwhile, Kent move above Sussex to top the South Group with the Sharks dropping to second.