The first ball of the final Test between England and South Africa was delivered promptly at 11am, under leaden skies and in an atmosphere rendered sombre by the brief ceremony that preceded it, and a reminder that sometimes there is nothing so eloquent as complete silence.
Unbidden, the crowd at the Oval stood and fell quiet as representatives of the armed forces formed a guard of honour in front of the pavilion in the minutes before play was due to start, and remained hushed as the umpires and players of both sides emerged from their dressing rooms and walked through it before lining up for the anthems.
The quiet was finally and briefly broken by, paradoxically, the announcement of a minute’s silence, and then on its completion by the ringing of the bell by a senior NCO of the Irish Guards. The singing of South Africa’s anthem was observed with similar respect before a cathartic rendition of God Save the King (the first time it had been sung at a televised sporting event in more than 70 years), led by the soprano Laura Wright and accompanied by the rumbling baritone of an overwhelmingly male crowd, feeling their way a little gingerly into its suddenly unfamiliar lyric. And then, as the singer’s final notes faded into silence, an ovation.
It was all very mannered, sometimes a little eerie, but not even the most inveterate cynic could fail to locate the respect and the warmth that ran through the silence, and then the applause.
Less than 24 hours earlier the England and Wales Cricket Board would have felt nervous about its decision to allow play on Saturday, but should be commended for that and also for organising a ceremony that took little time, made very little fuss and felt entirely appropriate. As should Test cricket’s often maligned fan base for somehow sensing, unguided, precisely how best to play their part in it.
Jimmy Anderson’s opening over was soundtracked by the Barmy Army’s trumpeter attempting a plaintive Jerusalem, and the sombre mood was finally lifted by the ninth ball of the day, with which Ollie Robinson convinced Dean Elgar’s off stump to engage in some rather off-message cartwheeling.
“We know how much the Queen loved this sport, and the show must go on,” Ben Stokes said before the start of play. “I’m sure she’ll be looking down on all the sport that’s still going ahead over this weekend, and that we’re going out there in her honour. I’m very pleased and proud we can do that.
“It’s been very sad news not only for the nation but the world. The Queen was someone who dedicated her life to the nation, someone that we take incredible inspiration from and we are honoured to be able to walk out on the field in memory of the Queen.”