The moving scenes of remembrance at the Oval offered a reminder of sport’s ability to deliver a true collective catharsis
It was as hauntingly beautiful a moment as any sporting crowd had conjured. For three-and-a-half minutes, ended only by the tolling of a ship’s bell from HMS Illustrious, 27,000 people inside the Oval united in exquisite silence. Only the faint clank of industrial machinery, far outside the ground, broke the sense of reverie.
So much for the tortured debate as to whether sport could summon the decorum to reflect this time of national mourning. The cricket lovers who assembled here under glowering September skies were as peaceful and as deferential as a congregation at St Paul’s Cathedral.
A few spectators in the Vauxhall End wiped away tears. Ben Stokes, the England captain, stood with his head bowed, biting his lip. And when it came for his players to sing God Save the King, the first national side to do so in the reign of Charles III, the anthem, led by soprano Laura Wright, resonated around all corners of this ground like a plangent elegy.
In the end, the fans did not even need a polite plea over the public address system to be quiet in remembrance of the Queen. They had done so unbidden, the second that a military guard of honour began forming on the outfield. And they remained in mute contemplation until the chime of that solitary bell.
The Oval honours Queen Elizabeth II with a minute’s silence. pic.twitter.com/GIVm6hEeTL
Only at the conclusion of Wright’s recital, her voice rising an octave for the final reference to “the King”, did they break into rapturous applause. It was a comforting reminder of sport’s ability, even amid muttering about whether it should be taking place at all, to deliver a true collective catharsis.
Staging this Test match, even in abbreviated three-day form, required balancing a complex set of calculations. The Oval is not just any other venue: it is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, the £1 billion estate that now passes to William, Prince of Wales. Could sport be held on royal land so soon after the most seismic of royal deaths? It was a question answered decisively in the affirmative, with cricket, under pressure to strike the appropriate tone, rising to the occasion impeccably.
Stokes, clearly, had been desperate for the game to go ahead. “It has been a sad couple of days not only for us, but the whole nation and the world,” he said. “It’s great to be standing here, knowing that we’re playing in memory of the Queen.” His words served as a clarion call for his players, who promptly took all 10 South African wickets before tea.
The hosts, Surrey County Cricket Club, had appeared nervous about whether England supporters would behave themselves for the duration. They had warned ticket-holders not to turn up in fancy dress, while restricting everybody to a maximum of two alcoholic drinks per person. These were needlessly meddlesome diktats. For here was an audience who, on this of all days, would not even countenance lapsing into Barmy Army-esque excess.
The Queen’s association with cricket had been largely ceremonial. She was not even the most ardent follower of the sport in her own family, delegating on this front to the Duke of Edinburgh, twice president of the Marylebone Cricket Club. But none of the England captains who encountered her at Lord’s would ever forget it. Mike Brearley, who met her in 1978, told me earlier this year that he had felt like a “tongue-tied courtier”, paralysed with fear about committing a breach of protocol.
Naturally, there was the odd faux pas. Pat Pocock, the former England off-spinner, once reputedly asked the Queen if she had any FA Cup final tickets, while Australia’s Dennis Lillee made a famously audacious autograph request. As ever, she brushed off such impositions benignly. “The Queen and her late husband both had a long history of supporting cricket,” the stadium announcer declared. “We recognise her immense contribution.”
The solemnity was echoed throughout the land at rugby’s Premiership matches, where all players and coaches wore black armbands, with commemorative messages displayed on giant screens. Mercifully, the bursts of blaring music for marking tries were also shelved for the day. At Wentworth, the PGA Championship resumed in discreet fashion, with a few fans hoisting a Union Flag aloft as they crossed the first fairway.
So scrupulously was the etiquette of grief observed, it begged the question why football could not be permitted the same freedom to return. After all, within just 90 minutes of the Queen’s death being confirmed on Thursday night, minutes’ silences had passed off at Old Trafford and London Stadium without even a murmur of discord. Could the same fans not be trusted to adhere to the same codes of respect two days later?
As cricket joins together to celebrate Her Majesty’s life, we would like to simply say thank you for those moments where she so kindly joined us at the Oval.
Public engagements for the Queen, which she handled with such grace, but moments those present will never forget. pic.twitter.com/XNrKYtnWoR
Ultimately, the national game found itself in an impossible bind as it grappled with the decision. If it sanctioned a full slate of domestic fixtures, it risked a charge of acting in insensitive haste, or of being oblivious to the prevailing mood. As such, with the additional worry of pressure on police resources to consider, it erred towards an abundance of caution by cancelling its weekend programme.
Was it over-thinking the proprieties? If so, it was not alone, with the Met Office reducing its service to daily forecasts as a signal of “respect”. Quite how the Queen was honoured by refusing to reveal when the next storm was coming was anyone’s guess.
Cricket, mercifully, had the courage of its convictions. There were certain practical imperatives for holding this truncated Test, not least the fact that South Africa had already arranged their flights home for Wednesday. But by far the greatest impetus came from the fact that it was the right course to take.
Sometimes, the most fitting reaction to a shattering national loss is not to retreat inwards, or to scrap everything that might possibly bring people joy. On the contrary, the deepest solace can be derived from navigating the sorrow and the uncertainty en masse. It was a theory given the starkest validation here.
With sport under the microscope as seldom before, cricket delivered a response that was, quite simply, note-perfect.
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