'Speech is silver, silence is golden, reverence is platinum'

‘Speech is silver, silence is golden,’ says the old proverb – there’s a power in a communal quietude that no amount of conversation can create.

Following a minute's silence for Queen Elizabeth II, Laura Wright sang the national anthems a cappella before play on day three of the third Test match at the Kia Oval, London. Picture date: Saturday September 10, 2022.. (31275439)
Following a minute's silence for Queen Elizabeth II, Laura Wright sang the national anthems a cappella before play on day three of the third Test match at the Kia Oval, London. Picture date: Saturday September 10, 2022.. (31275439)

The truth of this old wisdom was brought home to me on a recent visit to London, which happened to coincide with a seismic disturbance in British cultural life.

When, in March, I bought my ticket for the third day of the third and final cricket Test between England and South Africa at The Oval, my expectations were pretty low.

England were preparing for a tour of the Caribbean with captain Joe Root looking more downbeat with every press conference. They had been beaten in their last three series, in India, New Zealand and Australia, winning only one of their last 11 Tests.

Director of cricket Ashley Giles and head coach Chris Silverwood had been sacked and the Good Ship Cricket seemed rudderless.

Still, a trip to London represented a two-night stay at my friend’s flat in Marylebone and a couple of meals out, at the very least, and perhaps a nice day out at the cricket, weather permitting.

A lot happened between my buying the ticket and my boarding of the Embraer to Gatwick the Friday before last.

First, there was an even more abject display from England on their West Indies tour which precipitated the departure of Root as captain. Then there was the appointment of his successor Ben Stokes – a brilliant all-rounder who demonstrably had enough to cope with already.

But then there was an astonishing remodelling of the team’s mental approach engineered by Stokes and new head coach Brendon McCullum. An approach seemingly predicated on nothing more than a recognition that ‘it’s just a game, so chill out and do your thing’.

There followed three thrilling Test wins over New Zealand and one over India and then, perfectly for this ticket holder, two exciting Tests shared between England and South Africa, meaning we’d have a decider to look forward to at The Oval.

The forecast for the first two days was poor but we were alright, Jack – it looked set fair for the Saturday.

The day before my flight, while beavering away in the media room beneath the States’ Assembly, I got wind of rumours of what we used to call, in my BBC days, ‘a category one royal death’. By the time I reached the performing arts centre to see a play that evening, the rumour had become reported fact and the nation was in mourning.

Going to see a game of cricket suddenly didn’t seem like the most pressing matter. But heading to London became all the more appropriate.

Thursday’s play had been rained off. Friday’s play had been cancelled. So too would the whole match, I assumed.

But no. Surrey, a county cricket club with close ties to the new King – whose land is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall ­– announced the Test would go ahead and customers were invited to be in their seats half an hour early for a tribute to the late Queen.

So it was that I found myself sitting in the JW Finn stand, chatting with my companion for the day about the very real possibility of a result, despite the shortening of the Test.

An announcement was made over the speakers which, as usual, nobody could hear outside of the pavilion. Then a few soldiers walked down the steps and onto the turf and made two lines.

Seconds later, many of the people in the stand to our left stood up. Like a Mexican wave, so did we. And remarkably, everyone fell completely silent. Waiting. The BBC’s coverage in my left ear went silent too – wrongly convinced that the advertised minute’s silence had begun.

Then the announcer again – this time quite clearly Mark Nicholas letting us know that the silence was about to begin. Except that it already had.

And like most impeccably observed silences, it felt all the more profound against the backdrop of unrelated sound coming from afar. In this case the traffic on Kennington Road and an oblivious pile driver on a nearby construction site.

A minute later, a soldier in a bearskin hat rang the bell to indicate the end of the silence. But it didn’t end. There was no chatter, no applause.

Instead, another announcement. The national anthems were to be sung. South Africa first – a sprawling, multilingual melody of hope and unity.

The singer was Laura Wright, who had, it transpired, insisted on singing the anthems a cappella because that would make it easier for her to be sure not to err and allow muscle memory to guide her into singing the old anthem. For this was to be the first rendition of God Save The King at a sporting venue anywhere for 70 years – longer than her lifetime or mine.

I, along with everyone around me and around the stadium, sang along as well. It was so much easier to do that as a crowd without the music.

By the time I got to the word ‘King’, I could barely get the word out. I’ve never considered myself a royalist and I’ve never followed the soap opera stories of the royal family. In fact, I’ve been bored by them in much the same way as some people are bored by the ever-present coverage of sport. But suddenly I was aware that we were singing the anthem for somebody new to the job. Somebody who demonstrably had enough to cope with already.

And the gusto with which everyone around me was singing did not seem like a continuation of the silent reverence we had just observed. It seemed more like a powerful affirmation for the new monarch. A welcome to the throne, Chuck, and thanks for letting us play cricket on your turf.

When God Save The King ended, the applause came. I stood and applauded and carried on until it died down. But it didn’t.

After about 30 seconds, it felt odd. After a minute, it felt epic. Then it melded into the applause of welcome for the England team as they took to the field.

As James Anderson bowled the first ball to South Africa captain Dean Elgar, the ceremony gave way to sporting action and we were all immediately forced to remember that life goes on. No matter what the national mood, the strength of feeling, the enormity of the occasion or the category of the death, someone will soon be putting on a white coat somewhere, walking out into the middle and calling ‘play’, as surely as a pile driver drives piles.

The Queen’s reign was so long that fully 86% of the Tests ever played around the world were played between her succession and her death.

The play continues. But it does so only after a tribute of a kind that only a sport could have bestowed, distinct from any other ceremony or ritual, uniting those at play with those in service of their country through a hush amid the noise.

Speech is silver. Silence is golden. Reverence is platinum.

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