Oval tribute packs a punch as on-field action follows suit

A sport that usually follows puts on a fitting display of leadership

The teams line up for a minute's silence in memory of Queen Elizabeth II, England vs South Africa, 3rd Test, 3rd day, The Oval, September 10, 2022

The teams line up for a minute's silence in memory of Queen Elizabeth II  •  Getty Images

Very few grounds do it better than the Kia Oval when it comes to giving England a burst of energy when they bound down those three tiers of steps from the changing room and onto the pitch. Now we know even fewer can also do sombre tribute packing the same punch.
At 10:50am, Ben Stokes and Dean Elgar (padded up) led their respective teams out; spikes scratching concrete on the descent the only noise in the air at a full yet profoundly silent ground. They walked through a military guard of honour, lining up either side of the umpires, facing the Pavilion. A minute's silence was observed in memory of Queen Elizabeth II. Laura Wright, note-perfect for "Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika" (God Bless Africa), was title and pronoun-perfect for the first rendition of "God Save The King" at a sporting event since 1952 following King Charles III's accession not even an hour earlier on this moving and unforgettable Saturday morning.
By 11:05am, those same stands now roared for Elgar's lost off stump. Ollie Robinson, the man responsible, was given - outside of the final bars of "God Save the King" - the most rapturous standing ovation of the day, leading England off with a third five-wicket haul to dismiss South Africa for 118 inside 37 overs. Stuart Broad took the final wicket to move level with his hero Glenn McGrath on 563 career dismissals.
Ollie Pope (67) batted well at the Oval, as ever. The hosts then gave a strong position away to lead by just 36 with three first-innings wickets remaining before boos greeted the decision to stop play for light that was far from bad. As punters left irate, you wondered why the fuss over extending to an extra day as these engaging yet flawed teams - who had sorted their differences in three days twice already this series - shared 17 wickets between them here. The cricket, just like life, continued as it had before. It was clearly right to do so.
But there was no guarantee it would on Friday. The England and Wales Cricket board were quietly confident of a resumption following conversations with the parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which left it up to them. Football's block cancellation at 11:30am saw them waver. But just before 2pm, they pulled the lever to continue. And 24 hours later, as videos of the morning tribute were picking up four-figures in all corners of social media, the same corners aiming pelters at the Premier League for being out of step, Stuart Broad dismissed Khaya Zondo to make it 72 for 7.
English cricket rarely leads the way these days, and it definitely doesn't always get things right. But faced with an unprecedented situation, a lot of correct decisions were made before a load of incorrect ones got us to a point where, actually, three days might be more than enough for this decider.
It was hard to escape the sense of pride and pressure of the situation, a burden carried most by the players. They looked visibly struck by the gravity of the situation when they made that walk down and stood there braced to utter "King" for the first time in this setting. "We had to remind ourselves of what we were actually going to sing," revealed Robinson after play. "There were a few nervy characters walking down the steps."
Stokes' assumption of the captaincy this summer has been affixed with a responsibility to offer welcome distraction to the public, which felt overly altruistic in June but fitted perfectly here. "We know how much the Queen loved this sport," said Stokes before play. "And the show must go on." A man who has stood up for his country's most important cricket moments doing his bit for one far beyond his purview.
Heck, maybe the absurdity of his innings - out caught first slip for six after he was dropped by Elgar on five - was just him taking duty to the next level. It was a sentiment echoed by Broad, who spoke of the match as "a celebration of the Queen's life" which reinforced the desire to "entertain the public". He certainly did his bit with the ball (4 for 41) before indulging his Vaudeville allrounder shtick in the evening (out swishing for 6).
There is an argument to be made that cricket being the sport it is in this country lent itself to a bigger margin for error on a day like this. Many have wondered how much football's decision to sit this weekend out was because of a fear of how any slight misdemeanour during this mourning period would have exacerbated the way the high society turns it nose up at the game. The same high society that cricket resides far more comfortably in.
Indeed, everyone has their own relationship with the monarchy. And it is hard not to escape the breadth and depth of emotions they elicit in cricket. Few sports have such authentic colonial roots like this one, each carrying a pain often glossed over or ignored whenever the question of why so many teams relish sticking one on England is asked. The clue is in the game and those who play it most.
But there was a sense of catharsis today, perhaps only among the English, and even only for a portion of them. And perhaps the most important thing of all was that cricket took a difficult decision and will go into Sunday better for it.
The third Test, even with two days left, is set for a thrilling conclusion. A worthy way to see off one of the most engaging long-form summers in recent years after a fitting display of leadership for a sport that usually follows.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo