A grand old crumbling institution, racked with death, but held aloft by duty, service and succession. Yes, this certainly was a big day for Test cricket. And also for the royal family, as the Oval crowd offered its own soft, sombre hello-goodbye to the monarchical succession.
It always felt like the right thing to do. People don’t want to be told to stay in their homes and mourn dutifully. Here the adverts were dimmed, the staging sparse – no greater love hath any governing body than removing its Cinch banners – and the anthems brilliantly sung by Laura Wright, most notably God Save the King, which is going to take a while. The best part was the silence.
After which this became a story of twin batting struggles, South Africa’s significantly more feeble. And, also, looking a little more closely, of two middle-order batsmen, one on each side. On a day that had already had its say on inheritance, power, status and all the rest, it seemed significant that it should be Khaya Zondo who battled through the morning for South Africa; and then Ollie Pope who decorated the afternoon for England.
It is hard to think of two batters whose journey to this point offers a greater contrast: princeling and commoner, outsider and the heir apparent, lessons both in the way this sport still works. This was Zondo’s first Test innings, 15 years into his career as a black South African batsman. The journey here has involved lost years, predictable public horrors and a sense of crawling, Shawshank-style, though a very long, dark pipe.
His best moment came 12 minutes before lunch. With South Africa 56 for six and Jack Leach on for a twirl, Zondo skipped down and lifted the ball in a lovely soft arc over Ben Stokes at long on, who watched it go with an admiring nod.
It was Zondo’s first boundary in Tests. He walked off at lunch 21 not out, having survived 52 balls of some of the hardest conditions in world cricket. Zondo is not a star. He isn’t settled at this level. Aged 32, he may not stick around long. Sometimes just getting there also means something.
Either side of this South Africa produced a batting performance so terrible it was perhaps a blessing dear old Liz didn’t live to see it. But England also bowled well. Thirteen of Ollie Robinson’s first 36 balls beat the bat, including his third one, which took out Dean Elgar’s off stump.
Ryan Rickelton, a sturdy 26-year old Transvaal left-hander who sounds like a highly convincing composite identity, came and went. Kyle Verreynne, who at the crease resembles a man trying valiantly to bat his way out of a giant spider’s web, did well to get to his second ball, which he nicked.
Zondo battled around this. Playing late, hands close to his body, and lucky at times, always on the verge. But again, just being there felt like a thing. It seems remarkable that as recently as May Mark Boucher, coach of South Africa, was cleared of racially tinged gross misconduct after Paul Adams refused to give evidence. Zondo was also centre stage in that process.
The Social Justice and Nation-building report had found that South Africa’s then skipper AB De Villiers “discriminated against him on racial grounds” in 2015. Zondo had been passed over for selection on tour. South Africa chose instead to fly Dean Elgar to India.
Zondo would make his ODI debut four years later, but the pain of trying to enter that place stayed with him. Test cricket really is hard enough. Zondo is a player fighting to make that level. How much better might he have been if the scales had gone the other way over the years, too many chances rather than zero chances, a Crawley-scale margin rather than no margin, without the voices off, the public doubts?
Zondo made it to lunch but no further, looping Stuart Broad to deep point, another middle-order batter processed through the meat grinder of an English Test summer. He may or may not get past that 23. But it was, in at least one sense, the innings of his cricketing life.
Robinson got his fifth soon after to make it 49 Test wickets at 19.5 so far. And when England batted only Pope stuck around, getting off the mark with some lovely tight whip-crack pull shots. This is his stage, eased through from under-9s, through Cranleigh to Kennington, next in line at every level, a grand talent with the wind always at his back. It is still a key match for him. Pope has shown bits since he came back, looked urgent at times, classy at others. Which way is this thing going to go?
He shuffled down the pitch (why?) and on-drove dreamily. He stooped to drive Anrich Nortje through point. But he went in the end for 67, nicking behind and punching his bat as he walked off. There will be other chances. England ended on 154 for seven, already ahead, on a day of silence and cheers, Zondos and Popes, and some fine and gripping if less than regal Test cricket.