Silence, please: Mark Selby takes aim during the 2021 Betfred World Snooker Championships at the Crucible

Pipe down and play up

We need more silence in sport

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A century ago this spring, an Oxford undergraduate got drunk for the first time. After downing three quarters of a bottle of Madeira, a glass of port and two tumblers of cider, he stumbled into Hertford’s Old Quad and decided to show off by reciting a favourite poem. There was just one problem: the young Evelyn Waugh found he only knew the first line.

“There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight,” he solemnly began, followed, perhaps, by a breathless hush from his friends, broken by the odd fetid hiccup, as he struggled to remember what came next. 

Sir Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada, written 30 years earlier, compares the tension in a school cricket match to the sturdiness required in colonial warfare. “Ten to make and the match to win,” it goes on. “A bumping pitch and a blinding light, an hour to play and the last man in.” If Waugh had been able to recall any more, it would be the captain’s cry, at the crease and later in battle, to “Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

Boy wonder: Collins

The poem carries extra poignancy since it was on the Close at Clifton College, Newbolt’s alma mater, in 1899 that AEJ Collins, a 13-year-old schoolboy, made 628 not out, which stood as a record in any form of cricket for 116 years. Collins would later make a fifty at Lord’s for the Royal Engineers, but he never played first-class cricket. Captain Collins was killed at Ypres, reportedly urging his men, in the school spirit, to “Play up! Play up!”

He died on November 11, 1914. Exactly five years later, George V ordered two minutes of breathless hush throughout the lands, a tradition we continue today. It is respected because it is rare. Like war, sport is naturally noisy. When, early in the pandemic, football matches were played behind closed doors, viewers found the lack of noise discomforting and so the broadcasters added the thrum of an artificial crowd that ebbed and flowed with the action. All that was missing were the lewd chants about the referee’s solo proclivities.

Yet you don’t need a commotion to create an atmosphere. Some of my favourite moments in sport have come when the crowd’s voice has been stilled. As Sid Waddell once said at a darts match: “The atmosphere is so tense, if Elvis walked in with a portion of chips you could hear the vinegar sizzle on them.”

I think of the air of anticipation at Lord’s before the first ball of the 2005 Ashes series when England’s long-suffering fans felt the stirrings of that strange emotion: optimism. Mixed, of course, with terror that Australia would soon set us straight. 

I was sitting in the top deck of the Tavern Stand next to Alan Coren and his son, Giles, who is not a natural Trappist but fell silent with everyone else as Steve Harmison walked to his mark in front of the Pavilion and charged in. Thirty thousand pairs of lungs exhaled as his first ball fizzed past Justin Langer’s off stump, then came a huge cheer as his second rapped the Australian on the elbow.

It is striking how soundless snooker is when watched in person

I think, too, of being at Medinah golf club, near Chicago, in 2012 for an extraordinary Ryder Cup, when Europe had battled back from 10-4 down to be a 6ft putt from retaining the trophy. Ryder crowds, like Corens, are seldom silent but as Martin Kaymer lined up his attempt, the German noticed something odd. “I suddenly realised how quiet it was,” he said. “All day there had been noise and now it was still.” A gentle tap and a few seconds later pandemonium returned, but now, instead of the cry of “U-S-A!”, it was “Olé! Olé! Olé-Olé!”.

At Wimbledon there is still a hush on Centre Court after the umpire says “Play”, and most go silent when he says “Quiet please” though there is always one who yells “Come on Tim!” So, too, do British and Irish rugby crowds tend to respect the kicker when they eye up a penalty. At Thomond Park, Munster’s fortress in Limerick, the silence becomes a weapon to unease the visiting kicker, so deathly still that you could hear a pin being dropped in Tipperary.

The silence of the start line, like that when a conductor lifts his baton, is in anticipation of the tumult to come. “Silence is the perfectest herald of joy,” as Claudio puts it in Much Ado About Nothing. Be it a full stadium falling quiet to watch sprinters kneel and tense, ready to snap into activity on the B of the bang, or the pastoral calm found at Henley Royal Regatta if you wander past the Pimm’s-soaked enclosures and head for the start, where your only fellow spectators are likely to be a few ducks.

And then there is the sport conducted almost entirely in silence. It is striking how soundless snooker is when watched in person. Even the murmur of the referee announcing the score, amplified by microphone for TV audiences, can barely be discerned at the back of the theatre. For much of the time, the only noise bar the clink of cue ball upon object is the rustle of sweet wrappers. Few dare to cough in the Covid era. Give me such concentration over sports with DJs shouting “make some noise”. In our chaotic and cacophonous world, moments of breathless hush are to be cherished.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover