Saturday, 19 November 2011

Basil D'Oliveira: Great knock Dolly, there'll never be another quite like you

Basil D'Oliveira. Cape Town docks, just after the Millennium, during England's disastrous cricket tour of 1999/2000 - you know, the one when "honest" Hansie Cronje engineered a result in Centurion after the Proteas had won the series.
And there he was. Dolly. My idol. The man who simply refused to accept he couldn't play Test cricket for his own country. Banned by the brutal Apartheid regime from becoming the world-famous all-rounder he so plainly was.
Forced to play for a "non-white" South Africa against Uganda and Kenya. Brought up on dusty township strips, but still a prodigious batter and a more than average bowler. He scored an estimated 80 tons on the rough matting wickets around the Cape before he was eventually allowed to play on grass.
Basil D'Oliveira, the cricketer BJ Vorster couldn't bowl over, the man who brought racism to the world's attention. Whose legacy led to the Peter Haine-led sporting isolation which ultimately resulted in ridiculous rebel tours, flour bombs at All Black Test matches and headlines around the world.
To my mind, as a sports journalist, one of the most valuable weapons in the battle against man's inhumanity to man. Apartheid. Aparthate. Great man, Dolly.
Our chat, with the gloriously bearded and now-deceased Mirror cricket writer Chris Lander, ranged from the mundane to the magnificent. Drinks were drunk. Dolly sparkled and shone. One of the great nights.
And now, at 80, the great man has died in England. Even back then, the first signs of Parkinson's Disease were apparent, though not dominant. They had a moment's silence at The Wanderers on day three of the second Test against Australia in his honour. He deserved black armbands, posters, television documentaries, the works. Perhaps they will follow.
Dolly's unique history cannot be written without reference to Apartheid. To his being classified "coloured" by a regime who put a pencil in your hair and a ruler down your nose to decide if you could vote or not. He was part India, part Portuguese, all African.
Born near Signal Hill in Cape Town on October 4, 1931 (though there are rumours he's actually three years older, making him a Test debutant at 39), Basil Lewis D'Oliveira was an all-round sportsman, not just a cricketing all-rounder. He played football and cricket for the "non-white" international sides but was shunned by the established white professional associations.
But enter John Arlott, the grand gentleman of cricket. He was the man credited with easing Dolly from St Augustine's Cricket Club to Middleton, a club playing in the Central Lancashire League in 1960, at a time when non-white emigration was rare and frowned upon by the National Party government.
Dolly wrote to Arlott, the voice of cricket  in the 60s and Arlott said later: “What opportunity was there for a cricketer, denied by the laws of his native country organised coaching; parental financial capacity to afford proper gear; the use of a grass wicket or a safe outfield; the opportunity to take part in a first-class match or to play against opponents experienced at such a level?”
A journalist called John Kay eased his path in chilly Lancashire, where he and wife Naomi later to remark on his surprise at seeing white people doing menial work and working as waiters in restaurants. Middleton only signed "Bas" when their scheduled professional failed to turn up... and the money wasn't good. Back in Cape Town, charity matches were held to fund his new life in England. Unfazed by his social elevation (from second class citizen in the land of his birth to ordinary bloke in a foreign land), Dolly was soon spotted by Worcestershire after topping the league batting averages ahead of a West Indian bloke by the name of Garfield Sobers.
He scored a century on his county debut, and another in his second appearance. Naturalisation as an true British citizen followed and after two prolific seasons at New Road, England came calling after he was named one of Wisden's Cricketers of the Year in 1967.
Despite whispers about his nationality from the conservatives at Lord's, "Bas" made his England debut against the West Indies at the age of 35. Who knows what would have happend had he stepped on the world stage in his twenties? He got 27 and a wicket at Lord's in that first Test, three successive 50s followed.
Then came the touring Australians in the first Ashes Test at Old Trafford. He sat out the second, third and fourth Ashes clashes but was back for the fifth at The Oval.
And now we remember the mythical 158, scored at just the right time to earn selection for the 1968-69 tour to South Africa. Somehow, the selectors contrived to leave him out. Rumours raged... until a chap called Tom Cartwright pulled out injured... and Dolly had his rightful place on the boat to Cape Town, his home town.
Then Balthazar Johannes Vorster, the South African president, made the worst call of his generally undistinguished political career. He was in Bloemfontein when he heard the news that D'Oliveira had been picked for England. Having been assured at the highest levels that the "coloured South African" would not be selected, BJ growled: "The team as constituted now is not the team of the MCC it is the team of the anti-Apartheid movement."
The world had heard enough. England promptly called off the tour, and the Peter Haine-led sporting boycott of South Africa, which hurt sports-mad South Africans so badly for 25 years, began. It would not end until the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the rush to democracy in 1994.
Dolly went on to play 44 Tests for England, the highlight being the Ashes tour to Australia in 1970, when he famously wandered up to every Aussie available to push a finger in their chest and tell them: "We stuffed you!" after a 2-0 series win.
He declared his international career over a year later, ending with five Test centuries and an average of 44. But he went on to play for Worcestershire on a regular basis until 1977 when, at the age of 45, he topped the county averages. He kept playing the occasional championship game until he was nearly 50. registering 45 first class tons. Then he turned to coaching as the unfashionable midlands county won two titles in the 1990s and "Bas" had significant impact on the career of young Zimbabwean Graeme Hick, another who changed passports to play for England.
Dolly returned to South Africa after democracy, coaching the local clubs in Cape Town and generally doing good.
Years later, just after our meeting in Cape Town, Dolly was named one of the 10 South African cricketers of the century - despite being denied the chance to represent his country.
Even now, the Test series between England and South Africa are known as the battle for the "Basil D'Oliveira Trophy."
In 2005 he became a Commander of the British Empire in the Queen's Birthday Honours List. And the same year, they named the stand after him at Worcester's New Road ground.
Worthy tributes to a real character. Great knock, Dolly. There'll never be another quite like you.

No comments:

Post a Comment