Lords loses out

R.W. Johnson

  • Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story by Peter Oborne
    Little, Brown, 274 pp, £16.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 316 72572 2
  • Reflections on a Life in Sport by Sam Ramsamy and Edward Griffiths
    Greenhouse, 168 pp, £7.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 620 32251 9

Growing up in Durban in the 1950s, I could see how keen Coloured and Indian cricketers were, how much everything was tilted against them and, at the same time, how good white South African cricket was. Take the schoolboy generation I saw rising around me. Playing against Hilton College, I came up against Hylton Ackerman and Mike Procter – the latter opening both the batting and bowling at the age of 13 – while at Durban High School the opening pair of Lee Irvine and Barry Richards had century or double-century partnerships every week; it was impossible to bowl to them. When in 1969-70 this lot, plus the young Pollock brothers, Peter and Graeme, slaughtered the Australians by four tests to nil, you felt that it had been waiting to happen. Years later, my Durban state school, Northlands, had two old boys on opposing sides in a test: Robin Smith for England, Shaun Pollock for South Africa.

The Coloured all-rounder Basil D’Oliveira came to prominence in 1958, when he led a ‘non-white’ tour to Kenya. Some of his achievements on that tour were staggering – 46 runs off one eight-ball over; 225 runs in an innings lasting 70 minutes; a bowling spell of nine wickets for two runs – but you didn’t know how good the opposition was. When he began to play for Middleton in the Lancashire League, I followed his performances and it was clear he was an exceptional player. The most revealing thing in his own account of his career in Time to Declare (1980) is the admission that he and the young Garfield Sobers (also then playing in the League) watched one another’s performances like hawks every week. In his first season, 1960, D’Oliveira headed Sobers in the batting averages and took 70 wickets; the next season Sobers had the better batting average but D’Oliveira outscored him – and Sobers was the best all-round cricketer there has ever been.

What is most touching, and awful, in Time to Declare – D’Oliveira tells it unwincingly – is the way in which both he and his wife, on arriving in England, kept asking where the non-white carriage was, where the non-white entrance was. When it dawned on them that they were welcome as equals, gratitude towards their adopted country knew no bounds. The fairytale was complete when D’Oliveira went on to play not only for Worcestershire but for England, for whom he scored centuries, took wickets, won matches; he got an OBE and met the Queen. He ends his book by saying: ‘I shall always offer Britain as my model example of the decent, multiracial society any country should be proud to copy,’ while also wondering whether he wouldn’t one day be ‘back for good in my own country’. In fact, the D’Oliveiras, despite many return trips to South Africa, still live in the shadow of Worcester cathedral. Both D’Oliveira himself and Peter Oborne comment repeatedly on the spontaneous goodwill the British public showed him. That came in no small part because, modest and unpolitical man that he was, he never went in for displays of assertiveness or posturing, and this never spoiled the story of what racial equality and simple fair play could achieve.

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