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I held the envelope, staring at it, wondering what was inside but somehow scared to open it. We knew no one in England and I knew of it only as a place where, according to others, I should go to try my luck as a cricketer. Naomi nudged a little closer. She didn’t say a word, but I could feel her willing me…. “Go on, open it, it will be all right.”
And how right she was! Suddenly the room, already filled with the early morning sunshine, seemed twenty times brighter. After nearly ten years of rumour that I would be going overseas, here was the first real sign. The letter was from John Arlott. Our success on the Kenya tour had convinced him that someone should take the initiative to find out if this chap D’Oliveira did have real potential. He was prepared to do everything he could to get me to England, but first he wanted to hear from me if I was interested.
At any time during the previous ten years I would have dived in off the Cape and started swimming up the West coast. Now I had to stop and think, think for two, and perhaps even for three. Naomi and I had been married three months and we had just begun to suspect that she was pregnant. “Well,” she said. “What are you waiting for?” I couldn’t say much. I was trying to imagine the consequences of now doing something which for so long had seemed impossible. I heard Naomi say, “You know you’ve got to go, darling. I’ll wait here until…”. She didn’t finish the sentence. Like me, she couldn’t guess what would happen after I had said “Yes”.
I dressed and went in search of Benny Bansda, an Indian chum who had been my champion for years. He was head barman in one of Cape Town’s biggest hotels, The Grand in Adderley Street. Benny was also a prolific writer on all sporting matters and, after years of campaigning on my behalf, had written the article for World Sports Magazine which had finally persuaded John Arlott to write to me.
Benny’s first reaction was, “Great! What are you waiting for?” I confessed that my big fear was that I didn’t know—had no way of knowing—if I was really good enough. Benny said: “There’s only one way to find out.” With that he grabbed a piece of paper and he wrote to John Arlott saying that, if any specific job could be found, I would leave right away.
Before I got back home everybody on Signal Hill, it seemed, knew already that I was on my way to England. I learned later that, when John Arlott received my letter, he contacted John Kay of the Manchester Evening News and an authority on Lancashire League cricket. John knew that Middleton, for whom he had played, was looking for a new professional and had been negotiating with Wes Hall, the West Indies fast bowler. Wes had provisionally accepted the offer but he insisted that the announcement should be delayed for several months. I gather that Wes was worried he might lose his job and be out of work for six months if it was learned that he was going to take up a League job in England in the spring of 1960.
When the news did leak out that Wes was thinking of going to England, he wrote to Middleton to explain that he could not complete the contract. This coincided with the moment that John Kay received the inquiry from John Arlott. Together, they persuaded Middleton to make me an offer. It was ?450 for a year’s contract, out of which I had to pay my fare to England, which would cost about ?200.
This offer, for which I had waited so long, carried with it its own problems. When I sat down to work out the money matters, I realized that I would have to turn it down because I simply could not afford to travel. I had no money. My parents had none.
I had been earning and contributing to the household expenses. The doctor confirmed that Naomi was expecting our first child and, even if I could have managed to live in England, there wouldn’t have been a shilling to send home for Naomi or my parents out of what would have been left of my contract money.
I was about ready to accept it as a dream lost when the coloured lads in Cape Town and all over South Africa threw themselves into a campaign, started by Bansda, to raise the money to send me to England. I think that they, as much as I, felt the honour of an English club coming to them for a professional. Nobody had been asked before and no one had gone before. Coloured clubs all over the country started to arrange special games and collections and white South Africans joined in.
I have never forgotten that, without the help of white South African cricketers—including Peter Van der Merwe who subsequently captained the Springbok Test team—and other first-class players like Jim Pothecary and Dick Westcott, the money which was needed to get me to England might never have been raised. These cricketers played in a side led by Gerald Innes, a former South African tour player who arranged a Sunday match against my own team. This game brought one of the biggest crowds ever seen on the Claremont ground in Cape Town. Together the coloured cricketers and the white cricketers went around with collecting boxes and raised over ?150.
I don’t know exactly how this match came to be staged or who turned blind eyes, but we knew then—and there has been plenty of evidence since—that the dogma of Mr. Vorster’s cabinet is not by any means a true reflection of the wishes of many South African cricketers.
Benny Bansda’s campaign eventually raised ?450. A word like gratitude seems so inadequate. Every moment I live as a first-class cricketer I owe to all those kind people who spontaneously got together to give me the chance of a new career.
Raising the money to come to England was not the whole problem. The brief talks with the English county cricketers who had been in South Africa on coaching trips had taught me something about the conditions which existed in England. But now I needed to have it all analysed. Particularly, I needed to know what conditions were like in the League. I had heard that they were different from county cricket but I had no idea in what way.
The man who could best help me was Tom Reddick, who had previously played for Middlesex and Nottinghamshire, and subsequently had been coach to Lancashire. At that time, as I have said, he was coaching in Cape Town. There was probably nobody anywhere in South Africa who knew more about League conditions.
I telephoned him and he said I could go to his house right away. His first words were: “You might just as well know now, lad, you are going into one of the hardest forms of cricket in the world, but I wish you well.” He said he would prefer to see me going into county cricket but, if I wanted to try the League, he would give me all the help he could.
First, he told me exactly what a professional had to do. It wouldn’t be just playing cricket on Saturdays and lazing around for the rest of the week. It meant working really hard for the club on the ground, helping with the wickets, and coaching the local lads by night.
Four nights each week I visited Tom at his house. I would be waiting for him at six o’clock when he came home and, though he had already devoted a full day to coaching the university students, he would patiently spend hours teaching me everything he could. Not the least important was how he tuned me mentally for the change.
By the time Tom finished with me, my feet were once again firmly on the ground. He warned me that cricket in the Central Lancashire League would not only be vastly different from the cricket which I had been playing, but it would also be different from the first Test match I had seen in Cape Town ten years before, which was indelibly printed on my mind.
For the first time I realised that I would not always be playing on good wickets. I would also have to learn how the conditions of wickets changed with the weather. And I had to learn something about the English weather! Perhaps the most forbidding of all Tom’s warnings was that, in the League, I would each week be facing some of the best cricketers in the world, each of whom was in the game to earn a living.
Tom Reddick certainly helped me to come to England. More important, he helped me to stay, especially during the early days when, if I had not had his words to hang on to, I might have given it all up and rushed back home.
Tom gave me something as well. He probably didn’t realise it at the time and maybe doesn’t now. After our coaching sessions at the back of his house each night he would invite me in for a drink. This was the first time I had ever entered the home of a white man.
I wish he could have been with me in London nine years later, at a function just before Christmas, 1968. In a room glittering with chandeliers, a hundred or more English cricket celebrities sat down to dinner, elegant in their dinner jackets. The occasion was to present a cricket trophy.
As winner of the Lawrence trophy the previous year, I was there to present the silver cup to the new winner, my county captain, Tom Graveney. I also had to make a speech. I sat at the top table between the M C C President, Mr. R. Aird, and Secretary, Mr. S. C. Griffith. I think that, if Tom Reddick had been there, I might have made him feel a little proud and with a glance I could have told him how grateful I was for preparing me for that moment.
John Kay was waiting for me when I arrived at London Airport. He had been in London the previous night to cover a boxing match and had stayed over to meet me and to take me back to Manchester. I had hoped that he or John Arlott would be there, but I was not prepared for the shock when I reached the doors of the aircraft and started to walk down the gangway.
John Arlott had been broadcasting the previous night and had casually mentioned that I would be arriving the next day. As I soon came to learn, a word lightly dropped is enough for the British journalists and photographers who, so far as I have been able to see, keep their readers better informed than is the case anywhere else in the world.
The day was April the First and, if I had been aware of anything, I would have asked myself what sort of fool I was to be taking this step down a gangway into a sea of faces and flashbulbs which made the grey damp morning seem darker.
Someone in uniform handed me a note. It read: “Don’t say anything. Meet you inside. John Kay.” I thought, “What does he mean? Don’t say anything? What had happened? What had gone wrong?” All I could hear was “Mr. D’Oliveira … Mr. D’Oliveira …”. Somebody was talking about a television room. Would I go there? They wanted me “on camera”. Everyone was staring and I was staring back, hoping to see someone I recognised, someone to hold on to. Normally, there was always someone with me, but here I was on my own. I couldn’t turn to anybody for reassurance. I was in another world. A white man’s world. There wasn’t a black skin in sight. I can’t remember a single question I was asked or any answer I gave. I don’t even remember the moment when John Kay arrived and introduced himself. The first thing that I recall, after the hiatus of arriving, was sitting in John’s car.
We drove to John Arlott’s flat. He looked exactly as I had imagined him to be. In South Africa we had often listened to John’s broadcasts, and his voice, the way he talked about cricket and the humour which he found in little incidents, gave the impression that he was a warm, friendly person. As I stopped in the doorway waiting for him to say, “Come in,” I remember thinking—he looks just like his voice.
Within seconds, he had me chatting like a long-lost friend. I suppose in some ways he was that to me, because he had started mentioning me in his newspaper columns and in broadcasts five or six years before.
Although I knew of him as a writer and a broadcaster, I couldn’t understand why he needed so many books. The room was lined with them.
John tried to reassure me that I would find everybody anxious to help me settle down and made me promise that, if I had any difficulties with which he could help, I had to get in touch with him right away. He was sure that, with John Kay looking after me, I would be protected from the worst that Lancashire could offer!
John Kay had sent back the hired car which we had used from the airport and we travelled to Middleton by train. Each hour brought a new experience. As I stepped aboard the train, another wave of doubt swept over me. I thought, “Oh my God, not one coloured person on the train! What am I getting into here?”
Although my skin is not noticeably different in colour, I was as conscious of the difference as if I had been a coal-black negro. When you have grown into manhood separated always as black and white, never travelling on the same public transport, eating in the same restaurants, going to the same hotels, being in the same house, sitting at the same table, drinking from the same cup, using the same lavatories, it is not easy to begin to do all these things, without an instinctive mental shying away.
As we had walked along the platform to the train, I was fascinated that everyone doing the lifting and the carrying was a white man. Nowadays coloured immigrants are employed in great numbers on the British public-transport systems. I suppose, even when I arrived, there were coloured people working at the station. But, because I saw white men doing the job which I had previously seen only coloured men do, I would not have noticed any coloured workers, even if they had been there.
John Kay took me into the dining car for a meal and he saw that I was now becoming quite frightened. To have sat down publicly at a table for a meal with a white man would have meant trouble for both of us in South Africa. I was so scared that it was only when John reminded me about it later that I remembered that it had happened.
Indeed, I recollect very little about those first twenty-four hours. I can recall getting off the train. I was wearing a green scarf because of the cold. This was high around my face and I could see very little of what was going on. There were five men waiting for us, all of them Middleton officials. One was George Harwood, the secretary. I was put into a car but I didn’t hear what was said or even see what was happening. I heard someone mention a golf club and dinner. All I can really remember of the golf club visit was seeing television for the first time. It was an outside broadcast and the rain was teeming down. I wanted to touch the screen to see if it was wet.
Not until nearly midnight did I arrive at the digs which had been found for me with Mr. and Mrs. Lord, who were to be my “parents” for the next year. They could not have treated me better if I had indeed been their own son. I often look at two photographs—one of my mother and one of Mrs. Lord. Mother is older and her skin is darker, but both are smiling into the camera, both wear glasses and both have the same warm friendly eyes, both the same smile. I can see a likeness, even if others cannot.
That first night Mrs. Lord was worried about me. She was sure that coming from that lovely hot sun into an English night would cause me to freeze to death unless she packed the bed with hot water bottles and blankets and lit every fire in the house. Certainly this was one of those April days in England which would have changed Robert Browning’s mind about wanting to be there.
I must have been completely exhausted when I fell into bed that night. That tiredness, plus Mrs. Lord’s determination to make me comfortable, sent me to sleep until five o’clock the next afternoon!
The following morning I walked the streets of Middleton and I saw the white man as I never thought him to be. To segregated Africans, the image of a white man is a white shirt, a hat, an umbrella and a smart city suit. For the first time, I saw white men wearing overalls, working in the roads, sweeping the streets, emptying the dustbins and delivering the milk. These were jobs which I had seen only coloured people do.
For a white man to do these things in Africa would be to downgrade him. When I saw the Englishmen at work in Middleton, it gave these jobs a new dignity. Later I realised why. In South Africa the African must sweep the streets, but he cannot then go home, have a bath, put on a suit and go out unchallenged into the world around him.
Having now been away from Africa for nearly ten years, that does not seem a very dramatic thing to say. Indeed, it is the sort of thing others have said for many, many years and some have chosen to say it with aggressiveness and bitterness. This is not the effect I ever want to give. I have been hurt but I do not want revenge.
During the height of the crisis in late 1968 when it was announced that, if I were not going to South Africa as a Test player, I would be sending comments from South Africa on the Test matches, concern was expressed that these might be angled to stimulate more controversy.
Those who voiced such fears had either forgotten or were unaware that, in the years I had been in England, I had revisited South Africa and spent many months there. I had travelled around the country giving lectures and coaching and never once allowed conversation or comments to intrude on things other than cricket. I had also contributed fairly frequently a column under my own name in South African newspapers about life in England—life as a cricketer.
Never, with a cough or a comma, had I consciously said or written anything that could be considered racially contentious.
I was grateful to have the chance of a summer alone in England before Naomi came to join me. The life of a professional cricketer is a man’s world. Although I missed Naomi very much, being alone did mean that I could be quite single-minded about learning to live in the new world. By the time she joined me, I had more confidence. Perhaps not enough for both of us, but at least it was better than if we had both arrived frightened and confused as I had done.
It was a very slow boat which took me back to South Africa at the end of the 1960 season. I was going back to collect my wife and my child, who was soon to be born, and I was bringing them back to the life which we had always dreamed about and which was indeed as good as the dream itself.
The dream had not been uninterrupted, indeed the first few weeks in Middleton had been more like a nightmare. I was not the only one in that Lancashire town who thought that a ghastly mistake had been made. But, by the end of the month, I had begun to adjust my technique. I recovered from my bad start and finished the season with 930 runs with an average of 48.95 and 71 wickets for an average of 11.72. Middleton had given me a new and better contract and were going to pay my fare and Naomi’s back to England the following spring.
From The Basil D’Oliveira Affair, 1969
THE OBITUARY OF BASIL D’OLIVEIRA (#ulink_2914215f-2a76-5822-a1ba-c6bda219e822)
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack
D’Oliveira, Basil Lewis, CBE, died on November 18, 2011. He was generally thought to have been 80. Basil D’Oliveira was a fine cricketer who, in more normal circumstances, could have played far more than 44 Tests. But the miracle of his life was that he played any at all. His story, and the 1968 crisis known as the D’Oliveira Affair, had consequences that reverberated far beyond cricket and would define Basil’s life. The man himself was not a secular saint or a political campaigner: he was, above all else, a cricketer.
D’Oliveira was born in Cape Town and grew up in the then segregated Coloured area known as Signal Hill. That much is certain; the date is more problematic. When he first arrived in England in 1960, he said he had been born in 1935. According to Pat Murphy, who ghosted Basil’s 1980 autobiography Time to Declare, he revised that figure twice, first to 1933, then to 1931. Wisden adds to the confusion, starting with 1934 then settling on 1931. But in the book D’Oliveira hinted he was even older, and Murphy said he saw a photocopy of a birth certificate saying 1928, making him 37 when he first played for England, 43 when he fended off the Australian attack in 1972, and 83 when he died.
Whatever his age, he was a phenomenon – and he would achieve an honour usually accorded only to all-time greats when, in 2004, it was announced that future Test series between England and South Africa would be for the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy. He grew up in a proud, vibrant and put-upon community with a strong cricket culture that was ignored by South Africa’s ruling whites well before the policy of apartheid became enshrined in the 1950s. His father, Lewis, was captain of St Augustine’s, one of a stack of clubs who played simultaneously, Indian maidan-style, on the bumpy mats and patchy outfields of nearby Green Point. Basil learned to play in the streets before graduating to his father’s team. On days off from his job in a printing works, he soon established a local reputation as both a mighty hitter and a consistent scorer, averaging about nine centuries a season through the 1950s. He was sufficiently dominant to be chosen as captain representing “non-white” South Africa, who scored decisive home-and-away victories against Kenya. The historian Andrе Odendaal said this gives him a better claim than Owen Dunell in 1888–89 to be regarded as South Africa’s first captain, since Dunell’s team represented a minority of the population. But when MCC toured in 1956–57, D’Oliveira, in his cricketing prime, walked seven miles to Newlands and sat incognito in the segregated area.
At the end of the decade, there was talk of a tour by a West Indian team led by Frank Worrell, but that foundered on the political rocks. D’Oliveira was on the verge of forgetting cricket, and now had other priorities: in January 1960 he married his girlfriend Naomi. Out of the blue, a speculative job application, despairingly written in a series of letters to the commentator John Arlott in England over the previous two years, produced a dramatic reply. Arlott had contacted the Lancashire journalist John Kay, who knew the scene inside out, and Middleton of the Central Lancashire League were suddenly desperate enough to punt on an unknown as their professional. They offered only ?450 for a season, feeble even then, especially as the air fare would cost ?200. But Naomi, already pregnant with their son Damian, insisted Basil take the chance. A local barman-cum-sportswriter, Benny Bansda, set about raising money, and even some of the white stars played a match to help out. He arrived in Middleton on April 1, 1960 – cold, naive about cricket and the world, teetotal, more fluent in Afrikaans than English – and made only 25 runs in his first five innings. Then he calmed down, relaxed, and scored 930 to top the League averages. A fraction ahead of Radcliffe’s pro, one Garry Sobers.
The next year he returned with Naomi and Damian, bought a small house of his own and passed 1,000 runs. He soon became a regular in the televised Sunday Cavalier matches and on tours run by the journalist-entrepreneur Ron Roberts and the coach Alf Gover. Some of these proved racially fraught: Rhodesia had South African-style segregation, less formal but almost as pervasive: Pakistan objected to D’Oliveira’s South African passport, which prompted him to apply for a British one. Soon several counties woke up to him, though not the obvious one: the Lancashire eminence Cyril Washbrook wrote him off as “a Saturday afternoon slogger”. Tom Graveney took a different view, and in 1964 D’Oliveira moved to Worcester to spend a year qualifying. By the time he made his Championship dеbut, against Essex in 1965, he was, according to the birth certificate, nearly 37. Luckily, he did not waste any more time: he made 106 – followed by 163 out of 289 on a raging turner in the return fixture a week later at Brentwood. The doubters were disappearing. He scored 1,691 runs that summer, and Worcestershire retained the Championship.
By now he had confidence in himself and his method, based on a short backlift and a strong bottom hand; he had traded his old off-spin to bowl swing and cut; he had also, less fortuitously, felt emboldened to drink alcohol. The Establishment were gaining confidence too. In May 1966 D’Oliveira was named in the twelve for the opening Test against West Indies: “HELLO DOLLY!” said the Daily Mirror headline, predictably enough. Apart from his age, he was keeping something else quiet: he couldn’t throw properly, after a car accident the previous winter. He was made twelfth man for that Test, chosen for the Second and became a star in the Third and Fourth, with three successive half-centuries for a team that was being outclassed, including 88 at Headingley, mostly compiled in a stand of 96 with the tailender Ken Higgs that turned near-extinction for England into a mere innings defeat. His maiden Test century arrived a year later, at Headingley against the weak 1967 Indians. He was an obvious pick now, usually batting No. 5 and often bowling first change, and beginning to build his reputation as a breaker of stands. No one queried his right to tour the West Indies that winter; indeed the speculation questions were starting about the effects of his possible selection for South Africa a year later. As early as April 1967, John Vorster, the South African prime minister, suddenly wavered from hardline apartheid and said racially mixed teams would be accepted “from countries with which we have had traditional sporting ties”. The way seemed clear for him to go.
But by now Dollymania had started to fade a fraction. He had a poor tour in the Caribbean, playing in all five Tests but averaging 22 with the bat, 97 with the ball and dropping catches. “Socially, it was a great tour for me,” he said in Time to Declare. Some felt that was precisely the point – he was now far from teetotal. He did make 87 not out in a shock defeat in the opening Ashes Test of 1968, when England ludicrously picked only three frontline bowlers, then blamed D’Oliveira for not being one of them. Now he was omitted, and remained on the outside, performing patchily for Worcestershire, while England tried and failed to recapture the initiative against a poor Australian side. But all the while the “what-if-he’s-picked?” speculation swirled. And then came The Oval: Roger Prideaux withdrew with pleurisy, D’Oliveira came in, and the speculation ceased. He made 158, which helped win the match. He was dropped four times, but he had rediscovered his form, and triumphed. Surely there could be no doubt now? The press thought not: umpire Charlie Elliott thought not: “Oh Christ,” he whispered to Basil when the hundred came up. “The cat’s among the pigeons now.” It certainly was, but not in the way Elliott expected: five days later the tour party was announced, without D’Oliveira.
Quite clearly, all manner of dirty work had been afoot that year. D’Oliveira posed a threat to the credibility of South Africa’s policy of rigid racial separation and inequality. What if he came and succeeded? The Vorster government were desperate to avoid this, and sanctioned all kinds of bribes to persuade D’Oliveira to rule himself out, carefully detailed in a 2004 biography by Peter Oborne. MCC, with the former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home high in their counsels, did not want to jeopardise their long and, from their perspective, happy relationship with white South Africa. It is possible to believe that the selectors were leaned on not to pick D’Oliveira by an unholy alliance of Lord’s and Pretoria. There was a narrow, rather convoluted, cricketing case to support his omission, based on the fact that there were better specialist batsmen and he was not quite a fully fledged all-rounder. (And he was not young, whatever his real age.) Doug Insole, the chairman of selectors, always maintained this lay behind the decision. There is another explanation, more plausible than either, and supported by well-placed sources: that the selectors remembered the West Indies tour and took that into account, perhaps fearing a disastrous late-night incident. It is notable that the other great socialiser, Colin Milburn, was also left out.
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