Basil D’Oliveira – The Early Years.
My Early Life.
I was born in Cape Town of Indian-Portuguese heritage which at that time labelled me a ‘Cape Coloured’, one of South Africa’s four major racial groups defined under apartheid (1). This racial segregation determined every aspect of our lives then, even down to the cricket clubs you could play for. In those days the various groups had their own sides, although all except the whites would play each other in representative matches, where the atmosphere and competition would be needle sharp.
I played for my father’s club, St Augustine’s on a vast open space a few miles from both Cape Town & the sea. Looking back on it now, the conditions were a tribute to our fervent love of cricket, we played on matting wickets, with the most rudimentary grasp of the game and had the equipment to match. But I lived for cricket.
Twenty five teams shared that same open space, all fanatical about cricket and all sharing responsibility in tending the matting wicket ourselves. I would walk about 10 miles on the morning of a match to help prepare the wicket, watering and rolling it so it would bake hard on the surface. We would nail the matting down, placing rocks and boulders on the edge to stop animals as well as people from walking straight across our precious wicket.
Our cricket was completely uninhibited by tactical thoughts or any other subtleties. We were never coached, all our practice came from playing in the streets of Signal Hill, where we lived, and some of us would get hauled off to jail by the police if we were caught. playing in the street was an offence for us.
I still to this day don’t know quite how I managed to break through that tightly knit cricket group that nurtured far more talented players than me. But I did have one thing which was the deep burning desire to succeed; every minute of the day I wanted to play cricket or football and was blessed with an unforgiving father.
My father made a deep impression in me as he would expect me to always be the best at whatever I did, but particularly cricket. Excuses were not part of his vocabulary and his silence after a match if I had not put in anything but an excellent performance would show me how disgusted he was with me. He never, ever praised me and I remained in awe of him until his death in 1979 – but I loved and respected him and owe him so much.
‘Cape Coloureds’ and Whites never really mixed but I’d become inquisitive about their style of play and facilities. Whenever possible I’d go to Newlands, Cape Town’s famous stadium, to watch the great white players in Test matches. We were segregated, of course, though my envy only ran to the skills that were on display on the field, not whether or not I was sitting by a white man.
Some people often wonder how we managed to put up with apartheid,(2) but in truth we would have been very foolish to try to buck the system. We stayed where we were meant to because the government said so! To do otherwise brought consequences.
During the 1950’s, cricket had a massive following amongst non white communities in South Africa, which empowered me to believe I could improve myself. By the time 1960 approached however, my enthusiasm was a little more jaded as there seemed little way in which I could make a name for myself in South African cricket circles. The thoughts of playing in England nagged away at me throughout the latter part of the fifties and in 1958 I bit the bullet and did something about it.
John Arlott as many people around the world will know, was probably the most famous BBC cricket commentator to grace our radios and later our TV’s. He was a man whose words and prose could bring England and its cricket into any home, in any land in the world and keep the listener, whether he be a child of six or a man of seventy six, glued to their radio with pictures of English trains, buzzing bees, ladies hats, gentlemen’s linens, summer grass, soft afternoon sunlight, cups of tea in china cups and plates of freshly cut sandwiches firmly fixed in their imagination whilst he gave the most complete descriptions of leather against bat. He was synonymous with everything that English cricket represented and was the most unbiased commentator I ever heard. He had a warm trusted voice that made everything alright in the world and I believed him to be a compassionate man, so I wrote to him.
This began a dialogue between us which was sympathetic and encouraging but we always ended the same way, I wanted to play in England, he couldn’t convince English Clubs that a man who’d picked up wickets and scored many runs in Non-white South African cricket would be a good investment on soft English wickets. I wasn’t in the first flush of youth and I’d never experienced first-class cricket. It seemed like the story was over, however in February 1960 a letter came from John that changed my life. After two years of perseverance on his behalf he achieved the near impossible – a contract with Middleton in the Central Lancashire League for one season at the princely sum of £450.00.
I was elated but this was soon dashed when I realised that I had to find £200.00 for my airfare and pay for my digs out of the other £250.00. On top of this my wife Naomi was pregnant with Damian, but it was her encouragement alongside three true friends, an Indian, Damoo Bansda nicknamed Benny; who was a sports writer and sent a list of my performances to World Sports magazine in England. My brother in law, Frank Brache and a Muslim friend, Ishmail Adams took up my cause and got me on that plane to England. They formed a committee to raise funds for my trip, which met with some opposition from Coloureds and Blacks who felt I should know my place in life…. I have many people to thank for getting me to England and one of those was Gerald Innes, a White, former first class cricketer who defied the apartheid laws and put on a game that raised £150 alone, he sadly died of cancer at the young age of 50 in 1982. It was wonderful to see him and his white team mates walking around the ground with buckets filled with coins just like Benny and all my coloured friends.
How can I thank those people of all creeds and colours for defying apartheid laws to get me to England? If Gerald Innes and his white colleagues had been bigoted, they wouldn’t have been willing to help someone like me from the ‘Cape Coloured’ community, and I doubt my own intimate group of friends would have been able to get the money together in time. As pressure was placed on me to become more outspoken by militant groups of all varieties over the next few decades or I was pressed for a definitive anti-white statement, I would always think of those white people who had helped me so much.
I had many misgivings still even though I had the money in hand. Would I be good enough? Would I be going half way round the world to be a laughing stock, letting my people down? How would I look them in the face if I came back from England within a few weeks? I realised I needed some guidance about playing cricket in England and in the Lancashire League in particular.
Help came again from another white man Tom Reddick, a former Nottinghamshire player who played in Cape Town and knew the League system inside out. A kind and very gentle man, he spent the entire month of March devoted to my instruction about the Englaish game and I took in as much as I could. He gave me coaching lessons in his back yard – I’d never been coached for even a minute nor played on a grass wicket, yet he was instructing me on the bounce of the wicket, the poor light, and the fact that as I was the professional I would be a marked man and expected to do well. At the end of each coaching session he would invite me into his house for a glass of orange juice, his kindness and respect completely amazed me and I will be always grateful for his dedication during that very crucial time. Sadly too Tom died in 1982, but I will always remember the words he uttered years later when I’d played for England. He told me that he had wanted to say during that time, to remain a big fish in a small pond as he didn’t really believe I had a chance of making it in England, but because of my enthusiasm and keen-ness to learn he didn’t have the heart to speak his mind. He couldn’t believe that I’d achieved so much as each stage I’d passed through he thought it would be my last and I just kept proving him wrong which made him realise that you can always be wrong in cricket!
April 1st 1960 was probably one of the most astonishing days of my life. The plane landed at Heathrow Airport on a very gloomy and damp spring day, I was filled with misgivings and my inferiority complex was at a very low ebb. I’d left Naomi behind, in a few months I would be a father for the first time and what kind of future could I guarantee Naomi and my child? However as I left with the assurance that the family and friends would take great care of her, and old aunt pulled me to one side and told me to aim high – there’s room for everyone up there, a motto which has stayed with me always.
I am proud of my colour, of what I’ve achieved for myself and non-whites all over the world and I dearly love my fellow citizens of Cape Town. I often think back to those days in South Africa, when I was trying to break out of the social and sporting straitjacket imposed by the colour of my skin, however my wife Naomi, has often said that I went to England at exactly the right time, because she feels my determination then to succeed was overwhelming and that I might not have developed into the player I was if things had been easier.
If I have one, overwhelming regret in my life it’s that the best years of my cricket career were never properly utilised. Of course I became a better player when I came to England and started learning about a game that had always seemed so uncomplicated to me, but in terms of eyesight, co-ordination, instinct and fitness, I was at my peak while playing for non-whites during the 1950’s. I’d dearly have loved to compete on equal terms with the Procters, Barlows and the Pollocks at the same age, with the same coaching facilities……..
Basil D'Oliveira - with thanks to Patrick Murphy.
(1). South Africa’s Racial Groups under apartheid were: White; African; Indian and Coloured.
(2). Apartheid was a policy of separate development made law in South Africa in 1948