It was Gerald Davies for Rugby - Peter Bonetti for Football - and Basil D’Oliveira for Cricket. My sporting idols. Three otherwise ordinary humans who were blessed with a sublime gift from the Gods which turned them ‘superhuman’ as they crossed over the white line. All three were equally gigantic in my mind. All three were equally brilliant at their sports, and I couldn’t distinguish between them. But some people could. Just one thing separates Davies and Bonetti from D’Oliveira - Colour.
Basil D’Oliveira had every right just to want to be an ordinary everyday sporting hero. But to a young Barnet boy in the 1960’s, he was to unintentionally represent something far more important, and not only to me, but to the wider world as well.
I was an 11 year old boy in 1968 when my hero stood at the centre of the cricketing and world stages, always placid, polite and dignified. Proud but not conceited. I’d liked him long before, as much because of the way John Arlott pronounced his name, as it rolled around his Hampshire jowls, and spilled forth in an exotic mixture of vowels from the radio. His name seemed to wobble in delivery, like his wonderful bowling.
Basil D’Oliveira. You’ve got to admit, it’s a great name!
But Basil was different. He is ‘oatmeal’ in colour [his own description] Not such a crime is it?
To think back now, it seems light years away from black premiership players earning £100,000 a week and being adored by black, white and oatmeal alike. Basil was a reluctant flag bearer for a movement which has flowed after him and widened the crack in the dam of racism.
My father used to explain things to me very well, using what was happening in the world to illustrate the appropriate ways to think and behave. 1968 supplied enough material to work with for a lifetime. The D’Oliveira affair had everything. Apart from the lofty moral issues, the basic human rights involved, and the moral corruption of the governments which dealt with the events, it was just plain and simply unfair. It was absolutely unfair on every single level.
Unfairness and cricket don’t mix!
Now, if we could all see it, if an eleven year old boy could see it, how come the regimes and committees couldn’t? They could of course, but they loved their Apartheid and the enslavement of an entire people. Basil was the inadvertent cork in the centuries old, violently shaken bottle that finally exploded in 1968, when the right minded moral majority said, enough and no more. We can see through your motives, we can no longer stand by and let you treat people this way, and this time we will boycott you until you change your wicked and iniquitous ways. The Apartheid government’s treatment of Basil was the last straw. It brought home to the common man the abhorrent regimes bigotry and criminality, and the common man demanded a fitting and swift response. The cork flew out of the bottle, and hopefully now they will never be able to put it back in.
Mercifully, from those dark days things have moved a long way forward, and it is so hard to comprehend it all took place in our lifetimes. So barbaric are the principles involved in subjugating a race that I almost feel we are talking about the middle ages, instead of a time 40 years ago, when a young man from Upper Bloem Street in the Bo-Kaap, escaped the tyranny at home for a better life for him and his family.
A local hero in Cape Town, he was sent into the world to preach cricket, in which he was fluent, but sadly for him he had to learn a new language, politics. The vocabulary of which must have made him gag.
Truthfully, if it hadn’t have been Basil, it would have been someone else in later years who would have changed the world. Yes - ‘changed the world’ - that’s what Basil did. It would have been someone else, but they might not have had his dignity. His absolute dignity. The way he conducted himself was just so wonderful, and illustrated simply and perfectly to a watching world just who was open honest and truthful - and who was riddled with the evil and protective old world order, the complete moral dinosaurs.
We have no right to expect someone who can throw the ball from any part of a cricket ground and thud it into the keeper’s gloves immediately over the bails to be a spokesman for a disenfranchised people. But he was.
We have no right to expect a wonderfully tight and controlled bowler to topple regimes and change world politics. But he did.
We have no right to expect a batsman of such ferocious power and elegance to lead a shackled people towards a day of hope and eventual freedom. But Basil was one who did.
He did all these things by chance, by accident, and by luck. He had no great plan, no backroom plots, and no prolonged terrorist campaign to soften up those with a different point of view. Basil had a piece of crafted willow, five ounces of red leather, and his dignity, and he showed the world that way.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve walked the streets of Basil’s childhood, and stood on the pitches at Green Point where he played his early cricket. I’ve run up Signal Hill to follow in his footsteps, and most precious of all, I’ve stood in the pavilion at Worcester and heard him tell of his return to Newlands and his walk to the wicket to be embraced by a waiting Nelson Mandela. Somehow a perfect home coming and the completion of a truly remarkable circle.
But if I want to daydream and revel in nostalgia, and if I want to remember Basil as Basil would want to be remembered, I just close my eyes and think of sun drenched days listening to John Arlott spinning silk with words, and the simple lines that always come immediately to mind are -
“Now then, let’s see if Basil can break this partnership - it’s D’Oliveira from the Nursery End - he trundles in - economic as always, he bowls now- and, Bowled him! - D’Oliveira strikes again!”
...and I can conjure my childhood, my love of cricket, and most especially my completely justified hero worship for the great Basil D’Oliveira.
Clive is best known to television audiences for his appearances in Casualty, Holby City, The Vicar of Dibley, and Robin of Sherwood, and on stage as Lennie in Of Mice and Men. He works extensively in Radio and has recorded over 50 Talking books for BBC audio. He has featured in over 20 films, including White Hunter Black Heart, and Alien 3, but is most proud of his diving catch on the boundary to remove Graeme Hick for 86 at New Road in his final Bunbury game some years ago.