A View from John Arlott

D’Oliveira achieved against the odds.

Opportunity for a boy cricketer to reach the heights of professional cricket that Basil D’Oliveira achieved was practically impossible.  Denied by the laws of his native country, the lack of organised coaching, the financial capacity to afford proper gear; the use of a grass wicket & safe outfield; and so importantly, the opportunity to take part in a first class match or to play against opponents who were experienced at such a level, made his rise to eminence all the more exceptional.

First Contact

I recall, my first contact with Basil in 1957 or 1958, when his first letter arrived, written in green ink, from his home at 14, Upper Bloem Street, Cape Town, South Africa, requesting my assistance.  He had it in mind that I could help him to play and learn to coach in the UK, before returning to South Africa to become a coach for non-white cricket.   During the following months I was to learn, via letters to the BBC, from Damoo ‘Benny’ Bandsa and S.J. Reddy of the South African Non-European Cricket Almanack, of Basil’s achievements – that was, he had scored over fifty centuries, one a stupendous 225 in seventy minutes, thumped 46 off an eight ball over, and had a career batting average of 100.47.  Three times he had taken over 100 wickets in a season, including one return of 9 wickets for 2 runs.  All these figures were achieved on matting or earth pitches in games against Kenyan Asians, Malays, Bantus and Indians.

Lord’s were approached, as were some of the counties, but all to no avail.  Suggestions were made and rebuffed, correspondence winged back and forth, time passed and progress could more accurately be described as the elimination of possibilities. I persevered and through John Kay, the cricket correspondent for The Manchester Evening News, we worked the league circuit, with which he was very familiar, and persisted to badger clubs.  After many rejections eventually a break through occurred - albeit through a series of accidents and coincidences.

Middleton Cricket Club

The committee at Middleton Cricket Club, in the Central Lancashire League, having decided not to re-engage Roy Gilchrist, the West Indian bowler, were awaiting Wes Hall’s decision whether or not to join them.   Unfortunately Wes Hall, trying to juggle his commitments to the West Indies authorities, delayed his negative response for so long it became too late to for Middleton to engage any other prominent professionals.  By a freakish coincidence this was John Kay’s own club.  Only two days before he had received yet another of my importuning letters on behalf of this obscure South African.  John Kay suggested that Middleton should engage the unknown and to their eternal credit - and momentously the course of cricket history – they took that apparently wild risk.

On 26th January 1960 I finally had a letter to send to Cape Town with a positive response…

Dear Basil D’Oliveira,
Now I have an offer for you to play as a professional in England this summer, but it is imperative that you cable me your decision about it at once… the offer is £450 for 20 weeks.  In addition, every time you score 50 or take 5 wickets in an innings you will receive talent money (21 shillings or 25 shillings)*  and a collection around the ground, which usually averages between £10 – £12…

Basil D‘Oliveira made his debut at Middleton on 23rd April 1960 in a local derby against Heywood.  He scored 27 and took 3 for 45 off 19 overs.  Understandably Basil took time to adapt to the wet, slow pitches and through the help of Eric Price, the former Lancashire and Essex slow left armer had scored 930 runs at an average of 48, and taken 71 wickets at 11 runs each by the end of the first season.  The rest, as they say, is history…

D’Oliveira Affair

The omission of Basil D’Oliveira from the 1967-68 MCC touring party to South Africa, having just scored a century in the final Test against the Australians at the Oval, incensed – but did not surprise me.  The duplicitous actions of the MCC and their cohorts, both at home and abroad, had never made a sadder, more dramatic  and potentially more damaging decision.   If politics, in their fullest sense, had now transcended cricket in importance, it would have been wiser to take Basil D’Oliveira to South Africa, though he were not good enough, than to leave him at home when he was not merely good enough but eminently suited for the tactical situation the touring side would have faced.  No one of an open mind would ever believe that he was left out for any valid cricketing reasons.

D’Oliveira Farewell Dinner

On the occasion of Basil’s retirement dinner from cricket on 1st November 1979, I turned down an invitation to attend a Downing Street reception for the touring party to Australia and instead journeyed to Worcester to offer him my personal farewell.  During his long service for Worcestershire he proved an outstanding performer during the years of some of their highest achievement.  Throughout the world of cricket his honesty and good nature made him many friends.   At times of stress – as admitted by the MCC establishment under fire for its abandonment of opposition to apartheid – he behaved with the utmost dignity.  This happy conclusion - an honest man of high cricketing gifts against the forces of racism, his passage to freedom, taking his wife and children with him, and his example to millions of others has given me one of the greatest feelings of joy from any episode in my life.
John Arlott 1980

John Arlott (25th February 1914 - 14th December 1990) had a remarkable gift for cricket commentary and was often regarded as the “voice of summer”.

*21 shillings equates to £1.05 & 25 shillings equates to £1.25 (post 1972)