CMJ: The strength and serendipity of Basil D’Oliveira

Anyone who got to know Basil D’Oliveira in England or his native South Africa before his old age was left with an indelible impression of strength and dignity. Barrel-chested power and penetrating brown eyes were the physical characteristics that struck you at close quarters, and these were also the keys to his brilliance as an all-round cricketer. A will to win and a profound calmness were the other obvious features of his personality.

If he exploded, as I dare say he did, he did so in private, but he was probably at his best as a cricketer when riled, not least when in 1974 he kept Yorkshire in the field all day at Hull en route to a score of 227, purportedly after being riled by a dressing-room taunt. In public his guard never dropped, an astonishing achievement by a man not groomed for public life who became both an outstanding Test cricketer and an internationally-known cause celebre.

The focus of a very public eye for much of his life and in particular in the late 1960s, as South Africa’s sporting relations with the rest of the world became the biggest issue in the struggle to end apartheid, he became, through talent and serendipity, one of the most influential figures in the history of cricket, sport and racial relations.

Catalysts for change in human affairs are not always natural leaders with a mission, like Boudicca (Boadecia) against the Romans, Joan of Arc against the English or Mahatma Gandhi, who spent 21 years of his life as a lawyer and fighter against discrimination in South Africa before championing passive resistance in India.

‘Dolly’, as he became affectionately known to millions, became a central part of the political agenda without ever having one himself. All that he really wanted to do was to play cricket but he became, in the words of South Africa’s Nationalist Party prime minister John Vorster, in 1968, a “political cricket ball” whose selection for England’s tour of South Africa led to its cancellation by MCC.

The central figure in a wider struggle was a simple, in many ways unexceptional young man from the ‘Coloured’ community based at Cape Town’s unsalubrious suburb of Signal Hill. His passion for cricket was engendered, as more often than not it is throughout the world, by a keen father. Despite crude equipment and rough grounds, the game dominated his boyhood and shaped his manhood.

But for his determination to succeed as a cricketer, and the chance events that enabled him to fulfill a gift that truly was exceptional, it would not have seemed so natural for South Africa to be giving the new ball to a coloured fast bowler named Vernon Philander in the pulsating Test match that has unfolded with classic unpredictability in Johannesburg these last few days. In England it was West Indians who paved the way for selection on merit, in South Africa it was Basil D’Oliveira.

I got to know him late in his playing career for Worcestershire and England and during the years that followed as Worcestershire’s popular coach. He was a man’s man, with a deep voice and a hearty laugh who loved a drink, not least late at night.

Soon after the end of a cricket dinner one evening, when he and I had been the guest speakers and were being put up at the same hotel, I was summoned, in a voice of command that brooked no argument, for a nightcap (in his case whisky and almost certainly not his first) and a chin-wag. It was worth a headache the following morning for tapping into his memories, not least of the Ashes-winning team in Australia in 1970-71 when he was the pivotal all-rounder in Ray Illingworth’s team.

His fondness for a party was thought by some to be one of the reasons why he was originally omitted from the touring party to South Africa in 1968 after his 158 against Australia in the Oval Test, but the reasoning of Doug Insole’s selection committee of eight, of whom Insole is the sole survivor and whose brief was to take into account only the cricketing considerations, must have been based far more on his disappointing tour of the West Indies the previous winter under Colin Cowdrey’s captaincy. He averaged only 22 in the five Tests and his three wickets cost 97 runs apiece.

It was about the only blip in his record as a player. Reputedly he scored 82 centuries in non-white cricket on the often extremely difficult matting pitches of Cape Town and in representative tours, including the 1958 non-white tour to East Africa when the fact that he was made captain at the age of 27 was a good indication both of his character and his cricketing prowess. The story of his late signing by the Central Lancashire League Club Middleton in 1960, after representations by John Arlott and Peter Walker to the Manchester cricket journalist John Kay, is well known.

Frank Brache, brother of Basil’s faithful wife Naomi, was one of a committee of three who organised fund-raising to pay for his fare to England. I met Brache more than 20 years later at the period in the 1980s when Dr Ali Bacher was using every means at his disposal to break down the barriers in South African cricket that had led to the country’s isolation from official international cricket between 1970 and 1991. There was intense family pride in the D’Oliveira story and pleasure that although he had settled for ever in England he had returned to coach in the Eastern Province and thereby boost the cause of integration.

As a player he would be named amongst the greatest all-rounders, no doubt, if he had been able to play Test cricket before 1966, when his real age was already 34, although at the time the year of his birth was given as being 1934, not 1931. He was one of those batsmen whom supporters knew would be at his best when things were going badly for the team.

Those who did not see him hit the ball, classically straight from a relaxed sideways-on stance, should imagine a latter day Mahendra Singh Dhoni. D’Oliveira had the same calm assurance and similar compact power from a short backlift. Like Dhoni, he was murderously dismissive of anything pitched short and he would hit sixes off the back foot. With a modern bat in his hand he would have been the perfect Twenty20 cricketer.

His bowling was rather more than might be suggested by his reputation as a partnership breaker. Again his action was classical and he swung the ball at medium pace. It was he who paved the way for England’s unlikely victory after rain against Australia at the Oval in 1968, when he took the seventh wicket with only 35 minutes of the match left and paved the way for Derek Underwood. Happy memories of a strong, strong man.

*This article by Christopher Martin-Jenkins first appeared in The Times newspaper on November 21, and is re-published here with their kind permission

For Basil D’Oliveira’s career records, go to:

About Christopher Martin-Jenkins

One of the leading chroniclers of cricket over the past four decades, he is perhaps best-known for his commentary on BBC Radio’s Test Match Special since 1973. But he is also a former cricket correspondent of both The Times and Daily Telegraph newspapers as well as the BBC, besides having had two spells as editor of The Cricketer magazine. A fine after-dinner speaker, he played second XI county cricket in his youth and his son Robin was an all-rounder for Sussex from 1995 to 2010.
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