Basil D’Oliveira: the 1966 interview

This is the full version of John Reason’s interview with Basil D’Oliveira in 1966, which appeared in The Cricketer. An edited extract of this article is published in the January 2012 issue of the magazine to mark the death of one of the game’s most significant players


When I walked out of the pavilion to meet the Queen, I was on air, I was ten feet above the rest of the team. How could this be happening to me? I was shaking like a leaf when she walked towards me. I prayed that she would not say anything to me. But she did. I don’t know what she said. I can’t remember. I hope what I said to her made sense. All the time I was thinking, I can break both my arms and both my legs on Tuesday night and it won’t matter. I just wouldn’t care. I have met the Queen … I have met the Queen Mother … I am an England player … I have played in a Test match at Lord’s … I shall never be able to find the words to say what this means to me.

Basil D’Oliveira has come a long way in the last five years. From playing uninhibited cricket with a Cape coloured team on the matting wickets of South Africa, changing out in the open with no pavilion, and just playing the game naturally, hurling the ball at the bat and hurling the bat at the ball, he has come from all that to the disciplines of Test cricket in England on the greatest ground in the world.

His first move was to play for Middleton in the central Lancashire League.

I wanted to see if I was good enough to play first-class cricket. I accepted this job as a professional. After the first month I said to myself, this is a mistake. You haven’t got it. You aren’t good enough. In the first four or five matches, I scored about 20 runs altogether, and I took about two wickets. I said, you’re of your class. Play out the rest of the season and then go home and forget about it. You’ve tried and you’ve failed.


I was throwing the bat at the ball, like I always had. I was getting a lot of edges. The ball was going up in the air.  They used to come through the old gate. The bat and pad were never together.


Eric Price came to me one day and said, “Look, do you mind me giving you a word of advice?” Mind? I was only too happy. So he told me. I’d got to learn how to play tighter. Bat and pad together. I’d got to play straight. Show them the face of the bat. Play so far and no farther. Stop the bat, there. Wait for the ball to hit, and hit it. Let it to come to you.


I used to watch the League boys play, too. No just the pros. All of them. They knew how to play on those wickets. They knew what you could do. I learned a lot. I saw where they hit the ball and what sort of ball they hit.


Eric Price told me about my bowling, too. “You’re bowling too short,” he said. “On these wickets, you must keep it up.” So I did, and suddenly things started to go better. I finished up quite well and I looked forward to the second season.


When that came, I was all right. I found I could play league cricket. Then I wanted something more. I was trying to prove to myself whether I could become a first-class player. I wanted to play county cricket, but I was scared to take the chance.


Then Ron Roberts gave me a big break. He took me on one of his tours. With people like Everton Weekes and Ray Lindwall. I was scared to say anything for the first three weeks.


I went on a couple of these tours with Tom Graveney. I asked him what he thought. “Look,” he said, “I’ve seen enough of you already to know that you can make it.” So I took the chance and qualified.


I came into county cricket, and once again, it is a different world. The game is tighter still. You have to learn to bowl a line, otherwise they work you around all over the place. It is much harder to find your runs. There are not so many bad balls. The field setting is much more exact.


I began to realise why these white teams used to do us for a pastime in South Africa. I couldn’t see why then. After all, I thought, they are just the same as us. They only have a bat and a ball, and we have a bat and a ball. Looking back, I cringe at how little I knew. Of course they did us, particularly on grass, which was where we played when we played them. We were so far behind it was ridiculous.


The Worcestershire team is full of specialists. All top men. They all know the game. Jack Flavell and Len Coldwell bowl with the seam. Martin Horton, Norman Gifford and Doug Slade bowl all the spin we need. Then there is Don Kenyon and Tom Graveney among the batters. There are some great players in that team. They helped me all the time. They taught me how to pace myself. To make my effort at the right time. I watched them all the time and tried to see how they played. I watched everyone. If I though they could play, I just watched them. I shut everything else out of my mind.


If anyone is in with Don Kenyon for half an hour, batting comes easy. He is after the bowlers. Bang, bang, bang. He’s got thirty runs and the bowlers are worried about him. They haven’t got too much time to worry about you. So you’ve got time to find your way around.


I watched Don. He goes back on to his right foot and moves across a bit. I thought, well, he’s so good against the quicks, I must copy this technique. I don’t move as far as he does, because he stands on the batting line and I stand inside it.


Of course, Don is an opener and I bat much lower so I didn’t bat so much with him. I bat most with Tom Graveney. Well, what can I say about him? He is a great player. A great player. I felt I ought to pay money just for the privilege of batting with him.


That top hand shot though the covers … He just plays easily through the ball, and it goes. I wish I could do it. I am a bottom hand player. I hit with the right hand all the time. Even through the covers. Ron Roberts asked me once how I hit it to the covers with my bottom hand and still kept the ball down. I didn’t even know I was doing it!


Colin Cowdrey plays that shot just like Tom. He made 140 against us last year and I never took my eyes off him. His batting was no effort at all. He just caresses the ball and it goes with just as much force as if he had hit it with everything.


I went back and tried to practise that shot, but I can’t play it. It’s bottom hand or nothing for me.


I’ve never had any coaching much. I have just copied other people. I still do. I do it all the time. Watch, watch, watch.


I loved my first year in county cricket, in fact just at the moment, I love the whole wide world. The performance that gave me most pleasure, most encouragement, was against Gloucester at Cheltenham.


We thought the wicket would turn and we thought we must win the toss. If we didn’t win the toss, we thought we must get them out quick, bat well ourselves, and get them out again. Whatever happened, we didn’t want to bat last.


Well, we had to bat last. We had to make 131 to win. I think they bowled their seamers for one over each, and then John Mortimore and David Allen came on. They were turning the ball square, and we were 19 for three. I went in to bat with Tom and we took it to 132 for three. We both made 50. That was when I first felt I might make it.


Tom charged them pretty nearly every delivery, and I don’t think they got one past either his bat or his pad. I stayed at home. That meant they had to bowl two different lines.


I kept thinking to myself, you’re not going to get me out. I had a couple of edges off David Allen, and they went for four. Either ball could have got me out, but it was just my day.


I haven’t noticed yet that other teams set a particular field for me. They don’t move men into set positions as they do for some players. I haven’t noticed them bowling a particular line to me, either. I’m an offside player, mostly. I don’t hook. I pull the ball more, but I don’t even do that early on. I only do that later on in my innings, when I’m in charge. To start with, I’d rather drop my hands and let them hit me.


I’d love to be able to play that shot of Garry Sobers. You know, the one where they bowl on his legs and just a little bit short of a length. Everybody else tries to paddle the ball around the corner, but he picks his bat up and he hits it. He hits it hard. That’s it with Garry. He either stops the ball or he hits it. He hardly ever pushes it.


I’m not a front-line bowler with Worcester. I have never thought of myself as one. I just fill in with a few bits and pieces. We’ve got specialists to do the job, and I just fit in around them.


They taught me to work on the line of middle and off. I bowl the off cutter and I have this little seamer which goes the other way. I’m not quick, and at my pace, you’ve got to have the pace variations. You have to push it through a bit quicker sometimes.


Towards the end of last season, somebody said in the papers that I might get picked for England. I thought they were mad. Me? Play for England? There must be something wrong. It was enough for me, more than enough, just to be playing county cricket in England.


Then in December, I had a bad car smash. It was in Worcester. The muscles were all torn in my right arm and shoulder. Something had gone as well. They thought I wouldn’t play again. I couldn’t do anything, bat or bowl.


We had some nets before we went on tour to Jamaica, and I still couldn’t do anything. It was like a red-hot needle in my shoulder whenever I tried. In a way, I knew that little tour was going to decide it for me, one way or another. Again, I was lucky. I played quite well.


When they made me twelfth man at Old Trafford, I could hardly believe it. Now this …


The sweep of D’Oliveira’s arm took in the whole of Lord’s. The players, the crowd, the action, the throng of MCC members, the ground, the famous people, the happy hubbub as the social season sweeps through Lord’s on its way from Ascot to Wimbledon and meets the high summer of cricket.


It was then that he talked about meeting the Queen, and the honour and excitement he feels.


I think about it every day. Five years ago, I was nothing. Now I have all this. I have played for England in a Test match and I am happy about the way I played. I could retire tomorrow night.


I did not feel nervous about batting. I was all right as soon as I got out there. It was the same as any other innings. The first period is what matters, while you are getting used to things. I felt that if I could get over that, I would be all right.


Well, I had a bit of luck and I did get over it. I had sorted the bowlers out. I was getting the pace of it. I thought, I am going to revel in this day. Revel in it. Then this thing happened. I was run out. It was credit to Wes [Hall] really. You don’t think about the laws when you are batting in a Test match for the first time. When the ball went off my boot on to the stumps, I thought I was out. Then I thought, I can’t be. But in that little bit of time, while I was working it out, Wes picked up the ball and pulled out a stump. He apologised afterwards, but of course he had to do it. It was a Test match. When I realised I was out, I could not look up. I had to keep my head down. There were tears in my eyes.


Now, well, I am just so full of happiness. When the excitement dies down, I suppose I will just go on playing. I will play as long as I can stand on my feet.


Basil D’Oliveira went back into the England dressing room. He had said not one word about racialism.

As well as this interview, the January 2012 issue features tributes by Peter Oborne, Ashwin Desai and Peter Walker.

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