From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.34 :: NO.49 :: Dec. 08, 2011
Two fascinating and extraordinary men of cricket have died recently: one as quietly as he had conducted his career in the town he had grown to love; the other as abruptly, impetuously and dramatically as he lived until he was about to be charged with a crime.
Basil D'Oliveira had no wish to be at the centre of the storm that blew up over his selection for the England party to tour South Africa in 1968 soon after he had returned to the England team to make 158 that won the final Test against Australia; but those who witnessed his behaviour at close hand during the turmoil that followed were still talking about it years later.
Dolly, as he was soon known in England, came to this country to measure his cricket skills against the best day by day in 1963. In his own country he was a second class citizen because of the colour of his skin and written off to lead a deprived life as a Cape Coloured.
It meant he could not play first class cricket in a land where black and brown men were demeaned. “Sure they can play — they can do the fielding,” the cricket chiefs used to joke.
When I went to South Africa with the Graham Gooch rebel tour side in 1981, their government were pretending that sports facilities were readily available to the coloured population. “Oh, yes,” one white sports administrator said to me. “But here in Cape Town their new stadium is as far from the main centres of black housing as you can get. “
That sort of hypocrisy was common and I am sorry to say that some men of my own profession were complicit. A long serving tourist told me: “While they were in South Africa they would treat the house boys like slaves and when they got home they wrote long articles damning apartheid.”
So D'Oliveira, encouraged by the broadcaster John Arlott and the cricket writer John Kay, came to England to play in the Lancashire League. He found it strange that white men waited on him at the table but he soon found nothing strange about the cricket and — after being turned down by Lancashire he was signed by Worcestershire.
He could not have gone to a happier place. Worcester has an intimate air, the club is full of caring people and the ground is small and filled with warmth engendered by a crowd who love their heroes. Dolly soon became one and after joining in 1964 was a Wisden cricketer of the year. He stretched the truth about his age but he was in fact 33 when he landed in England, an age for retirement rather than a new beginning.
His time at New Road would have been a happy one but for the strange happenings in 1968 when he was first left out of the England side and only recalled for the fifth Test at the last minute. Even his match-winning innings did not bring a call-up. MCC, the tour selectors at that time, knew South Africa would not accept D'Oliveira but when Tom Cartwright was injured they had no choice.
Not least of all D'Oliveira was an all-rounder in the Cartwright mould. That made no difference in South Africa. Their government shouted “No”; their Prime Minister Vorster bellowed “No” in Bloemfontein, the town at the heart of apartheid, and finally MCC also found the heart to say “No” too. They realised that the fair-minded British people would not stay silent and suddenly, Dolly, the quiet man of English cricket, was jetted into the forefront of the biggest political row cricket has ever known.
He hated it. I spent one evening in the bar of the great cricket hotel near St. Johns Wood while he told me the whole story.
It was a tale he rehearsed in newspaper articles, books and broadcasts for the rest of his life. There was always some media outlet willing to pay for his tale of injustice.
By the end of that night he was in floods of tears. He regretted every moment of that prolonged story, he hoped it was now finished, he wanted merely to retire and live out the rest of his life in an anonymous coaching role at Worcester while he watched his son Damian grow into an England cricketer like him.
Sadly it did not happen. Damian played steadily for Worcestershire for 13 years but never made it to the England team and Dolly was still fished out to retell his story whenever a due date came round. Now he has died, aged 80, after a battle with Parkinson's disease, still troubled by his past, still wishing none of it had happened.
Why Peter Roebuck thought death by his own hand was his only option we shall never know. I suspect that his previous brush with the law had left him unwilling to go through that process again. He was an impetuous man given to sudden decisions and he was ever willing to take a step in the opposite direction as he did by living in Australia long beyond his 40th birthday.
For a while he was one of my cricket helpmates so I am sad at the passing of a great writer but he was also a difficult, imperious and unbending man determined that his opinion could only be denied by a rogue.
I know which of these two amazing cricket men I found more acceptable and which one I wish was still with us.
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