Goodbye ‘Dolly’…

22 11 2011

‘The story of Basil D’Oliveira is a fairy tale come true: the story of a nonentity in the country of his birth who … was confined to cricket on mud heaps until he was 25, yet after only one season in the County Championship played for England. No Test player has had to overcome such tremendous disadvantages along the road to success as the Cape Coloured D’Oliveira.’

So wrote ‘Wisden’, the cricket lover’s bible, in 1967, after selecting ‘Dolly’ as one of its five cricketers of the year; a prestigious recognition that the player could never have imagined possible when he left behind the land of his birth and its abhorrent apartheid regime, just seven years earlier.

Basil Lewis D’Oliveira, forever affectionately known as ‘Dolly’ around the cricketing world, and an absolute legend here in ‘the Shire’, the black pear county he represented with such distinction, died peacefully at the weekend. After a defiant last wicket stand, over the past few years, he was finally bowled out by Parkinson’s Disease.         

The late Ian Wooldridge, one of the great sports journalists claimed there had been no more significant cricketer than Basil D’Oliveira. 

Twelve years ago, when asked to nominate the greatest innings he had ever witnessed he chose instead, ‘probably the most significant in modern Test match history…not the greatest Test century I have ever seen. But I doubt there will ever be another that will so turn the world on its head.’ (Ian Wooldridge: ‘Searching for Heroes – 50 years of sporting encounters’)   

He was referring to the 158 that Dolly scored at the Oval in the final Ashes Test of 1968. It would prove to be an innings that, as Stephen Brenkley of ‘The Independent’ put it, ‘forced sport to put conscience first.’

It sparked a controversy that became known as ‘the D’Oliveira Affair’, with Dolly, an unlikely political revolutionary, unwittingly cast as a central figure as events unrolled that would result in South Africa’s isolation from international sport for the next quarter of a century.             

The D’Oliveira story is well known, even to those who wouldn’t know a ‘maiden’ if one bowled them over, and was particularly well documented in Peter Oborne’s 2004 William Hill Sports Book of The Year, ‘Basil D’Oliveira – Cricket and Conspiracy the untold story’.

Following his retirement as a player, in 1980, Basil recorded his version of the affair in the autobiography, ‘Time to Declare’, co-authored by Radio 5 Live sports correspondent Pat Murphy.

Most of this week’s obituaries have Dolly’s innings ending on 80, but Murphy relates that there has always been something of a question mark on that score. Arriving in the UK, concerned that he might be considered too old for the professional game, Dolly shaved a few years from his date of birth. Initially it was 1935, later adjusted to 1931, but during his collaboration with Murphy he confided that it was actually 1928.

If that is the case then he would have been 38 when he was first capped for England against the West Indies, in 1966, and 44 when he made his final Test appearance. Arguably, that makes his international stats all the more impressive: 2484 runs, including 5 centuries at an average of 40.06 and 47 wickets with an economy rate of 1.95.  

To me, as a young cricket fan in the ‘60s, Dolly was a flamboyant figure when he burst upon the international stage, a cavalier amongst so many roundheads. I still have a copy of his first ‘autobiography’, simply called, ‘D’Oliveira’, published by Collins in 1968 and priced 25/-.

It has a foreword by journalist, cricket commentator, poet, wine connoisseur and former Hampshire police officer, John Arlott.

Arlott it was who, having received a letter from D’Oliveira, written in green ink and broken English, against all odds found him a professional engagement in England with Central Lancashire league side Middleton.

When Dolly arrived in 1960 he was totally bemused by the lack of racial segregation and the good will that white people showed towards him.    

He had enjoyed eight prolific seasons in Non White South African cricket, hitting 80 centuries, but had never played on a grass wicket. It took him a while to adapt to alien English conditions and show his worth but by the end of his first season he headed the League batting average, with 48.95, just, ahead of West Indian legend Gary Sobers.    

In 1964, Worcestershire, the reigning first class county champions offered him a place on their staff and a year later he marked his County Championship debut, against the glorious backdrop of Worcester Cathedral, with a century, against Essex. He went on to score 1,500 runs as the ‘New Road’ club retained the County Championship.

The following 1966 season, Basil D’Oliveira, now the proud owner of a British passport, was selected for his adopted country. I distinctly remember watching the black and white BBC TV coverage of his debut, against the mighty West Indies, in the 2nd Test at Lords. Having made a positive start he was cruelly run out while backing up at the non-strikers end.  

Wicket keeper batsman Jim Parks straight drove a ball, from fast bowler Wes Hall, fiercely back up the pitch. It clipped Dolly’s heel, ricocheting on to the wicket, and the quick thinking bowler swooped to gather the ball and wrench a stump from the ground. It was quite a talking point and the first time I’d ever seen such a dismissal.

Next up was the 3rd Test in Nottingham.

A year earlier, on my first ever live Test cricket outing, ‘Trent Bridge’ had been bathed in sunlight as I’d  watched a white South African, Graham Pollock, effortlessly caress the ball through the covers on his way to one of the all-time great Test centuries.      

On the eagerly awaited Saturday morning of this Test the sun shone brightly once more (it always seemed to shine in those days!) and the ground was full to bursting. I was tightly wedged in on the front row of unreserved benches along Fox Road side of the ground.

This time a black South African was about to glitter in the sunlight. England’s overnight 1st score stood at 254-7. Dolly, 20* at the start of play, produced a swashbuckling display of clean hitting which took him to 76 before, attempting one expansive drive too many, big Wes Hall knocked back his off stump. There was an audible groan around the ground followed by loud applause as he made his way back to the pavilion. It remains one of those vivid sporting images from my youth that I can readily recall.

He was the last man out, having added 65 runs with Test debutant, ‘deadly’ Derek Underwood (who contributed just 12) setting an England record for the 10th wicket against the West Indies.   

Dolly wasn’t done. Later in the day, on he came with his innocuous looking medium pace and, promptly picked up the first two West Indies wickets. A happy partnership breaking knack that stayed with him throughout his career. There was also to be another battling half century in England’s second innings but in a losing cause.

D’Oliveira concludes his earliest autobiography, published at the start of the 1968 season, with,“English cricket generally is a good-humoured game. It has made me happier than I knew I could be. I’ll just go on taking it as it comes.”  Little did he know what was around the corner!

Dolly was to have a dismal time in ’68, his form suffered, and he was dropped from the England team. The following winter England would tour South Africa. The chances of him returning to his homeland, as an international cricketer, appeared bleak.

Then came that famous final Oval Test. Dolly was not originally selected but fate, in the shape of injury to three England squad members, contrived to throw him a life line. He grabbed it with both hands.   

He scored 158 runs and chipped in with a vital Australian wicket that precipitated their final afternoon collapse, an England victory a drawn series (although the Aussies retained the Ashes).

Dolly’s last gasp performance had appeared enough to win him a place on the tour to South Africa. But the England selectors already knew that he would not be welcome as member of the England touring party and disgracefully omitted him.

There was a huge outcry of injustice, during which Dolly displayed the dignity for which he had become renowned, followed by a 360 degree about turn from the spineless selectors when Tom Cartwright, a bowling all-rounder was injured and Dolly, a batting all-rounder, was called up as a late replacement.

National Ruling Party 1968 refused to accept his presence which galvanised the sporting world to boycott apartheid in South Africa. The rest is history, but a history that should never be   forgotten.

BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan, ‘Aggers’,  Agnew, makes the pertinent point that in a week ‘when racism in sport suddenly seems to have popped its head up again’, with the recent distasteful John Terry (England football captain) and Sepp Blatter (President of FIFA) incidents, Dolly’s death should serve as ‘a salient reminder of how bad things were – and not very long ago.’       

I once had the great fortune to meet Dolly.

At that time he was coach of another highly successful, championship-winning, Worcestershire side (1988 & 1989), that boasted England internationals Ian Botham and Graham Dilley (also recently, sadly departed), and an emerging Graeme Hick.      

The occasion was a wedding reception at the New Road ground and he was present with ‘Both’ and several other team members. I’ve still got a piece of paper signed by the pair of them, which I’m about to stick in the front of that 1968 autobiography – another collector’s item!     

Goodbye Dolly – RIP.  

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