I grew up with a father obsessed with the exploits of Basil D’Oliveira. In a small cramped flat in the old Indian quarter of Durban, he carefully clipped newspaper reports to glue into a moleskin notebook.
My father loved the game. He not only played it, albeit way down the order, but was also its diligent student.
One day he came running into the flat, grabbed me by the arm and marched me to Curries Fountain. “Basil is playing, Basil is playing” he repeated along the way.
When D'Oliveira walked to the crease there was silence. My father squeezed my hand and then almost immediately withdrew to clap for another cover drive. He seemed transported to another world.
He talked a foreign language of leg glances, sweeps and late cuts. My own father sat like a child, mesmerised. Just as I learnt, opponent-less, to mimic the routines from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, so my father went through the repertoire of strokes we witnessed that summer of 1967 on our way home.
Later I learnt D’Oliveira nearly did not get to play. The Department of Community Development questioned how a “coloured” could play on an Indian ground. That this question could even be posed might sound fanciful today, but this was a crazy time of high apartheid.
It had, said Paul Gilroy, a “special brutality…so chronically absurd and so total in its infiltration of everyday life that it has parcelled up the earth itself along racial lines.”
The Natal Cricket Board duly recorded that D'Oliveira was “a hero returning home”, and no less than a hero's welcome greeted this “South African” cricketing Hercules wherever he went... people really wanted to see the dynamic Basil teaching, talking and giving glorious exhibitions of the niceties of batmanship...”
The rest of the storyline is well-known. With a talent so huge, no amount of prejudice would plausibly keep him out of the Springbok side. So he was blocked by a law and went to England.
In 1968, in a delicious twist of history, D’Oliveira was selected for the England side to tour SA. The Nats protested, the tour was called off, sparking a worldwide movement to isolate apartheid cricket.
When I went to watch the Springboks smash the Aussies at Kingsmead in 1970 I was enthralled by the giant fast bowler Peter Pollock. He was big and strong and hurled the ball with frightening speed. I came home to regale my father with what I had seen.
He smiled and said Basil would have smashed Pollock to all ends of the ground. We argued late into the night as he told me Basil had already done that in England. I called him a liar. But he was right.
Peter Pollock played for Bobby Simpson's Rest of the World side against England in 1967. A South African journalist recorded the encounter:
“A beamer from South Africa's fastest bowler, Peter Pollock, which was parried just in time by an alarmed Basil D'Oliveira, woke up a drowsing crowd of 15 000 here and set the scene for an absorbing un-Festival like duel in the sun between two South African-born stars. Pollock had come on to bowl to D’Oliveira when the Worcester player had been in for 30 minutes for a bare four runs in England’s first innings… D’Oliveira hit Pollock high but not too safely for two runs and then came the head-high ‘zoomer’ which could have felled D’Oliveira had he not moved his bat in time.
“Obviously infuriated by this effort from Pollock, D’Oliveira turned from a leisurely one-run-every 10 minutes-man into raging fury. He hit Pollock for two then hit a six which landed beside the sight-screen and another brace of twos to make it 12 in the over.
“Still in run-scoring mood, D’Oliveira took it out on Bobby Simpson, hitting him for two cloud-scraping sixes. He faced Pollock for one more ball and that also went to the boundary. D’Oliveira went almost immediately afterwards, caught by Thomas off Mushtaq Mohammed, having gone from four to 51 in 30 minutes.
“As he walked off the field there was little doubt where the crowd's sympathy lay. They gave the former Cape Town Coloured a standing ovation, which I am told by elder members here, they have not seen equalled in 50 years of Festival cricket…”
D’Oliveira, who was far from happy about the publicity, said: “What upset me more than the ball Peter bowled was the fact that he made no effort to apologise.”
Peter Pollock has been at pains to discount any malice or ill-feeling. Pollock’s biography, cringily entitled, God’s Fast Bowler, makes this hard to believe. In 1968 Pollock was in England following D’ Oliveira closely against Australia in the fifth test at the Oval:
“Roger Prideaux had been selected, but through illness withdrew at the eleventh hour and Basil D’Oliveira replaced him. Dolly had not enjoyed a particularly good summer, but he came and took full advantage of some fielding lapses to record 158.
“We were involved in a preliminary warm-up game down Canterbury way. In our changing room was a TV set and we South Africans watched with increasing concern and a sort of feeling of impending doom as Dolly piled on the runs.”
Why impending doom? Because, Pollock writes, “if Basil were picked, the tour would not take place”. No principles here. No recognition of the road Dolly had travelled from the dust pans that masqueraded as cricket grounds for black South Africans into the core of the England national team. Just an intense and ultimately insulting self-interest.
The most prolific cricket writer of the period, Louis Duffus, who was close to the heart of white SA cricket, wrote for The Star. He blamed D’Oliveira for the cancellation of the tour because he should have respected the laws of the land.
“The law of the land says you drive on the left. D’Oliveira was told to come out and drive on the right.” Duffus then went on to argue that “D’Oliveira was for so long a dagger directed at the heart of SA cricket” and that “because of one cricketer the great players produced in this country and the game itself have both been victimised”.
There was no voice of protest against this line of thinking from the white cricketing establishment.
While D’Oliveira walked the cricketing arenas of the world, Black cricketers back home suffered. Facilities were taken away, sponsorship was routinely denied and leaders banned.
D’Oliveira came to represent a whole generation of people, forced to give up on the game in any really competitive sense and live vicariously through the opportunities given to their white compatriots, often gloriously taken, as in the case of Graeme Pollock and Richards.
It gave my generation, who saw their fathers corralled into non-white enclosures at matches, playing on matting wickets with gaping holes, changing behind trees, school-teachers hiding from their pupils, something to both avenge and admire.
On the day of D’Oliveira’s death the cameras turned to Supersport commentators Kepler Wessels and the enthusiastic breaker of the apartheid sport’s boycott, Robin Jackman. Both had not a word for the suffering and humiliation of the man himself or the thousands of Black cricketers of the D’Oliveira’s era.
Wessels bemoaned the loss of opportunity for a generation of cricketers, white cricketers, would could not play while the D’Oliveira provoked boycott lasted. Listening to his whinge, one got the impression that the boycott was the problem and not apartheid itself.
As for Jackman, common decency demanded that he, of all people, decline the spotlight just this one time. Yes, the past is in the past but hearing this enabler and prolonger of apartheid sport's policy opine on D’Oliveira, is like having Jimmy Kruger open a Biko memorial. It's just not cricket.
Basil D’Oliveira deserves more than this. He was our fathers. How dare they bury him.
Desai is Director of the Centre for Sociological Research, University of Johannesburg