Thursday, December 16, 2010


There’s a man I want you to meet. He’s old, about 80 and not quite himself these days with a bad case of Parkinson’s... But he’s a remarkable gentleman nevertheless.

To see him, we’ll have to go all the way to a nursing home in England, where he sits propped up on his bed this afternoon. Dark for an Englishman, he looks more Indian than English. You see him staring vacantly at the wall and you know he isn’t quite there. His mind deserts him. But there are times when his soul shines through his eyes, like a joyful dolphin breaching through the ocean’s darkest depths, dancing on the surface, briefly but beautifully. Remember the fire of his soul that flickers in his eyes, for it’s a fire that singed an empire.

Those eyes, they’ll tell you all they saw…

For what they saw when they were young was a world full of hate and fear. Do you see that world now, a world far removed from here and now, many miles and many years away, in Cape Town, South Africa. You see a road and some kids playing cricket in the heat and dust of the afternoon. They’re playing hard, with enthusiasm but you doubt they have the skills… except for the tall lad with a bat in the middle, whacking the ball to all corners with ease. Suddenly, you hear angry sirens… the game stops. The kids freeze, and once they know the direction of the approaching police car, the kids run…in the opposite direction. The white policemen run aft er the dark-skinned little urchins but they escape. It’s apartheid-time in South Africa. “Coloured” kids go to jail for playing on the streets.

Anyway, you follow the kids on their run, especially the tall one with the eyes you know, as they run through streets and lanes, past hovels and slums, until one of the younger ones calls out to the tall one “Basil! Basil!!... I think we’re safe now…” The tall one slows down, looks back at him, runs to him and puts an arm around him…the two friends are tired, but they’re happy…to be free, free to run and play…They look at each other and laugh, and laugh till they cry…

Basil grew to become quite the star in the local matches amongst non-whites (once hitting 46 in an 8-ball over) but he couldn’t ever hope to play for South-Africa. Born into an Indian-Portuguese family in South Africa, he wasn’t allowed to play with white South-Africans because the minority white government felt that it was beneath “white dignity” to mix with people of Indian or African origin. But as little Bas’s talents blossomed, so did his dreams. He was loved by his people for his brave and explosive batting, his tall hits and taller scores, and he’d like me to add, his steady, oft en inspired medium-fast bowling. But he’d grown too big for his ‘coloured’ boots. He wanted to play ‘Test’ cricket. He’d watch the great white South-African cricketers playing in the big stadium, and from his little segregated corner in the stands, wish he was there on the field, playing with them. He made up his mind to try the impossible. If his homeland wouldn’t have him then he’d try and play for the game’s homeland – England.

Basil had a friend he trusted. A man he believed had a heart as bright and bold as that golden voice of his – BBC commentator John Arlott, a household name in every commonwealth home with a radio. It was the 1950s and Basil was already on the wrong side of 25. Time was running out and he knew he was reaching for the moon, but he had to try. Arlott didn’t know of Basil when he received a letter from him that spoke of his dreams. But the story of a gift ed boy trapped by the colour of his skin touched a chord in his heart. Arlott wrote back, and thus the two exchanged letters and hope until two years passed. Then it began to wane. Basil was grateful for Arlott’s support but he knew it was too late. He was too old now… Then out of the blue came a letter from Arlott. He’d persuaded an English club to hire Basil as a professional. The pay was meager, but at last Basil would play as a professional.

Basil was delirious and his family and friends were so happy for him. In his dreams they saw their hopes of dignity and acceptance and taking flight. But those dreams had come with clipped wings, only to flutter and shatter on the hard cold floor. Basil didn’t have the money to pay his way to England.

But help walked in, in different hues. Friends, both brown and black, wroteletters and raised funds, and then Gerald Innes, a white South African cricketer heard Basil’s story and put together a team of ‘whites’. They played a match, defying apartheid-laws and its brutal police-action, to raise funds for Basil’s journey. Years later, whenever Basil would be asked to add his voice to the crescendo against ‘the white man’s tyranny’, his memory of Innes walking amongst the spectators with a pail in his hands, raising funds for his cause, would always soft en his stance.

In England, it was a quiet start for the boy from streets, walking behind his mates, looking for ‘coloured-only entrances and toilets’, but soon his great talent and greater hunger saw him take the leagues by storm. In five years, he’d become a British citizen, and perhaps because he’d lied about his age on arrival, was selected to play for England in 1966. He was 34. The old fire in his eyes must’ve glistened, for he must’ve shed a silent tear in prayer and joy that day… And then runs, dozens, scores and hundreds more flowed from his blade, and Basil scanned the horizon. England was due to tour South Africa and he was in form. This was the day he was waiting for, when he’d return to the land of his birth with so much to prove. It was a moment that he and his people had been waiting for.

But then the unthinkable happened. Basil lost his touch. It was 1968 and the Australians were touring. Basil was dropped aft er the first match. Four Tests later, they’d announce the team for South Africa. ‘Basil was worried. Meanwhile, South Africa’s Prime Minister, one-time Nazi sympathiser BJ Vorster was also worried. Not co-incidentally, Basil had been approached by a South African tobacco magnate to coach ‘non-white’ South Africans for more money that he’d ever seen. The ‘catch’- he’d have to make himself ‘unavailable’ for the tour. Basil was tempted. He could secure his family’s future if he accepted… But what of his dreams? And all those people waiting back home to see ‘Bas’, the ‘coloured’ Test cricketer? Though not on the team, Basil refused and hoped for a miracle.

It was the final ‘Test’ at the Oval and batter Roger Pirdeaux fell ill. Meanwhile, Basil had turned out brilliantly in a county game and was picked for the final match. When Basil walked out to bat, he knew he was battling not just Aussie bowlers and the pressure of a comeback but also battling the South African government that wanted him to fail as well as the weight of the expectations of every man of colour around the world. Basil scratched the pitch with the toe of his bat and took guard for far more than his team that day and slammed158 iron-willed runs that took England to victory, like in a fairy-tale. What could stop his inclusion for the tour now? But alas, something did. The selectors were informed that South Africa won’t allow a player of ‘colour’. However, the English selectors maintained that “Bas had been dropped on ‘cricketing grounds only’”. The nation erupted in support for Basil. But Basil felt betrayed by his adopted nation and maintained a stoic dignified silence even as the storm blew and grew. Then, as luck would have it, Cartwright, a bowler, was injured and Basil was recalled to the tour-team. But before a bemused Basil could join the team, Vorster exploded in Bloemfontein, calling the English team a team of “the antiapartheid movement.

”Now the English couldn’t drop him and Vorster wouldn’t have him, and so the tour was cancelled. Bas felt sorry, for his English team mates, and for himself, but most of all for his people back home. His integrity and proud dignity in the face of such rejection and betrayal stood out in stark contrast to the terrible racial bigotry in South Africa and the English sporting establishment’s tacit support. The West having hitherto turned a blind eye to South Africa’s excesses was now disgusted and embarrassed; it began to sever ties with South Africa. Within a year of refusing Basil, South Africa had become the pariah of the world, shunned and abhorred for its inhuman policies. If not for Basil D’Oliviera, the shy Indian boy from the Cape, who knows when, if ever, the world would’ve noticed, and who knows how much longer South-Africa would’ve taken to become the great rainbow nation it is today.

So when you watch India take on South Africa this week, remember to say a prayer for that old man in the nursing home for making it all happen. He might not remember everything from that summer of ‘69, but we still owe old Bas for pushing the world in the right direction all those years ago. Nothing quite as dramatic as the story of the other Indian in South Africa who got thrown out of a train, but significant nevertheless… wouldn’t you agree?


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