Thursday, November 24, 2011


My hall of heroes has been awfully noisy for the last few months. Champions who inspired me through thought and deed have been keeling over like eager pins in a bowling alley. And on the 19th of November, another titan rolled over to forever rest in peace. This is my second elegy in two weeks and I surely hope I don’t need to write any more of these for some time to come. The name of this unassuming man once shook up an empire. His friends called him ‘Dolly’, but history would remember him as the man at the centre of the D’Oliveira affair.

His name – Basil D’Oliveira.

He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for a while now and I had written a story about him during India’s tour of South Africa. I reproduce sections from that story to remind you about a remarkable life that simmered with passion and a quiet dignity that humbled one of the cruelest regimes in history.

To tell you his story, let me take you to the time when he lay in bed, cold and dead, his eyes closed to the world for good. But if those eyes could talk to you still, they would have told you tales of 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 after 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 eight-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’ 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, often 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. During the 1950s 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 meagre, 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 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 for his way to England. But help walked in, in different hues. Friends, both brown and black, wrote letters 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 soften his stance. In England, it was a quiet start for the boy from the 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 (or, more likely, 38). The old light in his eyes must have glistened for a while, for he must have 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 after 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 in the team, Basil refused and hoped for a miracle.

It was the final ‘Test’ at the Oval and batsman Roger Prideaux 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 the South African government 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 anti-apartheid 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’Oliveira, 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 you might not have met, and you might not have known, but we all 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… So do say a little prayer for him, for the world needs a Dolly, even if good old Dolly has no need for it anymore. God bless you, Bas!


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