x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

D'Oliveira's rise thanks to a letter

D'Oliveira went on to play 44 Tests, nearly twice as many as Graeme Pollock, averaging 40.06 and taking 47 wickets.

It remains perhaps the most significant letter in the history of cricket, written with printers' green ink.

Basil Lewis D'Oliveira worked as a machinist at 14 Upper Bloem Street at the time, a hefty stone's throw from where he was born in Signal Hill in Cape Town. Newlands Cricket Ground was less than 10km away as the crow flies, but for a man of colour in apartheid South Africa, it could have been another universe.

The letter was addressed to John Arlott, the journalist and commentator.

Within months, D'Oliveira, the shining star of the non-white cricket scene in the Cape, was on his way to the Central Lancashire League. He lied about his age, saying he was 27. He was at least three years older.

Within five years, D'Oliveira had made his Test debut for England. Three years later, with a winter tour of South Africa looming, he played the first Test of an Ashes series against Australia.

Despite a defiant 87 not out in a defeat, he was dropped until the fifth and final Test. Before going out to bat, he rang Naomi, his wife, and told her: "Pull up a chair, love, put on the telly and enjoy it; I'm going to be at the crease all day."

In his biography, Peter Oborne reckoned his 158 topped the greatest innings Sir Don Bradman or Brian Lara had achieved: "Those runs [Bradman's 334 at Leeds in 1930 or Lara's 400 not out in Antigua in 2004] were not scored under conditions of unspeakable personal difficulty, against an attack comprising prime minister Johannes Vorster and South African apartheid at its most savage and corrupt, supported by the weight of the British Establishment.

"No other cricket innings has changed history. This one did. No other innings in Test history, to put the matter simply, has done anything like so much good."

When the Marylebone Cricket Club did not include him in the touring party, there was a furore. Then, Tom Cartwright pulled out and D'Oliveira was included. South Africa called off the series.

For an evil empire, it was the beginning of the end - the 1970 home series against Australia was the last that they would play.

D'Oliveira went on to play 44 Tests, nearly twice as many as Graeme Pollock, averaging 40.06 and taking 47 wickets. Pollock, the golden boy of a South African generation lost to isolation, was the first to acknowledge though that a sporting boycott was the best way to bring about change.

In Time to Declare, his autobiography, D'Oliveira wrote: "Whenever possible, I'd go to Newlands, Cape Town's famous stadium, to watch the great white players in Test matches. I'd sit in the segregated part of the ground, blissfully unconcerned that I couldn't sit beside a white man but terribly envious at the skills on display.

"I could only afford to go for one day - I'd clean my father's pigeon loft to earn my shilling for admission and walk the seven miles to the ground."

These days, outside Newlands, you can see a sheet of oxidised metal with a hole punched through it by a bronzed cricket ball. That ball and chain signify D'Oliveira's struggle, and are a poignant reminder of a man and a generation that had to fight the cruellest adversaries.

"Our cricket was completely uninhibited by tactical thoughts or other subtleties," he wrote. "The two fastest bowlers would run in and try to hit the batsmen and they in turn would do their best to hammer them out of sight. Knocks were given and taken, none of us had a clue about field placings and the spinners didn't know how to grip the ball. But cricket was our religion."

Unwittingly or otherwise, no one did more to preserve its sanctity than Signal Hill's favourite son.

sports@thenational.ae