I am proud to say that not only did I see Basil D’Oliveira play in the latter stages of his career but I also met the man whose name will live on in the World of Cricket and also whenever racism creeps into sport.
D’Oliveira was unlucky to have been born a non-white in apartheid South Africa and grew up under the weight of all the discriminations that came with that era.
He was a Cape Coloured, believing his family may well have originated from Portugal. His father was a strict cricket-playing man, who followed his progress with little or now praise.
In non-white South African cricket, on pitches usually made of matting, D’Oliveira scored 80 centuries before trying for better luck abroad.
Despite the great John Arlott championing his cause in the UK it was only in 1960 when Middleton in the Central Lancashire League had their professional cry off that they were persuaded to give the newly married D’Oliveira a go, at a time when he was actually contemplating giving the game away.
His friends raised the money for him to head to England and he immediately struggled scoring just 25 in his first five innings. He did come good and ended up topping the averages.
He found it strange that he was accepted so completely by his teammates, there were no barriers as there had been back home.
In 1964, having proved that he was too good for league cricket, he qualified for Worcestershire and helped them to retain the county championship the following year.
In 1966 he made his test debut at Lords and he walked to the crease with what was described as ‘a massively calm exterior.’ In his autobiography he actually stated that he thought Headingley in Leeds was the only English Test ground where the crowd was 100 per cent behind him.
Dolly, as he affectionately became known helped Ray Illingworth’s England regain the Ashes in Australia in 1970-1, and retain them by sharing the 1972 series.
By then he was at least 44, no one really knew as he refused to reveal his true age when moving to England. In his 44 Tests he also took 47 wickets at an average of 39, so that he bore the mark of an all-rounder in that his batting average was higher than his bowling.
He will however always be remembered for the fact that following his brilliant 158 against Australia at the Oval in 1968, the England selectors did not select him in the touring party to South Africa that winter.
The cricket establishment of the time was far keener on preserving traditional ties with apartheid South Africa than on striking a blow against such a regime.
Tom Cartwright then pulled out of the tour through injury, and D’Oliveira was selected in his place. The South African Prime Minister John Vorster immediately called off the tour, feeling the English hierarchy had disrespected their country by selecting a non-white in the England team.
Sporting ties with South Africa were soon severed completely, but the thing that will always be remembered is how D’Oliveira maintained his outward calm and dignity, even if internally he felt very differently. He will be greatly missed