Cricket: The Single Letter That Altered a Sport and Changed Lives – Mike Atherton, Chief Cricket Correspondent | The Times UK

   — By Mike Atherton, Chief Cricket Correspondent | The Times UK

This happy conclusion — an honest man of high cricketing gifts against the forces of racism, his passage to freedom, taking his wife and children with him, and his example to millions of others — has given me one of the greatest feelings of joy from any episode in my life.” John Arlott, 1980.

It is a steep walk up to Signal Hill. Head out from District Six, whose inhabitants were evicted during the apartheid era, find Wale Street, with its pretty pastel-coloured houses, head left up the cobbled streets, climbing all the time, and eventually you will get to Upper Bloem Street, near the brow of the hill. Above you, looms the majestic Table Mountain. Below, the teeming city of Cape Town. 

It was from No 14, Upper Bloem Street, now a pleasant two-story villa lined with bougainvillea, that one of the most significant letters in the history of cricket was sent. The letter was handwritten, in green ink, by a printer’s machinist in his late 20s, although his age was uncertain because the man to whom it was addressed couldn’t remember whether he received it in 1957 or 1958, and the man who sent it was always coy about his date of birth.

It began like this: “Dear Mr Arlott. I dare say this is only a minor detail, compared, I presume, to your other escapades, but I am sure that you will try your best to use your powerful assistance to help me…” The sender’s intuition was sound, and the great journalist and broadcaster did indeed use his position to set in train a story that was to profoundly change one man’s life, and the sport of cricket and, through that, the lives of countless others.

That man was Basil D’Oliveira. It was on Upper Bloem Street, in Signal Hill, that he grew up, the talented son of a tailor who was also a good cricketer, the captain of St Augustine’s, a club that drew its players from District Six, until its inhabitants were sent scattered to the Cape Flats. In the steep lanes, tiny passages and the scrub lands of Signal Hill, it is hard to imagine any future international batsman learning the game, as D’Oliveira did here.

D’Oliveira could not play first-class cricket because of his colour and the accident of birth in a racist society, but Arlott discovered that his record in the cricket he was allowed to play, on matting pitches against the Kenyan Asians, Bantus, Malays and Indians, was remarkable. It was estimated he had scored around 80 centuries in non-white cricket, at an average of close to a hundred, and the letter he sent to Arlott was his last chance, he felt, of proving himself elsewhere and at a higher level.

Arlott began to ask around, whether any counties or clubs would take a chance on this talented South African who had almost given up hope of playing top-class cricket. It was to John Kay, the cricket correspondent of the Manchester Evening News, that he turned because although counties were reluctant to take a chance on an unknown, the Lancashire and Central Lancashire League clubs might, given their long history of embracing professional players from foreign lands.

The back-and-forth of letters between the two men ended in January 1960 with an offer for D’Oliveira to play for Middleton Cricket Club in the Central Lancashire League that summer for £450 and bonuses. For a short while, D’Oliveira contemplated the offer and was encouraged to take it up by childhood friends who told him: “If you do well, we all do well.” Money was raised for the air fare. That letter had done its job.

It was on April Fool’s Day that he landed in England with his wife, Naomi. In his autobiography, D’Oliveira recalled his surprise at the plush seats on the train that took him north, as opposed to the hard, wooden seats he was used to, the fact that he could eat a meal on the train and that the toilets were not designated “white only” and, later, he recalled the bruises he would get on his arm from his wife as they sat in a cinema among whites for the first time, she clinging to him with anxiety.

Every Saturday evening, Kay would take a call from Arlott inquiring as to D’Oliveira’s form for the club. The all-rounder struggled initially to adjust from matting to the soft pitches of north Manchester in the early weeks of the season, but he finished triumphantly with just shy of 1,000 runs and more than 70 wickets, ahead of Garfield Sobers in the averages.

In 1965, D’Oliveira became the first non-white South African to play county cricket when he signed for Worcestershire, the county to which he was to remain attached until the end of his life, and with which the family still have an attachment through his grandson, Brett. The following year, he was selected to play for England for the first time, and it was in 1968, against Australia at the Oval, that he rang Naomi to tell her: “Pull up a chair, love, put on the telly and enjoy it. I’m going to be at the crease all day.”

D’Oliveira made 158 that day, setting in train the events that were to lead eventually to the cancellation of the 1968-69 tour to South Africa and that country’s isolation from cricket, and all international sport, for more than 20 years.

Peter Oborne, the political journalist, who wrote a fine book about the events that led to isolation, described D’Oliveira’s innings that day as the most important in the history of the game. “No other innings has changed history,” he wrote. “This one did. No other innings in Test history, to put the matter simply, had done anything like as good.”

It is about 12-km to Newlands cricket ground from Signal Hill, although to the likes of D’Oliveira 60 years ago it might well have been on another planet. Occasionally, when he had earned enough money as a boy cleaning out his father’s pigeon loft, D’Oliveira would walk down the hill, through the city and make his way to Newlands to watch the great players, even though he was only allowed to sit in the segregated area and could never have dreamt of playing with or against players of similar stature. He could only ever afford to go for one day of a first-class match.

Now, if you take that same route, as I did on Tuesday, it doesn’t seem so far. Eventually you get to Gate B, where you will see a sculpture by the artist Donovan Ward. It is a sheet of oxidised metal with a hole punched through it by a bronzed cricket ball on a chain, a work commissioned to signify the struggle D’Oliveira and his like had to endure, to be allowed the chance to play there.

Tomorrow, the second test between South Africa and England, both sets of players will set forth from the dressing rooms onto the great ground at Newlands. If we, and they, are lucky, the sun will be out, the tablecloth of cloud will be absent from the mountain, and the ground will shimmer in its shadow. The South African brewery to the left might be belching out some smoke, and the famous oaks embankment to the right will allow some welcome shade from the heat.

As they make their way onto the middle, to rapturous applause from spectators of all colours and backgrounds sitting happily together, they will pass the trophy for which England and South Africa’s players have battled since 2004-05, a bronze likeness of the man who grew up in Signal Hill a short distance away. The D’Oliveira Trophy, awarded to the winner of the Test series, is in England’s keeping for now. South Africa would quite like it back.  

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 01/06/2020 at 1:06 am

    South Africa leads [1-0] – 2nd Test [2 of 4] is on until 07 Jan 2020

    • kamtanblog  On 01/06/2020 at 1:44 am

      Saw documentary of Mike Atherton visit
      to SA. Excellent and unbiased.
      Think England will win second test
      …am following on sky tv uk.
      350-400 lead a distinct advantage.

      Isn’t technology wonderful !


  • Clyde Duncan  On 01/06/2020 at 2:04 am

    Okay, Kamtan: Second Test Highlights ….

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