CGM blog: D’Oliveira won hearts and changed minds

In a delicious irony Basil D’Oliveira is being given the freedom of Worcester this week.

Ironic because, aside from being an amazingly gifted sportsman, Dolly was best known for being denied freedom to play cricket in the country of his birth by seeking to represent his chosen adopted country, England.

Ironic because in a week when English cricket has rightly feted former England captain Alistair Cook for bowing out with a century in his last ever England innings, exactly 50 years ago, D’Oliveira, having scored 100 in the final Test match of the summer, was then omitted by the gutless Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC – the guise under which England toured overseas in those days) to duck the controversy of seeking to take a Cape Coloured player to play Test cricket in South Africa.

Ironic because he was one year older than Cook’s current age (33) when he first played for England and 37 when the so-called D’Oliveira affair happened – the best years of his career cruelly ripped away from him. He would eventually play on for Worcestershire to the ripe age of 49.

History conspired against the MCC and the South African government, of course.

The MCC’s chosen replacement, Tom Cartwright, pulled out, D’Oliveira had to be included on fairness and ability alone. South Africa’s despicable apartheid government inevitably objected, the tour was cancelled, and after the forming of the so-called Gleneagles Agreement, South Africa was effectively booted out of international sport until apartheid ended in 1991.  The sporting boycott was a key factor in bringing the dreadful regime to its knees.

Dolly – so-called through sheer affection – maintained a dignified silence throughout, showing notably more character and grace than those seeking to keep he and fellow black South Africans down as second-class citizens.

And now our Dolly – so cherished and respected throughout the world of cricket – is being honoured in his adopted home city where indeed there has been a D’Oliveira playing or coaching for Worcestershire for more than 50 years and over three generations (grandson Brett has captained Worcestershire this season, son Damian, who sadly died in 2014, had also played for and coached the county).

New Road, home of Worcestershire County Cricket Club.

Worcester’s current visionary mayor, Jabbar Riaz, whose mayoral theme is ‘love not hate’ has righted a civic wrong.

D’Oliveira is arguably the city’s best-known sporting son and should have been awarded this accolade ages ago – most notably when he was alive to receive the appreciation of those of us who admired him and took him to our hearts.

No one ever tried harder or represented the Three Pears crest with more passion, determination and pride than dear old Dolly – and for that reason alone I will always love him dearly.

He also shaped my outlook on life, politics, culture and sport – and you can’t put a price on that.

Dolly was Worcester and England – but really he was a citizen of the world and a true South African.

He played with simplicity and style and was hugely admired wherever he went. Even Basil Fawlty, not a character noted for generosity, praised ‘good old Dolly’.    

And that was it – he was simply ‘Dolly’ to everyone – at all the grounds he played at anywhere around the world (he always got clapped in and out to the wicket wherever and whenever he played – I don’t know any other cricketer that happened to).

The public, the fans, anyone who respected character, loved him. He won hearts and changed minds.

I only hope he knew quite how much he was loved and admired.

Chris Green is a Worcester born award-winning sports author and broadcaster and media consultant.