Monday, April 18, 2005

Heroes and Villians

From "yes no sorry" Volume 4 Issue 1

Heroes and Villains
Paddy Briggs

How Basil D’Oliveira and Nasser Hussain became symbols of all that is good in cricket – and how the cricket administrators of their eras thirty-five years apart conspired to try and defeat them

Two books have been published in recent months which, though very different and about two very different characters, give truth to the saying "What know they of cricket who only cricket know". Nasser Hussain's autobiography "Playing with Fire"[1] and Peter Oborne's perceptive and informed telling of the life of Basil D'Oliveira[2] make equally explicit who the heroes and villains were in their lives. And although these cricketing lives were lived more than a generation apart they give further proof to the adage "The only thing that we learn from the study of history is that we learn nothing from history". The amorality, deceit, intransigence and insensitivity that characterised the woeful behaviour of sporting administrators in Basil's summer of 1968 was more than matched by what Nass had to put up with in the South African summer of 2003.

Coincidentally both Hussain and D'Oliveira are both of mixed-race parentage and whilst race was, of course, central to Dolly's story it also played a not insignificant part in Nasser's cricket life. In an article quoted in Oborne's book John Arlott wrote presciently in August 1968 of the MCC's decision to leave D'Oliveira out of the South African tour party; "… within a few years, the British-born children of West India, India, Pakistani and African immigrants will be worth places in English county and national teams…the MCC's... decision must be a complete deterrent to any young coloured cricketer in this country". Nasser Hussain had been born that very year in Madras and if the ethos of MCC's then position had been sustained it is hardly likely that his father Joe would have brought him and the rest of his family to England a few years later!

Dolly and Nass are in their very different ways heroes of the struggle of cricketers to stand up for what is right, and to be role models of their cricketing times. Peter Oborne tells the moving story of Dolly's childhood in apartheid ravaged Cape Town in the post war years. His prodigious talent was visible early but, of course, he had no chance to fulfil his promise because top cricket in the country was a whites only affair. As a Cape Coloured (the descendants of the mixed white/black relationships of the early decades of the country's history) D'Oliveira was prohibited from moving outside the racially defined boundaries which imprisoned his people. In fact Dolly was light brown in colour and the great fast bowler Wes Hall once told him "In the West Indies you would have counted as a white man!" No matter, Dolly's hated pass (which had to be carried by all non-whites) classified him as coloured, and that was that.

Thanks to John Arlott, the Lancashire league club Middleton and later Worcestershire D'Oliveira was able to pursue a cricket career. Arlott had taken up his cause and Middleton had taken the risk of employing him. After a slow start he succeeded and within a year or two he had qualified for England and was in the Test side. In 1966 and 1967 he scored a total of nearly six hundred runs at an average of 48. He had made himself a fixture in the England side and although there was a hiccup on the West Indies tour of 1966-68 ,and he also suffered form a loss of form in the early part of the 1968 Australian tour summer, he came back for the final two tests scoring a memorable century at the Oval. It seemed certain that he would be chosen for the South Africa tour that winter. Peter Oborne has unravelled with forensic skill the conspiracy, which led to D'Oliveira not being selected, and it reflects extremely badly on the English cricket establishment of the time. In short the selectors, the wider MCC committee and the MCC membership as a whole were of the opinion that "bridge-building" was better than a boycott where South Africa was concerned. England's captain Colin Cowdrey took the same view "Sport", he said at the time, "is still one of the most effective bridges in linking peoples and I am convinced that it is right that I should lead MCC to South Africa." Oborne shows how without Cowdrey's support (despite the fact that it had been promised by him to D'Oliveira) the selectors rejected D'Oliveira on "cricketing grounds alone". This was a charade and although the case for Dolly's inclusion was not water tight, there is not much doubt that factors other than the purely cricketing played a crucial part. The selectors (or enough of them) knew that a touring party with D'Oliveira in it would be rejected by Vortser's Apartheid government (as it was when, in response to huge public interest and pressure, Dolly was belatedly selected when another player dropped out through injury). The cricket establishment had initially conspired to put the retention of white South Africa in the international arena ahead of principle - and they were quite prepared that Basil D’Oliveira should be a casualty of that imperative if needs be.

Roll forward thirty-five years and you might hope and expect that times would have sufficiently changed that the sort of tunnel vision coming from Lord’s in 1968 would all have disappeared in our modern more enlightened age. Not a bit of it. The opening chapter in Nasser Hussain’s book tells in chilling detail how the ICC put profit, pride and prejudice before principle in 2003 at the time of the Cricket World Cup. The issue was, of course, Zimbabwe and whether it was appropriate for England to play a World Cup match in Bulawayo. Nasser led from the front as this issue came to the boil -he wore his heart on his sleeve and he is the only one to come out of this sordid affair with any credit. As was the case in 1968 the cricket administrators were either vacillating and weak (the ECB) or pig-headed and offensive (the ICC).

At a meeting in Cape Town just before the World Cup started Nasser Hussain fronted up to Malcolm Speed of the ICC and he summaries his dealings with him as follows “… I never detected [in Speed] an interest in the spirit and future of the game…the priority was always money”. Speed was not only unyielding he was also contemptuous of England’s captain. Speed cut off the discussion after an inadequate half and hour and when Nass protested, Speed walked dismissively away. The ECB was almost as bad for although he had unanimous support from his fellow English players Nasser received no support at all from England cricket’s administrators at this crucial time. Hussain is particularly critical of the “unctuous” and “unsatisfactory” Tim Lamb who he felt was only interested in “trying to safeguard his own position”. The ECB turned to “emotional blackmail in an attempt to force us into going [to Zimbabwe]”. So Nasser was treated with contempt by one of the leaders of world cricket (Malcolm Speed) and was threatened by his employer the ECB – and all because cricket obsessive ‘though he is he was aware enough to know that when it comes to playing games in countries governed by racist dictators you must take a moral stand and say “thanks but no thanks”.

In the end, of course, England did not tour South Africa in 1968/69 and nor did they go to Zimbabwe in 2003. In both cases if those in charge had seen earlier that to play games in these countries in the prevailing circumstances was wrong then a great deal of heartache and distress could have been avoided. Basil D’Oliveira is today rightly a symbol of what the “Spirit of Cricket” means and Nasser Hussain is one of the Spirit’s most vigorous and articulate proponents. If only cricket administrators had a small part of the principles of these two heroes the world of cricket would be a better place.

[1] Published by Michael Joseph at £17.99
[2] Published by Little, Brown at £16.99