Goodbye Dolly, hello mediocrity
Ironically, I can never remember the word ‘iconic’ being used contemporaneously in reference to cricketer Basil D’Oliveira, who has died, aged 80, in South Africa. In today’s media climate, the word would almost be his nickname.
In simple terms, Dolly, as he was universally known, was an excellent and hard working mixed race cricketer. The timing and geography of his birth meant he was thrust into a pivotal position in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, and the contemporary furore about the links between politics and sport.
It wasn’t a position that he sought, he never saw himself as a trailblazer or figurehead – he was far too modest and circumspect for that – but the grace with which he reacted under such enormous pressure, and his refusal to be manipulated by powers far greater than the individual, marked him out as a very special person.
There are far better accounts than any I could attempt which pay tribute to both his cricketing career – which, even in normal circumstances, would have been stellar – and his role in the fight against apartheid, but I only wish to focus on his own dignity and the contrast between how things were then and now.
There is irony in the timing of his death, given the plethora of South African born sportsmen who choose freely to play for other countries in pursuit of wealth, and the current news concentration on the pronouncements of Sepp Blatter on racisim in football.
The point about Dolly was, that despite being totally aware of the heinous nature of apartheid and implacably opposed to it in all areas of life, the conviction that he was the man to do something to do about it was conspicuously absent from his early thinking. He just didn’t feel he was made of hero material. How wrong he was.
In his bearing, in his kindness, in his refusal to judge, he made a far more powerful case against apartheid than many who postured and hit the headlines by choice. Being aware of Basil D’Oliveira was to understand the fatuous nature of judging or valuing mankind on the grounds of their appearance, origins or background.
Ultimately, he gained respect almost universally, not because of what he was – cricketer, mixed race or whatever, but because of who he was and the life he led.
Sadly, daily evidence suggests that the modern day pollution of sport, its adherence to the wishes of corporate tycoons, and its ignorance of its original precepts, mean the emergence of stars with the gravitas and humanity of Dolly is less and less likely.
It’s not difficult to imagine that, in a similar position today, the turmoil caused by his conflict between birthplace and adopted home, would be seen as a huge marketing opportunity, a chance to add, and how fitting the pun is, ‘colour’ to advertising campaigns, and irresistible to a whole phalanx of agents and commercial negotiators.
It’s odious to name comparisons, but equally difficult to suggest any similarly humble stars in current cricket, where maximizing the buck appears to have overtaken any lip service to playing the game.
In a welter of irony, I’m forced to recollect that cricket, like other sports, has been here before. Originally the game of country peasants and sailors, it was highjacked in the 18th century by the nobility as a forum for betting, so that their manservants played the game as representatives of their Lords and betters, who stayed at home and placed odds on the result. Eventually they lost interest and, to an extent, the game returned to its roots.
Reflecting on the greatness of Basil D’Oliveira today, we’re left to suspect that, until the Cable and Satellite TV concerns lose interest in sport as an advertising platform, we are stuck with moral pygmies and vapid ‘superstars’.
I really think Dolly is better off out of it. God love him.