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Remembering John Arlott: Scourge of apartheid cricket (1914-1991)


Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and author of ‘Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid’.

Half a century after the ‘D’Oliveira affair’ rocked world cricket and effectively sent South African cricket into isolation, England are back in the country. It’s a fitting time to remember the ‘Shakespeare of cricket’, John Arlott.

Few of those within world-class cricket are political animals. That, however, is no excuse for being politically unconscious.” – John Arlott on the Basil D’Oliveira debacle, 1968.

If Clifford Geertz is right in “seeing heaven in a grain of sand is a trick only poets can accomplish”, then English cricket commentator John Arlott was the poet laureate of cricket. Witness him describing the fast bowler Maurice Tate:

“His run-in, eight accelerating and lengthening strides, had the hint of scramble about it at the beginning, but, by the eighth stride and well before his final leap, it seemed as if his limbs were gathered together in one glorious wheeling unity… bending into the earth-tearing, final stride…”

Arlott looms large in South African cricketing history, for his journalism as much as for raising his voice against apartheid. When he covered England’s tour of South Africa in 1948/49, Arlott was shaken by the obsession with racial profiling and segregation. On leaving, he refused to fill in “race” on the departure form:

“The immigration officer looked at him impatiently. ‘What race are you?’ he asked. ‘Human’, replied John. ‘What do you mean?’ the man asked in an aggressive tone. ‘I am a member of the human race,’ answered John… The immigration officer glowered. At last, between gritted teeth, he said, ‘Get out’.”

He was the link that took Basil D’Oliveira to England. When D’Oliveira was excluded from the MCC touring party to South Africa in 1967-68, Arlott was infuriated, telling the press that “no open mind will believe he was left out for valid cricket reasons”.

To grasp the tenor of the times, reflect on how one of the most eminent of South Africa’s cricket writers, Louis Duffus, saw the selection of D’Oliveira. To him, it was “a dagger directed at the heart of South African cricket… Because of one cricketer, the great players produced in this country and the game itself have been victimised. Posterity will surely marvel how a player, helped to go overseas by the charitable gesture of white contemporaries, could be the cause of sending the cricket of his benefactors crashing into ruins”.

For people like Duffus, it was D’Oliveira’s fault for making the England team, and worse still, agreeing to make himself available to tour South Africa, biting the (white) hands that helped him. History would also reveal the perfidious role played by the England captain, Colin Cowdrey.

While adopting the posture of encouraging D’Oliveira, he was determined to exclude him. When Tom Cartwright withdrew through injury, Cowdrey begged him in a phone call: “Will you agree to at least start the tour? When you get there, if things go wrong, there are people out there who are coaching, like Don Wilson who we could bring in.”

As historian Bruce Murray points out the call reveals that Cowdrey “was desperate to avoid the selection of D’Oliveira”.

It was at the Cambridge Union debate on 10 November 1969 that Arlott, one of Duffus’s “whites”, let loose his own unplayable rhetorical bouncers. The former cemetery assistant dug a six-foot hole for Ted Dexter and Wilfred Wooller, both Cambridge men, who spoke on behalf of the tour. Arlott ended his speech by arguing that anyone who supports the tour “will not exclude politics from sport but will in fact be attempting to exclude sport from life”.

As Ian Wooldridge from the Daily Mail was to comment: “He won the day not only with sane persuasion, but a faultless flow of English so beautiful in its construction that you could almost hear the commas and semicolons fall into place. He sat down to a standing ovation.”

It is no wonder that the West Indian great, Gordon Greenidge, described Arlott as “the Shakespeare of cricket”.

As the game’s length has shortened, so the eloquence of the commentators has evaporated. Run rates and clichés have seemingly shot up in unison. There is no seam movement, nor any swing in the banter, both on the pitch and in the contemporary commentary box. Take Mike Haysman, whose prose is as edifying as the graffiti on a PortaLoo door. There is a huge chasm between an Arlott and a Haysman that goes beyond the use of language. Arlott was a man of principle. Haysman an Aussie rogue cricketer, a man of profit.

As Peter Pollock wrote of the rogue tours: “The cheque book ruled supreme.” Taking a certain view of history and how apartheid was propped up by sanctions-busting, Haysman and company took blood money. CLR James asked, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” Arlott knew a lot. Haysman knew his bank balance.

England are touring exactly 50 years after South Africa’s tour was aborted. It was a turning point. The generation of our fathers who loved cricket and Shakespeare received a boost to their morale. This, while forced relocations destroyed grounds and clubs and teams and lives. In the face of gross unfairness, somehow a commitment to principle grew tighter and the love of the game grew stronger. Apartheid was just not cricket! And other people, steeped in the game, recognised this too. Deep down, our fathers knew that Basil could go on to play for England, and the fact that men of Arlott’s notability stood with them in the fight to level the playing pitch gave them heart. With this sort of pressure, they could dream that one day, their sons would be Basils, playing for the country of their birth. How did Brecht put it: “Our goal lay far in the distance/it was clearly visible.”

Every cricket player has their role models, their early heroes. Arlott, in writing of the Aussie Ray Lindwall in the aftermath of World War II, said:

“… food shortages do not tend to produce bowlers with the bonus energy demanded by fast bowling. The war restricted coaching and development of young cricketers. Many young men of good physique and good heart essential in a fast bowler gave their lives in a contest grimmer than a Test match. So, England is short of fast bowlers… But, as Ray Lindwall moved in silky momentum to the crease and swept away the English batting… he set foot in England an idea which cannot but prove heady to the youth. Up and down the country small boys… gripped a ball, struck poses and said, ‘I’m Lindwall’.”

We too had our Lindwalls. Not Peter Pollock or Mike Procter. But those grown men, our fathers, who hid behind a tree to change into their whites, herded into non-white cages at Kingsmead, always bearing their humiliation with dignity. It was a way of living and playing; against the boundaries made of their race. As for us, the next generation, we would be much as CLR James predicted, Janus-faced; “One, the rebel against all family and school discipline and order; the other a Puritan who would have cut off a finger sooner than do anything contrary to the ethics of the game.”

Arlott rebelled against the cricket establishment, but on the question of equality of humankind, he was puritanical. Part of that strange breed of now largely extinct, free-thinking but also principled Englishmen.

And Basil. How many times did our fathers regale us with the one time D’Oliveira (England) met Peter Pollock (World X1):

A beamer from South Africa’s fast bowler, Peter Pollock was parried just in time by an alarmed Basil D’Oliveira… Pollock had come to bowl to D’Oliveira when (he) had been in for 30 minutes for a bare four runs… D’Oliveira hit Pollock… for two runs and then came the head-high ‘zoomer’ which could have felled D’Oliveira had he not moved his bat in time. Obviously infuriated… D’Oliveira turned from being a leisurely one-run-every 10-minutes-man into a raging fury. He hit Pollock for two then a six which landed beside the sight-screen and another brace for two to make it 12 in the over. Still in run-scoring mood, D’Oliveira took it out on Bobby Simpson hitting him for two collude-scraping sixes. He faced Pollock for one more ball and that also went to the boundary. D’Oliveira went almost immediately afterwards… off Musthaq Mohammed, having gone from four to 51 in 30 minutes.”

Together, they stand tall in the pantheon of our forgotten cricketing heroes. Deliberately forgotten it sometimes feels. For their ideals expose the hypocrisy of both past and present wielders of cricket power in South Africa.

We will honour their legacy when we in cricket escape the cages of apartheid’s categories, and like Arlott, write next to the word race, “human”. DM


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