In praise of … John Arlott | Editorial

Basil D'Oliveira listened to Arlott on the World Service and wrote him a letter. Arlott not only read it, but lobbied on his behalf

In the life story of the cricketer Basil D'Oliveira, rightful recipient of many tributes upon his sad death this weekend, an invaluable role was played by the journalist John Arlott. The son of a tailor in 50s Cape Town, the mixed race D'Oliveira had outstanding ability – but no coaching, nor any access to the best, white-only, grounds. He would have given it up to become a printer, were it not for Arlott. As his biographer, Peter Oborne, notes, Dolly sometimes listened to the cricket commentator on the World Service and wrote him a pleading letter in green ink: "I daresay this is only a minor detail compared, I presume, to your other escapades ..." (imagine such politesse from Pietersen). Arlott not only read the letter; he lobbied John Kay at the Manchester Evening News to help: "Asking him over here might change the sporting and … the political face of South Africa, which seems to me to be very worthwhile." A job came up at Middleton cricket club – and D'Oliveira was on his way to becoming an England cricketing legend. This was not the only time British journalism would rally behind the all-rounder. When he was omitted from the 1968 side touring South Africa, a Guardian leader thundered: "Anyone who would swallow that would believe the moon was a currant bun." Dolly was many things: a good man, a beautiful cricketer and a symbol of hope at a bleak time. He was also a reminder of the good journalists can do – and that letters in green ink can be worth reading.


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