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Chips off the old block, Basil D'Oliveira's son Damian and grandson Brett have made it three generations of the family that have played for Worcestershire
July 30, 2012
One of the mysteries Basil D'Oliveira's children's children grew up with was the age of their grandfather. They were simply not allowed to know.
"We were at a family party somewhere and all the kids were sat round a table," Damian D'Oliveira, Basil's oldest son, remembered. "You know the story about how secret his age was. They said, 'Come on granddad, tell us how old you are.' And he said, 'One day I'll pick you up from school and I'll tell you how old I am,' and they were pretty excited. But he never picked them up from school."
D'Oliveira senior resolutely kept the door to his private life closed, though there were many who tried to open it. His age was one of the things he did not share with anyone; he lied about it when he first got his county deal, saying he was three years younger than he actually was because he thought it would increase his chances of selection. He was 30 when he debuted for Worcestershire and 34 when he made his first appearance for England. Pat Murphy, the journalist who wrote his autobiography, said Basil was even older than that because he told the author he was born in 1928. It is currently accepted that he was born in 1931 and died at 80, but his real age may never be known.
Other things about him were also kept largely secret, as he wanted. D'Oliveira's most public appearance came, against his will, in 1971. England had just returned from a successful Ashes and interest in D'Oliveira was high. So high that the BBC wanted to interview him on their live show This is Your Life. In keeping with the concept of the programme, they had to catch him unawares.
"His agent rang him and said Henry Cooper is fighting - you've got some tickets at ringside, but he didn't want to go," Damian said. Basil's wife Naomi was tasked with making sure he left the house in a white shirt, but even that proved difficult. "He had watched some singer on television who wore a red shirt and a black tie and he wanted to have something like that, so that was all he would let her buy him when they went shopping," Damian said.
"His agent took him to the Long Room at Lord's for a drink and the show's producers sprang it on him there. He said he wouldn't do it."
D'Oliveira was told he would "miss out on an awful lot" if he didn't go on the show, and that he would be "quietly pleased with what was put together" if he did. He eventually relented (though when Naomi appeared on the set, he gave her a kiss and whispered in her ear, "I'll kill you when we get home") and the show was one of the most watched.
While there was not much in the way of monetary gain, the programme took people through their own lives, with the assistance of a big red book, allowing them to divulge details that others would not have known about them previously, and presented participants with an almanack of sorts on themselves.
His children were out playing cricket in the street and some neighbours called them in to see their father on television. "We were like, 'Hang, on, I'm 60 not out at the moment!' Damian said. "We just had a normal way of life."
Being able to separate stardom from real life was something Basil impressed on his family. Neither Damian nor his brother Ivan was pushed into cricket, although Damian eventually found himself playing the game. At first, though, he wanted to play football and had trials at Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion when he was 15. That year, his father asked him what he wanted to do in the summer holidays and Damian answered that he did not know, so Basil offered to "organise me a game of cricket".
Damian's hero was Alan Knott and he wanted to keep wicket, but he also wanted to bat and impressed on the coach that he would only be willing to take the gloves if he could play fairly high in the order. That did not happen and he ended up "hardly ever" getting a bat. But since he did not hear from the football clubs again, his path was paved for him.
In 1980, Damian was contracted by the MCC ground staff and spent two years with them at Lord's He played in all the second team games in his final season there and scored over 1000 runs, which earned him a contract at Worcestershire, where he could continue to shine a light on the family name at New Road.
By then Damian was realising just how big a name it was. "I did two years in Christchurch and a year in Perth. It's only when you turn up at club grounds and they say, 'I saw your dad here' that you realise how many people knew about him," Damian said.
In Liverpool he played against Middlesborough and heard contrasting stories. "The coach said to me he knocked my dad's middle pole out for 0 when he played here, and a few minutes later the groundsman came to me and said, 'Your dad only ever played here once. He got the most magnificent hundred I've ever seen.'"
Damian has not made it back to South Africa, land of his and his father's birth, for a while, but his son Brett, a legspinner, has been recently. Brett played for Basil's old club, St Augustine's, late last year and has expressed interest in spending more time in South Africa.
He is the third generation of D'Oliveiras to play for Worcestershire. He does not see his last name as adding to the weight of expectation, but rather believes it gives him an advantage. "I look at it as a positive. I love playing in front of the crowds that have seen my granddad play and my dad play, so I relish it, really," he said. "You do get those people who think I'm only getting anywhere because of who my grandfather was, but there's nothing I can do about that. All I've got to do is concentrate on my game and try and get results for myself and the team. If I do that, hopefully I can change those minds."
While he has no first-hand knowledge of the race issues surrounding Basil's inclusion for England, he has tried to get as much information on it as possible and has come to his own conclusion about the kind of impact his grandfather had.
"I don't want to think about it too much because it gets you down," Brett said. "I know my grandfather did great things but I don't think he really set out to change things. Luckily he did do that and I don't think he would ever change what he did, because I think he's done something for the better."
Damian also has had no experience of apartheid South Africa that he can remember. His family moved to England when he was just six months old, while his brother was born here. "It's quite frightening if you sit down and think about what could have been, if we had stayed in South Africa," he admitted. "I couldn't imagine - we just have to go on stories. Over here it's never been any different for us. It was more of a problem for my father when he first came over - not knowing where to sit or to eat, or where to get on the trains."
Naomi has not been back since 1966. "My mother hates travelling," Damian explained. "She could have been around the world 15 times but she just won't go out of Worcester." Instead she focuses on doing what her husband did - being a family person.
"Behind closed doors, he was very much granddad," Brett said. "I was very close to him. I spent a lot of time with him at Worcester, especially in the pub after the game, and he was just like a normal granddad."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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