Dear Mr. Arlott

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Original draft of article published on ESPN-Cricinfo, November 27, 2011

He himself must resolve them as well as he knows,
Or else take them with him wherever he goes.
– J. A

The sun shone weakly. It was April and the milieu was cold and bleak in Tilbury. Dark smoke billowing out of her funnels, the Orontes drew away in sombre deliberation and sailed out towards the grey waters of the Atlantic. Out on its deck, there was one last wave before the diminutive and huddled up figure stepped back from the deck rails and turned away. His silhouette dissolved into the mist and fog. And then Harold Larwood was gone.

Out on the quay, a solitary man watched the ship recede into the distance. The irony hung thick in the cold air. Eighteen years earlier, that very ocean-liner had had received a ticker-tape sendoff in comparison. Larwood – albeit then in his muscled prime – had stood on the deck waving back at the throngs wishing him and his team-mates godspeed and good luck in Australia. There were no brass bands this time around. In fact, there was no one else around, but John Arlott. A farewell party of one, lingering at the quay deep in thought. Thoughts tinged with sadness. And a deep-rooted conviction of the betrayal that lay behind the departure.

Larwood had made a memorable entrance into Arlott’s life back in 1926. It was a family vacation in London and a whirlwind of sightseeing in hot summer days had ensued – enough museum walks and tower climbs thrown in to instigate rebellion by a twelve year old nursing sore feet. Then, a fortuitous escape from the tourist’s tedium: down the road from where they were staying was the Kennington Oval, the ground hosting the fifth Test of the Ashes. Voila! Eventually the parents had capitulated as he begged and nagged them into submission.

Dispatched caringly by his mother with a raincoat and a bag of sandwiches, twelve year old John had shown up for his first day ever at a Test match, flushed in awe. Awe that only intensified when his heroes Sutcliffe and Hobbs walked out to open for England. England stuttered and didn’t last the day, but had hit back by the end of it to snaffle four Australian wickets. “W. Bardsley c H. Strudwick b H. Larwood 2” and “TJE Andrews b H. Larwood 3” read the scorecard.

Six years later, he had sat in the stands with his mate as Nottinghamshire played matches against Essex and Glamorgan. Perplexedly staring at the strange bowling tactics of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce: “We couldn’t understand this. We came back so baffled we didn’t even mention it to anybody”. He didn’t know then, but the plot had already been hatched. And was being put on trial before its explosive unveiling. Soon the flames from Bodyline would engulf the country.

Bodyline was to take its toll on cricket and England. But it was nothing compared to the toll it took on Larwood: “the villain-in-chief”, “the monster” and “the bloody murderer”. Feted as a hero on return from Australia, the humble and reticent Larwood would begin a descent and retraction into reclusive exile over the coming years. Injuries he had sustained in Australia dogged him, but what eventually devastated him was the overpowering sense of abandonment by his own cricketing establishment, the MCC.

It was a chilling realization to Larwood of the duplicity of the MCC when he was broached with the suggestion that he apologize for the events of Bodyline. An apology that would serve conveniently as a public absolution of the MCC, appease the irate Australians and pave the way for a smooth conduct of the 1934 Ashes. Larwood was a simple man, a salt-of-the-earth toiler from the coal mines of Nottinghamshire. He had given everything for king and country, but now realized to his abject disillusionment that he was all alone. The betrayal he felt was acute.

When Jack Fingleton – his adversary from that fated tour – came calling, Larwood had retreated to Blackpool, leading a monkish existence. With a most touching of gestures, Fingleton extended his hand of support to Larwood; an incredulous offer to help him relocate to Australia! Bitterness and the sense of injustice would prevail and Larwood accepted. And in April, 1950, he boarded the Orontes with his family, headed to the most improbable of futures: a new life in the country which had reviled him.

Arlott found him on the deck that day, a gaunt bespectacled figure, still dignified and upright. Arlott had convinced his newspaper that this departure was newsworthy and shown up at Tilbury, only to be stunned to find that he was the extent of the press corps. His offer of a drink accepted, they relocated, sitting across each other sipping their teas (Larwood having declined the offer of food or beer, keeping the pounding hangover from a night of drinking with Jack Hobbs to himself).

Larwood was wistful, as he reminisced about the glorious sendoff the team had received at that very harbor in 1932 and the euphoric return with the Ashes in 1933. How he looked forward to a new life in Australia. He could camouflage it as much as he wanted, but a perceptive man sat across the table from him. And he could sense sadness in that face. Sense the extent of the torture the MCC’s conduct had inflicted on the man.

He lingered at the harbor after they had shaken hands and Larwood boarded the ship. And stayed quayside even as it pulled away. For he believed in his heart that Larwood deserved a better farewell – not this second abandonment.

He stood there, his lone hand waving in silhouette against the bleak sky.

******************

If blame there be, we share the blame-
Blame not purged by praise of nations
But only by those generations
Who, not needing passports, fly
Unchallenged over common sky.
– J. A

The first letter arrived around 1958. Written in green ink. Polite, courteous and respectful was the young writer: “I daresay this is a minor detail, I presume, compared to your other escapades, but I am sure you will do your best…” Who was he?

The letters kept coming. Soon an undercurrent became obvious amidst the politeness – desperation. An anxious desperation. This was no ordinary fan-boy writing from afar. This was a hand reaching out. Reaching out in desperation from a hopeless situation. Hopelessness that he had experienced first-hand himself.

John Arlott’s first overseas stint as a commentator for the BBC was in 1948. South Africa had dazzled him, coming from bleak post-war England. His voice had preceded him there, and its reputation was already ensconced in warm appreciativeness. The stadiums were radiant and the cricket dazzled. He was feted and dined by adoring folk everywhere he went. It was all magical.

But John was a curious and perceptive man. And one did not need to be very perceptive in South Africa in 1948 to see the sordid underbelly of society and the repressive powers that ruled. It all came out in an impassioned rant on the air after he had returned home: “I speak from personal observation, of course – the existing government in South Africa is predominantly a Nazi one…Anything can happen to a native in South Africa – any form of violence, carrying through as far as murder, and you can rest assured that the person who kills him or ill-treats him won’t suffer in any way at all”

Egalitarian Arlott, reared and nurtured by generations of staunchly liberal folk, had determined that he could never visit South Africa again. It was too abhorrent to his humanity. That rant succeeded in getting relays of BBC newscasts banned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. It also succeeded in shining a beacon of hope into Cape Town.

Basil D’Oliveira’s batting average was 100.47. Three times, he had taken 100 wickets in a season. He was a legend in the ghettos and the “coloured” leagues. Yet, he couldn’t dare dream of playing for his country. For those were days when his people had to cross over to the other side of the street when they saw a white man approach on the same sidewalk as them. At Newlands, they were crammed into a tiny part of the stands barricaded by high metal fences. D’Oliveira sat in “The Cage”, one in a mosaic of eager dark faces, watching South Africa play against visiting sides – white Australia, England and New Zealand, that is. Watching players with a fraction of the talents he possessed donning the South African cap.

The green ink from his pen sent a distress signal: “Dear Mr. Arlott…” He had picked Arlott for “he was the voice of cricket”. More importantly, for “he was a good man”. With no hope of playing quality competitive cricket in his homeland, he had to try elsewhere. Arlott was sympathetic, but realistic. He knew the difficulties of getting an absolute unknown from abroad into a county side.

But oh, did Arlott try! Every county was written to – even Lord’s. Nothing. But he would not give up. If not the counties, why not the leagues? His friend John Kay in Manchester was plugged into the circuit and was approached. Arlott made clear his feelings to Kay: “I would not give a tuppenny damn if he were just an ordinary cricketer in one of the Test-playing countries, but this would be such a fine thing to do. The last thing I want out of it is credit, but I would love to see it happen”

It certainly was a fine thing to do. And a fine coincidence made it come to fruition. Middleton, in the Lancashire leagues had been left high-and-dry with a last minute pullout by their overseas professional Wesley Hall. Their desperation to fill the slot was to be D’Oliveira’s salvation. Back went a letter to South Africa:”Dear Basil D’Oliviera…” – as in all of them before, a quaint typo in the name – “Now I have an offer for you to play…”

In the spring of 1960, D’Oliveira landed at Heathrow. After being received by Kay, who had to reassure him that he didn’t need to line up separately from white folk anymore, was driven to a flat in London where an ecstatic Arlott opened the door to welcome the nervous young man. The night was spent there, with a fussing Arlott busying himself with arrangements: clothes, kit, money and a place to stay in Middleton. And in discussions with Kay to ensure that D’Oliveira would have a support network to help him settle.

Arlott called each weekend to enquire. To see if the lad needed anything: “…if a fiver would help, I would send it out of the blue”, he wrote to Kay. The D’Oliveira episode would remain the most cherished event in Arlott’s storied life. It gave him more personal joy than any of his other towering achievements.

Arlott shone at his principled best in 1968 when the “D’Oliveira affair” exploded on England. An affair that inadvertently set in motion events that would reverberate from Westminster to Robben Island. The South African government had been Machiavellian, but the MCC, in their single-mindedness to save the tour had left Arlott aghast.

Never one to be sequestered in the MCC’s choir and sing from their hymn sheet, he didn’t hold back:

MCC have never made a more sadder, more dramatic, or potentially more damaging selection than omitting D’Oliveira from their team to tour South Africa.

This may prove, perhaps to the surprise of the MCC, far more than a sporting matter. It could have such repercussions on British relations with the coloured races of the world that the cancellation of a cricket tour would seem a trifling matter compared with an apparent British acceptance of Apartheid. This was a case where justice had to be seen to be done.

The MCC, doyens of self-preservation, were at it again in 1970 with their attempts to go ahead with the tour of the South Africans to England. This appalling move, in the face of rampant resentment in England at the inhuman policies of apartheid, immediately drew out Arlott, as he refused to commentate on the tour for the BBC:

Crucially though, a successful tour would offer comfort and confirmation to a completely evil regime. To my mind, the Cricket Council, acting on behalf of British cricket, has failed fairly to represent those British people – especially cricketers – who genuinely abominate apartheid.

To persist with this tour seems to me a social, political and cricketing error.

And would seal the case shut with his eloquent discourse in the debate that preceded a vote on the tour, leading to a ban on cricketing relations with South Africa that would last decades:

There is a time in the growth of some political beliefs when they so offend against common morals that they are recognizable as evil and obnoxious to right thinking people.

Any man’s political commitment, if it is deep enough, is his personal philosophy, and it governs his way of life, it governs his belief and it governs the people with whom he is prepared to mix. Mr. President, sir, anyone who cares to support this motion will not exclude politics from sport, but in fact be attempting to exclude sport from life.

********************

Larwood and D’Oliveira…

Two simple souls embroiled in extraordinary circumstances. Two talented men trapped in the machinations of higher powers. Two of the biggest scandals that rocked England in the twentieth century. One which threatened to shred the fabric of the Dominion and the other which had an extraordinary impact on the world we live in.

Larwood and D’Oliveira…and Arlott.

A compassionate farewell to one and a heartwarming welcome to another. A caring wave to one at Tilbury and a reassuring handshake to the other at the doorstep of his London flat.

John Arlott, a mighty fine man.

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