Basil D'Oliveira, by Peter Oborne

The cricketer who exposed a racist regime
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The Independent Culture

If we believe with Shakespeare that "some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them", which of these options applies to Basil D'Oliveira? As a South African "Cape coloured", he was certainly not born great. As a cricketer, he achieved greatness, defying the odds stacked against him and cheating the years to the extent of beginning a dazzling Test career as an England player at the advanced age of 34 (though he pretended to be three years younger). But he also had greatness thrust upon him: as an ordinary human being subjected to intolerable pressures both by the South African government and its minions, and by the MCC as English cricket's governing body.

If we believe with Shakespeare that "some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them", which of these options applies to Basil D'Oliveira? As a South African "Cape coloured", he was certainly not born great. As a cricketer, he achieved greatness, defying the odds stacked against him and cheating the years to the extent of beginning a dazzling Test career as an England player at the advanced age of 34 (though he pretended to be three years younger). But he also had greatness thrust upon him: as an ordinary human being subjected to intolerable pressures both by the South African government and its minions, and by the MCC as English cricket's governing body.

The story in outline is well known: how, just after he had scored a magnificent century against Australia, D'Oliveira was first not selected for the 1968-69 tour of South Africa, then included as a replacement for the injured Tom Cartwright, precipitating the cancellation of the tour by the upholders of apartheid. Now Peter Oborne has written a superb and generous account of the whole saga. Much has already been told by several of the participants, not least D'Oliveira himself. But this doesn't make Oborne's account any less riveting.

He pays tribute to the many heroes in this story, starting with D'Oliveira, an "uncomplicated human being forced to make the uncomfortable journey into the media-political arena", his wife Naomi, and many loyal supporters in Cape Town. Oborne's rendering of the South African background in both political and cricketing terms is one of this book's many strengths. Other heroes include the commentator John Arlott and eminent cricketers including Tom Graveney and, more surprisingly, Raymond Illingworth.

Less heartening is the role played by the MCC in the affair, which was not so much pusillanimous as blatantly pro-South African. Oborne has no difficulty in demonstrating the ties that existed between the MCC establishment, including key officials like "Gubby" Allen and "Billy" Griffith, such grandees as Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and the South African government of Johannes Vorster. But he is scrupulously fair in his treatment of these and other "villains" of the piece.

If the MCC comes out of the affair badly, another "MCC" comes out even worse. Colin Cowdrey, who entitled his autobiography MCC (his own initials as well as those of the Marylebone Cricket Club), is exposed as thoroughly two-faced, promising D'Oliveira his support as captain, then withholding it at the vital selectors' meeting. Contrast this with Illingworth's behaviour three years later, when faced with another attempt by MCC selectors to drop D'Oliveira, this time from the touring party to Australia. Illingworth told the selectors that if Basil didn't go, he wouldn't either.

D'Oliveira went and England, against all expectations, regained the Ashes. Cowdrey went, too, and sulked because he was no longer captain. Too bad.

The reviewer's books include 'Imperial Warriors' (Granta)

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