D'Oliveira's three weeks that gave rise to a better world
Unknown cricketer who came to England to improve his game unwittingly became a pivotal figure in fight against apartheid
Without the dramatic events of the late summer of 1968, Basil D'Oliveira's life would have been extraordinary. With them, his place in cricket and beyond is imperishable; he changed the course of history.
D'Oliveira's innocent but integral part in what happened led to the sporting isolation of the land of his birth, South Africa, and eventually the disintegration of the apartheid system which cast the majority non-white population as second-class citizens. No sportsman of any creed or colour can ever have had such a breathtaking effect on matters while retaining his stature and dignity.
This could not quite have been foreseen in that August and September 43 years ago, though there had been enough political chicanery in the preceding year to indicate that huge issues were at stake. D'Oliveira, who died yesterday at the age of 80, was at the centre of a bitter affair which came to bear his name.
After making a magnificent 158 for England in the final Test of the summer against Australia following a late call-up which could be said to be in the nick of time, he was contentiously omitted from the party to tour South Africa that winter.
Three weeks of accusation and recrimination followed (which have never been wholly eradicated). It was a dispute that had been brewing for a year. South Africa, still intent on pursuing its racial policy, had made it clear through cricketing and diplomatic channels that if D'Oliveira was selected they would not allow the tour to proceed.
He had grown up as a so-called Cape Coloured in the Bo-Kaap area on the outskirts of Cape Town. Against all odds, he had made a new home in England, had forged an improbably successful career as a professional cricketer and become an outstanding Test player.
There was fury when he was overlooked for the tour after a six-hour meeting and it refused to subside. Although hindsight suggests that there were, if only just, cricketing grounds for D'Oliveira's omission, they were devoured by the indignation. MCC, who were still running English cricket then, were too easily accused of bowing to the wishes of a heinous regime.
When Tom Cartwright, a seam bowler, withdrew from the party in mid-September, the selectors replaced him with D'Oliveira, a batsman who bowled but was not an all-rounder in the truest sense. Immediately the tour was called off by South Africa's Prime Minister, John Vorster. It was deeply ironic that MCC, viewed in England as the Tory party at play as much as the Church of England was the Tory party at prayer, were seen as more or less left-wing plotters in South Africa.
England did not play South Africa again at cricket until 1993, after apartheid was dismantled. An entire generation might have passed but without the D'Oliveira Affair, who knows how long it would have taken? It was that which caused the world to examine the South African government's policy closely for the first time and not to like what it saw.
It is too easy to overlook the splendour of D'Oliveira as a cricketer. He came to England in 1960 as a professional with Middleton in the Central Lancashire League. That was still the era when small-town northern clubs employed illustrious overseas players; the unknown South African was patently not one. His journey there had been, not unnaturally, difficult.
On the matting and scrubland pitches on which he was allowed to play around Cape Town, he was an outstanding cricketer, a local legend. Anxious to better himself and knowing that would never be possible in his homeland, he wrote to the writer and commentator John Arlott. He could not have chosen a more receptive or appreciative audience.
Arlott, having satisfied himself of D'Oliveira's cricketing worth, took it upon himself to find him employment. Eventually, he was taken on by Middleton and although the first part of the season in 1960 was a fraught time D'Oliveira pulled through. He always pulled through, again and again he proved himself to be a man for a crisis. By the end of the season his League batting average was slightly higher than that of Garry Sobers.
Word spread, and although Lancashire were foolish enough to turn him down, he was recruited by Worcestershire at the behest of Tom Graveney, with whom D'Oliveria had played on an International World Tour in 1962. D'Oliveira was to make a more or less immediate impact at Worcester. He was a batsman of easy, orthodox, side-on technique, although he had never been coached. His footwork was sound and his wrists were made of steel. But it was his temperament which set him apart.
A year after making his county debut he was picked by England, having applied for a British passport a few years earlier. He was staunch against a strong West Indies side in his first summer, made his first century against India the following season and was part of the team.
By then D'Oliveira had trimmed three years off his age and he also learned to like a drink, having been teetotal for most of his life. On the tour of West Indies in 1967-68 it was to cause consternation. His performances were poor. In some quarters, where there was an eye on the South Africa tour the following winter, this was a cause of some relief. It reduced the likelihood of D'Oliveira playing.
The summer of 1968 was odd. The selectors kept faith with him for the First Ashes Test but then he was dropped despite a fighting, unbeaten 87. His form fell away, undoubtedly affected by the controversy already surrounding the composition of that winter's tour party.
Eventually, D'Oliveira was recalled for the final Test only as the third-choice replacement. Somehow he cleared his mind. He made the hundred after England were in early trouble and on the last afternoon he took the wicket which provoked Australia's final collapse and allowed England to draw the series 1-1.
There were to be more days in the sun. He played his part in regaining the Ashes in 1970-71 under Ray Illingworth; he went on to become Worcestershire's coach. But those three weeks in 1968 were what enshrined him.
Basil D'Oliveira: 1931-2011
Bowling and fielding
Test debut: Jun 1966 v W Indies, Lord's
Last Test: Aug 1972 v Aus, The Oval
ODI debut: Jan 1971 v Aus, Melbourne
Last ODI: Aug 1972 v Aus, Edgbaston
First-class career: 1964-1980
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