Colin Cowdrey was held up a role model to a generation of schoolboys; one of the cricketing gods, regarded not just as England's natural captain but as the epitome of gentlemanly conduct. An annual lecture is delivered in his honour at Lord's on the theme "the spirit of cricket". However, a new book, Cricket at the Crossroads, makes it clear that he may actually have been deeply complicit in what has become known as the D'Oliveira Affair.
Official channels having proved understandably reticent on the subject, Cowdrey's autobiography has been one of the main source documents. In it, he claimed that as the summer of 1968 progressed nobody in the cricketing establishment, least of all the selectors, had any idea that the South African tour would not be allowed to go ahead if Basil D'Oliveira was selected, that the tour party was selected purely on cricketing grounds, that when Tom Cartwright pulled out through injury this came as a complete surprise, and that substituting D'Oliveira for him was a natural and easy thing to do.
Yet there were some worrying inconsistencies. For example, Cowdrey said he wanted D'Oliveira in the side for that summer's final Test, at The Oval for his medium-pace bowling, yet in the event he hardly bowled him – nine overs out of England's 247 in the match. When D'Oliveira was given the chance, he made the vital breakthrough in Australia's second innings. But something would later occur at the selection meeting which might help to explain matters.
As for Cowdrey's claim that nobody at that time knew the South African government's intentions, recently released material from Barry Knight, who played for England that summer, says it was common knowledge in dressing rooms around the country that the tour would not go ahead if D'Oliveira was picked, and that the selectors would not have the courage to select him.
Most damaging of all, in a television interview D'Oliveira himself claimed that Cowdrey told him in the dressing room at The Oval, after he had scored 158 in England's first innings, "You're on the boat, Bas." If Cowdrey was planning to have him in the touring party, why did he suddenly change his mind?
By way of background it should be pointed out that Cowdrey was widely accused of being indecisive. It was also said he would repeatedly promise people things and then not deliver.
We do not know what happened at the selection meeting, since the book containing its minutes has been lost, but we do know that a message from the South African prime minister was left at The Oval for Surrey to pass on to Doug Insole, the chairman of selectors, to the effect that if D'Oliveira was selected then the tour would not be allowed to go ahead.
We also know that at the meeting, on the evening of the final day of the Test, it was decided to consider D'Oliveira purely as a batsman. As we have seen, Cowdrey had always considered and used him as an all-rounder. Is this the reason Cowdrey then did not bowl him in that match? Is it too unlikely a possibility that the selectors, angry and worried that Cowdrey should have called up D'Oliveira on his own initiative, and having already decided what line they would adopt at the meeting, instructed him not to give D'Oliveira an opportunity to bowl?
In fact, Cowdrey himself gives the game away in his memoirs. In an unguarded moment he refers to Cartwright as "the man who had taken D'Oliveira's place", thus making it clear that at least in his own mind it had been a choice between him and Cartwright, an all-rounder, rather than him and a specialist batsman.
At this point, Cowdrey's memoirs begin to take on the hue of self-serving fantasy. He describes playing in a county match against Cartwright in which the latter bowled well, taking Cowdrey's wicket, then going with him to a Harley Street specialist, who gave him a clean bill of health. It therefore came as a complete surprise when he pulled out the next day, but Cowdrey accepted his decision without question. Infact almost none of this is true.
They did indeed play against each other, though Cartwright suspected Cowdrey of deliberately gifting him his wicket to make his bowling figures look better. It was Donald Carr of MCC, not Cowdrey, who went with him to the doctor, and not for the first time either, since MCC already knew his fitness was in doubt. Far from being given a clean bill of health, the specialist recommended an operation. Incidentally, what MCC did not know was that, having been sickened by apartheid while in South Africa one winter on a coaching contract, Cartwright was already strongly considering pulling out publicly on grounds of conscience.
Even then Cowdrey strove not to include D'Oliveira, phoning Cartwright to try to persuade him to go on tour anyway and then declare himself unfit on arrival in South Africa, at which point he could be replaced by Don Wilson (a left-arm spinner!) who would be out there coaching.
So, on the evidence of his own words, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that every schoolboy's hero may actually have had feet of clay.
'Cricket at the Crossroads,' by Guy Fraser-Sampson is published by Elliott & Thompson, £18.99Reuse content