How Dolly's 158 runs forced cricket to face its crisis of conscience

The all-rounder's form in 1968 made it hard to exclude him from the South Africa tour that never was, writes Stephen Brenkley

Basil D'Oliveira was an unlikely revolutionary. All he wanted to do was play cricket to the very best of his ability. But when he arrived in Lancashire in the cold, cheerless spring of 1960 from his home in the poor, downtrodden suburbs of Cape Town he set in motion a staggering chain of circumstances outside of hiscontrol.

They were to reach their apogee a little more than eight years later and by the time D'Oliveira died at the age of 80 on Saturday it was as a man who had changed the world. It would be stretching the point to suggest that he put an end to apartheid, brought democracy to South Africa and affected the perception of an entire continent, but without him all those things would have taken longer and happened in much different fashion.

At this distance there seems an inevitability about what unfolded, that it was somehow D'Oliveira's destiny. But right up until the last moment, when he played the great innings of 158 against Australia in August 1968 that finally provoked the selection furore which led initially to turmoil and eventually to emancipation for his former countrymen, a series of occurrences both intended and inadvertent could have prevented it. After going on half a century it remains a compelling story of intrigue, bluff and deception.

In the controversy that still surrounds what became known as the D'Oliveira Affair it is too easy overlook what an outstanding cricketer and naturally dignified man he was. But it was the game and only the game that brought him 51 years ago to Middleton, on the outskirts of Manchester from the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town.

At the age of 28, with his wife expecting their first child, he had been on the verge of giving up the game. He was brilliant, as 80 hundreds testified, but there were no opportunities for advancement in South Africa, where those who were non-white were treated by law as second-rate citizens under the apartheid regime. D'Oliveira came into the category known perniciously as "Cape-coloured" and if he and his fellows were treated less unequally than black Africans it was still a monstrous system of society.

D'Oliveira wrote and kept on writing to John Arlott. That was the first crucial building block in place, for Arlott was not only a significant cricket writer and commentator but, above all, a humanitarian who recognised the evil inequality of life in South Africa.

Arlott did not ignore D'Oliveira's blandishments as so many might have done; he persisted in doing something about them. Cricket and life were tough in Middleton at first but D'Oliveira persisted too, unwilling to let down those who had helped him on his way – the help not only of Arlott but also the people of the Bo-Kaap, who had given what little they had to help to pay for his fare, and of Middleton who welcomed him so warmly.

He became a force in the Central Lancashire League, he joined Worcestershire and a year later, having applied for, and been granted, a British passport, he made his Test debut. Thus were the seeds sown for a sporting and political cataclysm and a story with endless gripping twists and turns.

From the time he became established in England's Test team – as much as anybody in those whimsical selection days was established – he set his sights on the South African tour of 1968-69. But the South African Government was equally determined he should not come and set about ensuring that this should be so. In the corridors of power of MCC, which then still ran English cricket, they feared what was coming too.

The summer of 1968 was important for England. The Ashes were being played for. Nothing matters more in English cricket but that season the individual case of D'Oliveira hung over the whole proceedings. At several points it seemed it might go away, to the relief of MCC and perhaps to the governments of both countries, but it kept returning.

D'Oliveira, "Dolly" by then to the English public who had taken this determined, capable cricketer to their hearts, was out of the side for much of the 1968 series. He had been on tour to the West Indies in the preceding winter and had a dreadful time of it. His form on the pitch was indifferent and off it he had enjoyed the delights of the Caribbean to the full. The teetotaller who had arrived in England now liked a pint as much as the next man.

He kept his place for the first Test against Australia and scored a fighting, unbeaten 87 in a 159 runs defeat. But it could not prevent his being dropped for the next match, in the interests of team balance, and his form thereafter nosedived.

Sensing that his chances were rapidly receding of going back to his homeland as a fully fledged international sportsman, Dolly could barely make a run. There were still shenanigans behind the scenes as South Africa sought to ensure that he was not selected. MCC had dispatched emissaries to the country but by now were rather hoping the issue might disappear of its own accord.

D'Oliveira was under pressure. Substantial offers were made to him to accept a coaching job in South Africa if he would make himself unavailable for the tour. Other non-whites back in his homeland accused of him of selling out. He was damned if he did, damned if he didn't.

Then came the fifth Test. D'Oliveira was not in the original party of 12. Nor was he summoned when it was decided the pitch might be ripe for medium-pace bowling. Two cricketers, Tom Cartwright, whose part was to grow later, and Barry Knight, had to decline the opportunity to join the squad because of injury.

So D'Oliveira was brought in. Even then, as fourth reserve, it looked improbable he would play. But on the eve of the match the opening batsman, Roger Prideaux, withdrew, citing a virus. Years later it would transpire that Prideaux was trying to protect his place in the touring party which he feared that failure against Australia might affect. D'Oliveira played.

Still, the issue might not have reached its messy conclusion. D'Oliveira was always a phlegmatic cricketer, a man for a crisis, and going into the match he had managed at least to clear his mind of its demons. Still, he needed help.

When he was on 31, he edged Ian Chappell's leg-spin to Barry Jarman, Australia's wicketkeeper, who spilt the chance. A score of 31 would have made it easy for the selectors to do what they subsequently did. But D'Oliveira made everything of his reprieve.

England won the match to level the series, if not regain the Ashes, and it was D'Oliveira who took the vital wicket on the last afternoon which provoked Australia's ultimate collapse. The selectors met for their fateful six-hour meeting and the upshot was that D'Oliveira was not included. The part of the selectors, chaired by the respected Doug Insole, and the captain, Colin Cowdrey, whose reputation has suffered with the passing years, remain shrouded inmystery.

D'Oliveira was distraught and the country's sporting followers were apoplectic. In hindsight, there were possibly reasonable cricketing arguments for omitting D'Oliveira, though a score of 158 under such personally difficult circumstances tended to rebuff all of them.

But the tour would probably have gone ahead and history might have panned out differently. In mid-September, three weeks after the party was announced, Cartwright, one of the seam bowlers, withdrew because of his chronic shoulder injury. For some reason the selectors now installed D'Oliveira. It seemed odd then and in cricketing terms it seems odd now.

By the selectors' own account D'Oliveira had been considered for the original party only as batsman, although he also bowled adequate medium-pace seam, and Cartwright, though he could bat, had been selected as bowler. MCC had bowed to public and press pressure. South Africa cancelled the tour and England would not play them at cricket again until 1993.

D'Oliveira's international career continued a little longer. He made a gritty century on the Pakistan tour which replaced that to South Africa and was a quietly efficient, if not spectacular, member of the team which brought the Ashes back after a gap of 12 years in 1971. He was 34 when he made his international debut and only one player has played more than D'Oliveira's 44 Tests having appeared first after the age of 30.

He became coach of his adopted county, Worcestershire, and though his last years were blighted by illness he was much loved. Basil D'Oliveira made an indelible mark.

D'Oliveira: English career

Born 4 October 1931, Cape Town.

 

Tests: 44

Debut Second Test v West Indies, Lord's, June 1966.

Last Test Fifth Test v Australia, The Oval, August 1972.

 

Test batting

Runs: 2,484. Av: 40.06. Hundreds: 5. Fifties: 15. Highest score: 158 v Australia at The Oval, August 1968.

Test bowling

Wickets: 47. Average: 39.55.

Best bowling: 3 for 46 v Pakistan at Headingley, July 1971.

 

One-day internationals: 4

Batting Runs: 30. Average: 10.

Bowling Wkts: 3. Average: 46.66.

 

Worcestershire career

Games: 367 from 1964 to 1980.

Runs: 19,490. Wickets: 551.

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