The passing of the sportsman who symbolised the struggle against apartheid leaves one of the most burning questions in cricket history unanswered. What happened on that long August night at Lord's in 1968 when Basil D'Oliveira, fresh from his series-squaring, career-defining performance against Australia across the Thames, was so controversially left out of the MCC touring party to South Africa?
The recent decision by MCC to open their archive to the public has offered hope that the full details of the most significant selection meeting in sporting history may finally come to light, but expectations should be low. The minutes are said to be missing, a line maintained for decades. Indeed, such are the recollections of the octogenarian who believes he would have written them, it is difficult to believe they were ever written, much less intended for wider consumption.
None present at that fateful meeting has published an account for posterity; most are dead. "Even 35 years on," attested Peter Oborne in his award-winning 2004 book, Basil D'Oliveira – Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story, "it is impossible to obtain the full story." Even the identities of all those presentremain a mystery, if only because, it seems, there was a spy in the room, working on behalf of the South African government.
"Far more is known about the cabinet meetings of Harold Wilson, or the activities of the secret service in Moscow, or the details of the Poseidon nuclear missile programme," asserted Oborne, a right-leaning political writer by trade, "than what the England selectors said and did that night."
Adamant as those known to be there were that the choice of Tom Cartwright was made strictly on cricketing grounds (well, they would say that, wouldn't they?), there is only one certainty: D'Oliveira was omitted for political reasons, in deference to the wishes of John Vorster and the National Party in Pretoria, who had attempted to secure the Worcestershire all-rounder's non-availability by offering him a handsomely remunerated 10-year coaching gig in his native country.
E W Swanton, the cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, was even prevailed upon to tryand persuade D'Oliveira to make himself available for selection by South Africa. In both instances, to his undying credit, D'Oliveira, though by no means flush with money, was not for turning. As he told the Daily Mirror 30 years later, he wanted "to prove that I could bat and that people from the black and coloured community, whatever you like to call it, know how to conduct themselves".
In what may be seen as the ultimate irony, Cartwright, one of the few left-wingers on the county circuit, told the MP and former Stop the 70 Tour activist Peter Hain that he withdrew – letting D'Oliveira back in – not because of injury, as officially stated, but because of his political conscience.
"So intense was the South African government interest," noted Oborne, that D'Oliveira's selection cropped up at a South African cabinet meeting on the day the England selectors met. More to the point, treasurer and all-round potentate Gubby Allen, in common with the other MCC mandarins present at the meeting – including the club president, Arthur Gilligan, formerly a member of the British Union of Fascists – were prepared to do almost anything to maintain cordial relations with those running cricket in South Africa.
Enter Geoffrey Howard. Shortly after D'Oliveira was finally dismissed at The Oval for 158, the Surrey secretary's phone rang. "Tell them," urged the voice on the other end of the line, "that if today's centurion is picked, the tour will be off." The voice belonged to Tiene Oosthuizen, a South Africa-based director of Rothmans, the man who had been entrusted with offering D'Oliveira that coaching post.
That same afternoon, a well-informed prediction was filed to the Guardian by Louis Duffus, South Africa's pre-eminent cricket writer, whose history of the game in the Republic, published by their cricket board, would tellingly eschew any mention of black players. To him, D'Oliveira was "politically motivated and an opportunist with an axe to grind". "If D'Oliveira is selected," he filed from The Oval, "South Africa are unlikely to host the MCC tour."
Allen remains the key figure. Not only did he have business interests in South Africa, his diary of the 1936-37 Ashes tour suggested he was something of a racist. After sightings of aboriginals at train stations he bemoaned: "They really are a ghastly sight and the sooner they die out the better."
The two survivors of that selection meeting – so far as we know – are Doug Insole, the chairman of selectors, and Donald Carr, then the MCC assistant secretary. Insole was vehement in his denials when I put it to him that D'Oliveira was dropped for the Lord's Test of 1968, having made 87 in the previous Test, in order to appease Pretoria.
Carr, who says he "probably wrote them", insisted the minutes of the meeting never went missing. What is certain is, if they were ever written, this crucial piece of evidence has been kept from the public domain with a sense of patriotic duty even George Smiley might have blanched at.
"I think I believed in, or was talked into believing, that it was all on cricketing grounds," recalled Carr in 2007. "There had been so much chatter about it. I think there were people high up in the cricketing hierarchy in England who were talking alot about it and knew what the possibilities could be."
"No way I'm saying that Geoffrey [Howard] didn't tell me of Pretoria's telephone warning," said Insole after the Guardian's Frank Keating had brought Howard's recollection to his attention in 2001, "but, frankly, I don't recall it specifically because at that time every Tom, Dick and Harry was saying what would happen if we didn't pick a certain someone. All I remember is opening a very long meeting by saying, 'Gentlemen, forget South Africa, let's just choose the best MCC cricket team'."
"I think some people [at the original selection meeting] put a lot of onus on Dolly's poorish tour of the Caribbean, maybe unfairly," added Carr. "[When Cartwright pulled out] we decided Dolly was the best bet, but it all looked so fearful. I felt it had not been very well handled. I don't think anyone supported apartheid. A lot of people believed in cricket."
While unsure how well his memory serves him, Carr hinted at yet more subterfuge: "I think the MCC committee decided we should take this line, to include Dolly as a political challenge to South Africa."
For which one interpretation, arguably the only one, is that the original decision to exclude him was done to placate South Africa.
So was he 80 or 83?
Nobody can say for certain just how old Basil D'Oliveira was when he died since he had admitted later in his career that he had lied about his age when he came to England.
He always remained coy about confirming his exact date of birth, which was officially recorded as 1931, making him 80 when he died. This would have made him 35 in 1966 rather than 32, which is what the England selectors believed, yet it is possible he might have been older still. Some believe he was actually 83 when he died yesterday.
He played his last Test in 1972, by which time he was undoubtedly in his early forties. Ironically, had he not lied about his age he would almost certainly never have been picked in 1966, and thus the D'Oliveira Affair would never have happened.