Rear Window: The D'Oliveira affair: When English cricket was stumped by apartheid

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The Independent Online
IT COULD have been a typical English cricket muddle, of the sort that seems to happen roughly twice a year. The selectors, picking a team to tour South Africa, left out a batsman who had just scored 158 to win a Test against Australia. A case for the usual jokes: perhaps they were all on the golf course at the time or they were too myopic to establish who made the epic century.

But this became the sporting row of the century. The batsman involved was Basil d'Oliveira, a South African-born player of mixed race who had qualified for England. The eventual consequence was South Africa's long exile from Test cricket in England, which ended only last week when the touring team played at Lord's, the sport's holiest shrine, for the first time in nearly 30 years.

In the 1960s, apartheid was not the sporting issue it became later. Though South Africa was already out of the Commonwealth and the Olympic Games, cricket and rugby tours passed almost without incident. D'Oliveira, unable to play first- class cricket in his native land, had come to England in 1960, first to play in the Lancashire League, then for Worcestershire.

In 1966, he was selected for England against the West Indies. By then, the long-term implications should have been plain: a few months earlier, a New Zealand Rugby Union tour of South Africa had been cancelled because the South African government refused to allow the visitors to include Maoris in their team. Throughout the following winter, the bigwigs of the Marylebone Cricket Club, the game's archaic ruling body, tried to find out whether the South Africans would object similarly to d'Oliveira's inclusion. They got no clear answer.

By the summer of 1968, it didn't seem to matter much anyway. D'Oliveira was out of the England side and out of batting form. Then came a most curious incident. Tiene Oosthuizen, UK managing director of Carerras, a South African tobacco company, approached d'Oliveira. He offered the cricketer an annual income of pounds 4,000 (at that time a huge sum) for 10 years, with a house, car and generous expenses, to coach in South Africa. There was one condition: d'Oliveira had to declare immediately that he was unavailable for that winter's tour. D'Oliveira said he would only accept if he knew for certain that he would not be selected. Shortly afterwards, he got the unexpected call to join the England team at The Oval, when another player dropped out through injury.

After his triumphant 158, plus one vital second innings wicket, his selection seemed inevitable. The decision to leave him out caused outrage. Some MPs called it 'a cricketing Munich'; Denis Howell, the minister for sport, was 'speechless'; a dozen or so MCC members resigned; Colin Cowdrey, then the England captain (outvoted on the selection panel), took advice from bishops, while his wife sent the distraught d'Oliveira family a bouquet of flowers.

Almost nobody outside cricket believed that the decision was other than a political one. Almost nobody inside the game believed that politics had anything to do with it. There were reasons for leaving d'Oliveira out: he had done poorly in the West Indies the previous winter and he was an indifferent fielder (partly because of an old shoulder injury). The selectors may also have suspected what d'Oliveira only later admitted - that he was then almost 40, having lied about his age when he came to England. Cricket followers were unsurprised by bad selection - some regarded the decision to omit Colin Milburn, then the most exciting batsman in England, as an even worse one.

A few weeks later came a further twist. Tom Cartwright, a medium- paced bowler, dropped out through injury. The selectors decided to replace him with d'Oliveira. The decision made even less sense than the first. D'Oliveira was a batsman who bowled a bit; Cartwright a bowler who batted a bit. John Vorster, the South African prime minister, took his chance. At a rally in Bloemfontein, apartheid's spiritual heartland, he announced that the team had become 'the team not of the MCC but of the Anti-Apartheid Movement'. The tour was off.

The rulers of cricket were still foolish enough to think this was a temporary upset. They pressed ahead with plans for the South Africans to tour England in 1970, even when a rugby tour in 1969-70 was punctuated by demonstrations and near-riots. Barbed wire was erected at Lord's to keep out pitch invaders. It took the intervention of the Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, to get the tour called off.

And d'Oliveira, who was supposedly not good enough even to make the tour party in September 1968? He went on to play for four more years, and 28 consecutive Tests. Can anybody still believe that the selectors were uninfluenced by politics? Perhaps. But those of us who follow cricket know that its rulers are habitual bunglers.

Last week, there was a row over whether or not d'Oliveira intended a snub when he failed to accept an invitation to attend the present Test. We cricket followers think we know the truth: the MCC surely posted the invitation to the wrong address.

(Photograph omitted)