Cricket: D'Oliveira, cricketer in apartheid row, dies at 80

By Stephen Brenkley

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, who died yesterday at the age of 80, was at the centre of a bitter affair which came to bear his name. His 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.

After making a magnificent 158 for England in the final test of the summer against Australia after a late call-up, he was contentiously omitted from the party to tour South Africa that winter.

Three weeks of accusation and recrimination followed over a dispute that had been brewing for a year.

South Africa, intent on pursuing its racial policy, had made it clear through cricketing and diplomatic channels that if D'Oliveira were 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 a 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 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. 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.

D'Oliveira 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.

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, he wrote to the writer and commentator, John Arlott, who took it upon himself to find him employment. Eventually, he was taken on by Middleton, and he proved himself to be a man for a crisis.

By season's end his league batting average was slightly higher than that of Garry Sobers. Word spread, and he was recruited by Worcestershire where he made an immediate impact.

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.

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. Eventually, D'Oliveira was recalled for the final test only as the third-choice replacement.

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.

But those three weeks in 1968 were what enshrined him.

- INDEPENDENT

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