A symbol of struggle against apartheid

Basil D’Oliveira

The South African government’s refusal to accept him in 1968 as a member of the England touring team was one of the tipping points as the country became isolated in the world of sports because of apartheid, an isolation that helped lead to the eventual overthrow of the policy.

That decision exposed the reality that while those who supported playing South Africa criticised opponents for bringing politics into sport, it was the apartheid regime that did precisely that by insisting that others conform to its racist norms.

That Basil D’Oliveira was born in Cape Town is not in question; exactly when is. The record said 1931, but he once wrote that ''if you had said I was closer to 40 than 35 when I first played for England in 1966, I could not have sued you,'' implying he was born in 1928 or even earlier.

Nonwhites like D’Oliveira, who was classified as coloured, were not allowed to play first-class cricket in South Africa. He dominated nonwhite cricket there for years before moving to England in 1960 to play as a club professional at Middleton, in the Central Lancashire League. The early weeks were traumatic. He struggled with English playing conditions and still more with a life where his colour did not prevent him from mingling freely with white people.

Once he adjusted to British weather and its pitches, he prospered, and a move to higher-class cricket became inevitable. In his first season for Worcestershire, in 1965, he finished fifth in the national batting averages. All four higher-placed players played for England, and so, starting in 1966, did D’Oliveira, who by then qualified through residence.
England was to tour South Africa in the Southern Hemisphere season of 1968-69. Research by the British journalist Peter Oborne has shown that the English cricket authorities knew that the South African government would probably not accept D’Oliveira as a visitor. A South African businessman offered the player a huge sum of money to take on commitments that would rule him out of the tour.

D’Oliveira’s play had declined in 1968, and he was dropped from the England team.

But he was recalled for the final five-day Test of the Ashes series against Australia, and he played a match-turning innings of 158, then took a vital wicket as Australia was bowled out on the last day. His selection for the tour seemed like a formality. Anger and disbelief extended well beyond the world of cricket, however, when he was left out.

When Tom Cartwright dropped out of the tour, D’Oliveira, a top-class batsman who could also bowl, was chosen in his place. South Africa’s prime minister, John Vorster, declared England ''the team of the anti-apartheid movement’' and canceled the tour.

It was a fateful step that ''led directly to the intensification of opposition to apartheid around the world and contributed materially to the sports boycott that turned out to be an Achilles’ heel of the South African government,'' Gerald Majola, chief executive of South Africa cricket, said. Other sports, over time, also banned ties with South Africa.

South Africa, except for a single series against Australia, did not play another Test match until 1992. Only when apartheid was dismantled after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison was the country readmitted to the cricket community.

Privately, D’Oliveira was devastated by being excluded from South Africa, his dream of playing Test cricket in his home country shattered, but publicly he handled the situation with dignity. He continued to play for England until 1972 and for Worcestershire until 1980, and he later became a coach at the county level.

He averaged 40 as a batsman for England in 44 five-day Test matches, in an era when scoring was much lower than it is today.

Since 2004, Test matches between England and South Africa have been played for the Basil D’Oliveira trophy.

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