Basil D’Oliveira never played for South Africa, yet was nominated one of the country’s cricketers of the 20th century. While it was England that benefited from D’Oliveira’s prowess with bat and ball, it was, ultimately, South Africa that was rewarded most by his actions on and off the field.
D’Oliveira was born in 1931, a child of mixed race in a country that looked upon people of colour as second-class citizens. Thus, he was never given the opportunities that many lesser-talented white children were given.
As a young man, he was never considered for selection to the Springbok teams of those times, but rather had to play his cricket in the South African Cricket Board of Control (Sacboc) organisation that catered to players of colour.
D’Oliveira learnt the game on matting wickets and quickly became a star of Sacboc cricket. Yet, thanks to aparteid, he could never test his talent against the best cricketers in the world.
He was able to watch other countries touring South Africa – from the stand at Newlands cricket ground reserved for “Non-Europeans” – but playing against them remained a dream.
It was a dream, however, that D’Oliveira would not let go of.
South Africa’s loss, England’s gain
In 1956/57 and 1958/59 he had the opportunity of leading the South African Sacboc team against Kenya and East Africa. D’Oliveira excelled, scoring 447 runs at an average just shy of 56.
Then the famous English cricket commentator John Arlott offered D’Oliveira a contract in the Central Lancashire League with Middleton, where he would replace the West Indian fast bowling legend Wes Hall. A local businessman raised money for his fare, and he was on his way to England and a new life as a professional cricketer.
After taking some time to adjust to the conditions, D’Oliveira thrived and forced his way into the Worcestershire county team – after he had lopped three years off his age because he might not have been given a chance had the county known his true age. When he played his first full season in the county championship he was already 34, yet he performed brilliantly, even though most players would be considered over the hill by that stage of their careers.
In June 1966, having qualified to play for England, D’Oliveira was chosen to face the West Indians in the second Test at the age of 34. He made a solid if unspectacular debut, scoring 27 before being run out, and returning figures of 1 for 24 and 1 for 46 with the ball in 39 overs.
‘Dolly’ comes into his own
In the third Test, his second, D’Oliveira came into his own, scoring 76 and 54, while capturing 2 for 51 and 2 for 77 at Trent Bridge, even though the West Indies cantered to a 139-run victory.
He contributed a fighting 88 in the fourth Test at Headingley, although England once again came a sorry second, losing by an innings and 55 runs. D’Oliveira was quietly efficient in the final Test as England turned the tables on the West Indies, winning by an innings and 34 runs to finish the series as 3-1 losers.
“Dolly”, as he was known, had nonetheless shown his abilities, quickly adapting to Test match cricket, and after a successful series he became a fixture in the England team for quite some time.
Against India next time out, he hit 109 in the first Test as England won by six wickets and went on to win the series three-nil. Facing Pakistan, he hit fifties in both innings of the first Test in a series that England won two-nil.
Next up was an away series against the West Indies, early in 1968. D’Oliveira didn’t turn in his best showing in the five matches, scoring only 137 runs at an average of 27.4. He did a lot of bowling, but picked up only three wickets, even though he was economical.
Back in England, it was time for a five-Test Ashes series. The Aussies crushed England by 159 runs in first Test as England crumbled in their second innings, despite D’Oliveira’s top scoring effort of 87 not out.
He was, however, dropped for the second Test, but when Roger Prideaux withdrew from the team for the final Test, Dolly was given a recall, and he made a triumphant return. He grabbed his chance, hitting 158 as England took a 226-run victory to tie the series one-all.
‘The D’Oliveira Affair’
After that performance, it was clear that D’Oliveira had sealed his spot in the England team to tour South Africa in 1968/69. However, he was not selected, as the MCC sought to avoid a political backlash from South Africa by naming a player of colour in their line-up.
The Sunday Times, on its Centenary Heritage Project website, gives some of the background to what became known as “the D’Oliveira Affair”:
“In August 1968, as the date for the announcement of the English touring team drew closer, the representative of a major South African tobacco company, Tienie Oosthuizen, offered D’Oliveira a car, a house, an allowance of £40 000 and a 10-year contract to coach black players in South Africa, provided he did not make himself available for the English tour to South Africa. D’Oliveira refused.
“When the MCC announced its squad on August 28, 1968, D’Oliveira was left out, despite scoring 158 in the final Test between England and the touring Australians at The Oval and taking crucial wickets.
“The British journalist Michael Parkinson wrote in the London Sunday Times:
“‘Last Wednesday a group of Englishmen picked a cricket team and ended up doing this country a disservice of such magnitude that one could only feel a burning anger at their madness and a cold shame for their folly. The dropping of Basil D’Oliveira from the MCC team to tour SA has stirred such undercurrents throughout the world that no one but the impossibly naive can any longer think that politics and sport do not mix, never mind believe it.'”
Following a huge outcry, Tom Cartwright pulled out of the touring party and D’Oliveira was named in his place.
South African Prime Minister John Vorster reacted by declaring D’Oliveira unwelcome in South Africa. “It’s not the MCC team”, he declared. “It’s the team of the anti-apartheid movement.”
South Africa withdrew its invitation, the tour was cancelled – and the country was set irreversibly on the path to international isolation.
The Sunday Times writes: “South Africa was excluded from the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, the 1970 South African cricket tour to England was cancelled and, in the same year, South Africa was expelled from the Olympic Movement. The country was isolated from official international sport for almost 25 years.”
D’Oliveira, meanwhile, was back in action for his adopted country in June 1969, once again facing the West Indies, this time in a three-Test series. He followed that with a three-match series against New Zealand and then a seven-Test Ashes series Down Under in which he scored 369 runs at an average of 36.9, including 117 in the fifth Test at the MCG.
England then went on to New Zealand for two Tests, with Dolly scoring 100 in the first one and 58 and five in the second.
Pakistan next visited England in 1971, and D’Oliveira enjoyed a fine series with the bat, making 241 runs at an average of 60.25. He was below-par in the three-Test series against India that followed, but was in better form for the visit of Australia in June 1972. That series, though, proved to be his swansong – he was just short of 41 at the time.
D’Oliveira completed his career having played 41 Tests. He scored 2 484 runs at an average of 40.06, with five centuries and 15 fifties. He also captured 47 wickets at 39.55. Given that he had missed out on playing Test cricket in his prime, it was an amazing record.
However, his greatest contribution to cricket came about because he made the England team, forced his way into the squad to tour South Africa in 1968/69 – and refused all enticements to back out of it.
The repercussions of Prime Minister Vorster’s decision to prevent D’Oliveira entering South Africa were huge, irreversible – and ultimately good both for South Africa and the game of cricket.
Return to Newlands
D’Oliveira won belated recognition from his home country when he was chosen as one of the nominees for the title of South Africa’s Cricketer of the Century.
Dolly was at Newlands in Cape Town when Graeme Pollock picked up the award – a guest of honour on the cricket ground he had never been given the opportunity to grace as a player.
And early in 2007, the Sunday Times Centenary Heritage Project unveiled an artwork memorial at the ground to ensure a permanent place there for the lost son of South African cricket.
Family spokesman Frank Brache, whose sister is married to D’Oliveira, said at the unveiling of the memorial: “The D’Oliveira family is very grateful for this honour. It is just such a pity that Basil, who lives in the UK and suffers from Alzheimer’s disease now, will not be able to appreciate it himself.
“On many occasions we had to sneak in and climb over fences to watch the games from the segregated enclosure. Basil used to dream of being able to play here – it’s a dream that was never realised.”
D’Oliviera passed away on 19 November 2011 at the age of 80.
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