SA pays tribute to Basil D’Oliveira

21 November 2011

Basil D’Oliveira, a man who was nominated as one of South Africa’s cricketers of the twentieth century despite never having played for the country, passed away on Saturday, 19 November 2011, at the age of 80.

“‘Dolly’, as he was known around the world by an audience that went far beyond the game of cricket, was a true legend and a son of whom all South Africans can be extremely proud,” Cricket South Africa CEO Gerald Majola said in a statement on the weekend.

Denied the opportunity to play for South Africa, thanks to his skin colour and the policies of apartheid, D’Oliveira refused to deny his talent, leaving the country to go through the process of qualifying for English selection.

Once in the England line-up, he soon made his mark, and before long had sealed his spot in the England team to tour South Africa in 1968/69. It was this that triggered “The D’Oliveira Affair”, which led to South Africa cancelling the tour – and setting itself irreversibly on the path to international isolation (more on this below).

‘A man of true dignity’

“He was a man of true dignity and a wonderful role model as somebody who overcame the most extreme prejudices and circumstances to take his rightful place on the world stage,” Majola said in his statement.

“The fact that he could have a test career batting average of 40 in 44 Tests and an economy rate of less than 2 with the ball on his way to 47 wickets was remarkable considering he was past his prime when he made his debut for England in his mid-thirties.

“One can only imagine what he might have achieved had he made his debut as he should have done at the age of 20 on South Africa’s tour of England in 1951,” Majola said

‘A giant in the transformation of SA sport’

“The circumstances surrounding his being prevented from touring the country of his birth with England in 1968 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 apartheid government.

“Throughout this shameful period in South Africa’s sporting history, Basil displayed a human dignity that earned him world-wide respect and admiration,” Majola said.

“His memory and inspiration will live on among all of us.”

Former South African cricket captain and CEO of the United Cricket Board of SA, Ali Bacher, told ESPN Cricinfo: “He will always remain a giant in the transformation of South African sport.

“He showed conclusively that blacks in South Africa, given the same opportunity as whites, had that ability, talent and potential to become international stars,” Bacher said.

“It is sad that he could never play for his country of birth. There is no question that in the 21st century he would have played for South Africa, which I’m sure would have been his first choice.”

Test performances

Considering that D’Oliveira’s international career began at age 34, his performances were superb. Despite having the deck stacked against him, he played in 44 tests, the last of those at the age of 40, scoring 2 484 runs at an average of 40.06. He also claimed 47 wickets at 39.55.

The enduring memory and importance of D’Oliveira in the history of cricket, especially that of South African cricket is, however, contained in the 1968 England tour of South Africa that was cancelled after he became a political pawn.

D’Oliveira should have been a shoo-in for selection for a tour of the country of his birth but, wanting to avoid a backlash from the South African government, because D’Oliveira was a player of colour, the MCC failed to select him. A huge outcry followed, resulting in Tom Cartwright withdrawing from the squad and D’Oliveira being included.

He was offered massive enticements to withdraw from the tour of South Africa, but he stuck to his principles and turned down the lucrative offers.

South African Prime Minister John Vorster declared D’Oliveira unwelcome in South Africa, calling the England team “the team of the anti-apartheid movement”. South Africa withdrew its invitation to England to tour – starting a period of isolation from official international sport that lasted almost 25 years.

Recognition in South Africa

Later, in a democratic South Africa, D’Oliveira earned positive recognition for his achievements as a player and the role he played in bringing about change in the country.

Apart from being nominated as one of South Africa’s cricketers of the twentieth century, his place in South African cricket history was secured at Newlands in Cape Town in 2007 when the Sunday Times Centenary Heritage Project unveiled an artwork memorial of him.

His legacy continues in test matches between South Africa and England: since 2004 they have competed for the honour of lifting the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy.

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