South Africa and the Debt owed to a Special Cricketer Part 1

Back in June 2010, Third Man published this post to celebrate the start of the World Cup in SA.  The news this morning that Basil D’Oliveira has died is sad, but there is perhaps a silver lining in his release.  He was the best there was at seeing silver linings.

On the fly-leaf of his autobiography, he wrote, “In many ways, coming into the game as late as I did has been lucky for me … You find your appetitie for good things wonderfully sharpened when you suddenly discover that you haven’t missed them after all as you thought.’

In that sentence, written when the country of his birth was still an appalling tyranny, he spoke unwittingly for the New South Africa.

The post is in two parts.  The second will appear tomorrow.

More than forty years ago cricket played a small part in the long train of events, sacrifices and acts of bravery that have eventually made this ‘dream’ become possible – in particular the resolve, the humility and the dignity of one man – Basil D’Oliveira.

Bas back in S.A. in the winter of 1966 talking cricket

Over the August Bank holiday in 1968 Worcester played Sussex at home at New Road.  D’Oliveira made a fine 128 in the home side’s first innings.  He then took 3 Sussex wickets for 36 to help make Sussex follow on and ultimately lose the match by an innings. 

Back in the dressing room D’Oliveira put up his feet and waited for the announcement of the England team to tour South Africa that winter.D’Oliveira’s fine form in that match had followed a superb 158 batting number six for England against the Australians in the final Test at the Oval the week before. 

This was the famous match when a cloudburst at lunch time on the last day all but robbed England of victory and the chance to square the series.  But remarkably, as Wisden reports, “the groundsman, Ted Warn, ably assisted by volunteers from the crowd armed with brooms and blankets, mopped up to such purpose that by 4.45, the struggle was resumed.”

Third Man had been one of those volunteers, hopping over the fence in front of the Ladies’ Pavilion grabbing a blanket and working to dry up that lake.  As the water gradually disappeared and the umpires agreed that play could continue, we knew two things for certain; Underwood would take the remaining five Australian wickets and Basil d’Olivera would, in a few days, be announced as a member of the MCC side to tour his native South Africa.

Neither prediction turned out quite as we expected.  At first, Underwood gained no response from the wicket – it was too wet.  Only when the late afternoon sun cooked up the wicket did he make the break through, becoming unplayable and winning the match.

Secondly, a few days later, as D’Oliveira waited in the Worcestershire dressing room to hear if his name would be announced for the forthcoming tour to South Africa, tension grew.   The list lengthened without him … until he had to accept the awful fact that he had been excluded by the MCC selectors.

You could have heard a pin drop in the room.  Tom Graveney, swore bitterly.  “I never thought they’d do this to you Bas.”

All this had not come out of a blue sky.  Almost from the moment when D’Oliveira had made his debut against the West Indians at Lord’s in 1966 and begun painstakingly to establish himself as an England regular, speculation mounted about how South Africa would react when, as seemed a certainty, D’Oliveira would be picked to tour the country of his birth, the country whose apartheid system had discriminated so viciously against him.  That state-legitimized and entrenched prejudice had made an exile of him, obliging him to pursue his undoubted cricketing potential first in the Central Lancashire League for Middleton, then in first class cricket for Worcestershire, and finally for England.

Is Third Man seeing things again or is that a Bradman grip that Bas is suggesting? Again from his visit to S.A. in the winter of 1966

In January 1967, Britain’s Sports Minister, Denis Howell, told a cheering House of Commons that the 1968/9 tour to South Africa would be cancelled if there were any moves to ban D’Oliveira from playing.  In the same month, South Africa’s Minister of the Interior said, “We will not allow mixed teams to play against our white teams over here. If this player is chosen, he would not be allowed to come here. Our Policy is well known here and overseas.”

Both MCC and the South African Government were anxious that the tour should take place.  The man who just wanted to play cricket was without intention becoming a game changer on a greater field of play.  He was becoming a cause.

By April 1967, South Africa’s Prime Minister, John Vorster, was hinting that apartheid principles could be relaxed in so far as they affected teams from overseas countries “with whom we have traditional sporting ties”. And in September, a South African Test Selector, told D’Oliveira that ‘he was sure he’d be allowed to go on tour if selected’.

In June 1968, Wilfred Isaacs, a prominent man in South African cricket, saw D’Oliveira at Lord’s and talked warmly about the forthcoming tour. He went so far as to offer D’Oliveira his flat and hospitality whenever he wanted it on the trip. Yet when Isaacs returned to South Africa a few weeks later, he forecast to the press that D’Oliveira would not be selected.   Had anyone that day at Lord’s been talking out of turn?

D’Oliveira  maintains that later that month on the eve of the Lord’s Test a high ranking official told him that he could ‘get everyone out of trouble by making myself available for South Africa not England’.  D’Oliveira angrily refused.

In August an official from a tobacco company, offered D’Oliveira a £40,000 ten year contract, plus a car and a house, to coach in South Africa … provided he announced that he was unavailable for the South African tour before the Fifth Test.  He declined.

D’Oliveira had spent the 1966/67 winter in South Africa touring the country coaching, giving demonstrations and talks to people passionate to know more about cricket and passionate to see him play.  The effect on cricket among non-whites of D’Oliveira touring that winter as an England player would have been immense.

But on that August evening as a distraught D’Oliveira family sobbed and hugged each other and slowly came to turns with their disappointment it looked an impossible dream. 

That night the T.V. ‘talent programme’ Opportunity Knocks featured ‘a white guy dressed up like a black man’ singing Al Jolson songs.

(To be continued …)

6 Comments

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6 responses to “South Africa and the Debt owed to a Special Cricketer Part 1

  1. diogenes_1960

    that looks more like the grip that Chris Tavare adopted for England, on the advice of Alan Knott…which made him play very differently from the way he played for Kent

  2. Pingback: Lost Sons of South African cricket – Still Climbing In to Watch « Down At Third Man

  3. diogenes

    in the Telegraph today, Boycott claims he was on a tour of the West country with D’Oliveira when the news broke… And he was Bocott’s most productive partner on average in Tests – an average of 101 in their 7 partnerships.

    • Interesting. Wisden would suggest that Boycott was off-games with a back injury from mid-July.
      27th August 1968, Fifth Test ends at Oval – Milburn and Edrich opening
      28th August Tour side announced, Worcester home to Sussex – D’Oliveira, batting No 5 makes 128.
      September 9 Cowdrey defends selection
      September 16 D’Oliveira called up after Cartwright drops out.
      September 24 MCC call off tour.

  4. diogenes

    I think that Wisden is more reliable than the great egotist…but he says…

    “I was not playing in that Test because I had hurt my back. But I watched it on the television and thought when he made that fantastic 158 England would have to pick him. To play an innings like that with so much weight on his shoulders was a fantastic performance.

    But then came the news he had not been picked. I was with him when he found out. We were on a tour to Devon playing for an International Cavaliers XI, which was a regular tour organised in those days by Ross Salmon.

    He would arrange for big name players to go to Devon and Cornwall at the end of the summer and play in some exhibition matches. I was there trying out my back after injury to prove my fitness for the South Africa tour and Dolly was keeping his form going.

    We had all nervously waited for word to come from Lord’s about who was going on tour.

    When it was announced, Basil was absolutely devastated and in tears. It was terrible. As a player you can’t believe you have not been picked after playing an innings like that. ”

    It would have been more characteristic for Boycott to think that D’Oliveira’s hundred was putting his own place at risk!

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