Basil D’Oliveira and the Lost Sons of South African cricket – Still Climbing In to Watch – Part 2

On a white washed wall outside of Newlands cricket ground in Cape Town hangs an oxidizing metal sheet with a hole punched through it by a bronze cricket ball.

It is the work of Donovan Ward commemorating a ‘shameful incident that shone a spotlight on apartheid’s interference in sport’ – the exclusion, by his home country of the ‘Cape Coloured’ Basil D’Oliveira from a list of touring England cricketers allowed entry into that country and the subsequent cancellation of that tour by the MCC.    

The cricket ball and chain stands for the impact of that popular and dignified cricketer on the system of apartheid and provides symbolically a permanent place there for ‘the lost son of South African cricket’.

Yesterday  we left Basil D’Oliveira, his wife and two children distraught with the disappointment of having been left out of the 1968 MCC touring party to South Africa despite that summer topping the England batting averages and, factually at least, coming second in the bowling averages.

As   recounts he took his wife out to dinner that night ‘resigned to the fact that the matter was now out of (his) hands and unaware that tons of newsprint condemning the England selectors were being assembled in Fleet Street printing presses for the next day’s papers’.It was a perfect story for a late summer media storm. 

The headlines would write themselves.  A victim of apartheid, a hero of a rearguard action against the ‘old enemy’ at the Oval, ditched by bumbling, timid selectors, secretive political machinations by one of the last bastions of the Establishment in cahoots with apologist  ‘friends’ in apartheid South Africa; the story had everything.  Members of Parliament protested and the public responded with their ‘hearts’. Within the space of four days, d’Olivera received 2,000 letters, only one of which criticized him.

Answering questions from the press, the Secretary of MCC Secretary, S.C. Griffith, said “Nothing else was discussed at the selectors’ meeting other than cricketing considerations”. 

When questioned by journalists, Doug Insole, Chairman of Selectors, who we met and admired here a month ago argued that D’Oliveira, wasn’t one of the best 16 players in England at that time, and that the decision was based purely on the cricketing grounds that he was considered “from an overseas tour point of view as a batsman rather than an all-rounder.  We put him beside the seven batsmen that we had, along with Colin Milburn whom we also had to leave out with regret.”

Much was also made by those seeking to justify the decision that D’Oliveira’s form had dropped after his omission from the Test side.  Yet by the end of the season he was top of the Worcestershire bowling averages with 58 wickets at 15.74 each.

These explanations were further undermined when subsequently Cartwright, a bowler, withdrew from the party and D’Oliveira was selected to take his place albeit,  friends of the decisions explained, at a time when the other possible ‘all-rounders’ Knight and Illingworth were unavailable.

The prevarication and confused clarifications by the selectors gave the South African Premier the luxury of the excuse that ‘his country was not prepared to receive a team which had been forced upon her by people with certain political aims’. 

MCC formally cancelled the tour on September the 24th.  It was a significant advance in the movement for a universal sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa – an advance that was made all the more persuasive and pressing by, “the great dignity which Basil d’Oliveira (…) maintained throughout the whole business” to borrow the words of MCC’s President R. Aird.

South Africa had been was suspended from FIFA as far back as 1963. The International Cricket Conference imposed a moratorium on tours in 1970.  The IOC formally expelled South Africa from in 1970.  The Commonwealth leaders accepted the Gleneagles Agreement in 1977. The Davis Cup excluded South Africa in 1970. Rugby to its shame dragged its feet.

For twenty years the exclusion of South Africa from most of the world’s major sporting opportunities rankled with a sports obsessed white power base and its supporters.

As Abdul Minty, the South African exile and member of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement said, “We understood, as South Africans, the significance of sport for white South Africa. It was like a religion. And if you hit them hard, then you were really getting the message across that they were not welcome in the world as long as they practiced racism in sport.”

Sporting bodies rapidly ended their boycotts with the fall of apartheid.  Sport which had done so much to bring down the old regime now helped to build a united country.  It is fitting that the prompt and principled action by FIFA should be followed 53 years later by the selection of that Rainbow Nation, South Africa, to hold its World Cup this year.

Nelson Mandela: “Sport is very important for building character because when you’re involved in sport your individual character comes out, your determination, your ability to be part of the team and the acceptance of the collective effort is extremely important in developing your country as well as patriotism.”

Wikipedia concludes its page on Basil D’Oliveira with this reference, which includes words uttered at the unveiling of the memorial at Newlands on behalf of the family by Frank Brache, whose sister is married to D’Oliveira.

“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.”

As the TMS photograph at the top of the page shows, in 2009 they are still climbing in.

Let freedom reign.

Originally posted June 2010

1 Comment

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One response to “Basil D’Oliveira and the Lost Sons of South African cricket – Still Climbing In to Watch – Part 2

  1. diogenes

    John Arlott’s column in The Guardian was superb….pointing out that, in a few years, it was probably that the English team would start to contain people of West Indian descent (admittedly it took quite a while). The nettle had to be grasped: could South Africa legitimately continue not to play test matches against West Indies…India…Pakistan?

    I will always remember how super-cool D’Oliveira always looked when he walked out to the middle – almost like someone arriving for lunch at his club – regardless of the situation.

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