Basil D’Oliveira: The man who took on South Africa’s apartheid regime

Editor’s Note:

Story highlights

Basil D'Oliveira played cricket for England after moving from his native South Africa

D'Oliveira was prohibited from playing for South Africa by the apartheid regime

He was initially dropped from England's tour to South Africa before being reinstated

South African government canceled tour in opposition to D'Oliveira's inclusion

CNN  — 

It was supposed to be cricket’s “Rosa Parks” moment.

As Basil D’Oliveira skipped off London’s famous Oval after a majestic innings of 158 runs for England against Australia in 1968, he unwittingly walked into one of sport’s most controversial and shameful sagas.

D’Oliveira, a “colored” man born in South Africa, would now surely return to his homeland wearing the “Three Lions” of England and stick a dagger in the heart of the country’s apartheid regime.

After all, few teams would ever consider dropping a man who had just produced the innings of his life, the performance of his career.

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But this was a different world, a time when – 13 years after Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Alabama – cunning, bribes and subterfuge attempted to gloss over the cruel regime of apartheid in South Africa.

When the touring party was announced the next day by the MCC, which then governed English cricket, few expected what was to follow.

With the watching world waiting for his name to be read out, D’Oliveira was omitted following pressure from the South African government.

“Even to this day, I don’t think we’ve had an explanation from the MCC,” D’Oliveira’s former English county team captain Norman Gifford told CNN.

“When Basil left the field after that innings, I think he and everyone else had thought that he had booked his place on the boat to South Africa.

“We were all shocked by the decision, we couldn’t believe it.”

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D’Oliveira’s omission sent shockwaves throughout the world, leaving him in the middle of a media storm which would bring sport in South Africa to its knees.

While his teammates and supporters were left in disbelief, D’Oliveira collapsed in tears.

An MCC spokesman said at the time they had “an extremely difficult” job in deciding to omit D’Oliveira, but insisted the choice was taken “definitely purely on his cricketing ability.”

Few believed that – least of all D’Oliveira, who had already been offered a hefty bribe by a South African Tobacco businessman to make himself unavailable for England duty and spare the racist regime any embarrassment.

It was only after Tom Cartwright’s withdrawal through injury that D’Oliveira was eventually chosen, leading to then South Africa Prime minister John Vorster to declare, “It is not the MCC team. It’s the team of the anti-apartheid movement.”

The tour was canceled and South Africa was left in the sporting wilderness from 1970-1991 until the historic day of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

From the shy and quiet man who had arrived in England in 1960, D’Oliveira’s life would never to be the same again.

As a youngster, D’Oliveira was one of the most promising players in the non-white leagues of South Africa. But with the country’s racist regime prohibiting him from playing at the top level, he soon became disillusioned with life and even contemplated giving up the sport.

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Out of desperation, he wrote a green-inked letter to revered English cricket journalist John Arlott, who took it upon himself to help D’Oliveira get out of South Africa.

Arlott, a writer, broadcaster and anti-apartheid campaigner, drew on his connections within the game and managed to find a team for D’Oliveira to showcase his talent.

It was the letter which changed a life. In the summer of 1960, D’Oliveira flew to England to play club cricket in Lancashire with Middleton after the black community of Cape Town came together to pay for his flight.

Life in England was tough at the start, emphasized by his experience of being late out of Heathrow airport after wandering around looking for the “non-white” exit, as he later recalled.

The fact that he could sit with white people in pubs, be served by white people in restaurants and not have to adhere to racist laws flummoxed him to start with.

The English weather also played its part, the cold and rain made were difficult to adjust to and it took some time for his performances in the Central Lancashire League to turn around.

But improve they did with his batting averages topping those of the great West Indian all round Garry Sobers, an achievement which earned him a new two-year contract.

After returning to England with wife Naomi in 1961, he continued to prosper and was recommended to Worcestershire where he was signed to play professionally in 1964.

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It was here, fearful about his age being used to dissuade the club against hiring him, that he claimed he was actually three years younger than his real age of 30.

But that mattered little as his talent soon shone through following his arrival, according to Gifford, who considered D’Oliveira to be “one of the boys.”

“When Basil arrived at Worcestershire, his transformation was outstanding,” Gifford said.

“I captained him and he would do anything you wanted when he went out on that field.

“He was one of the players that when I look back over my career, I wish that I had seen him play when he was 20 or 21.

“Coming from South Africa was a big change for him, of course it was but I think his wife, Naomi, was a huge help for him.

“But throughout my time at Worcester, he didn’t talk a lot about apartheid or how hard it was or had been on him, his friends or family.

“He didn’t focus on it. He just became a Worcestershire lad and lived here for the rest of his life.”

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It was at Worcestershire that D’Oliveira began to make his name, scoring a century on his county championship debut before helping it win the league title that season.

Having become the first non-white South African to play county cricket, D’Oliveira was now targeting the next stage – international cricket. That opportunity came in 1966, where having qualified as a British citizen, he was selected to make his debut against West Indies.

At Lord’s, universally accepted as the “Home of Cricket,” D’Oliveira made 27 runs and took two wickets in the drawn second Test. From there on in there was no looking back as D’Oliveira hit form.

Scores of 76 and 88 followed against West Indies before he made his maiden Test match century against India at Headingley in June 1967.

His successes against India and then later, Pakistan, saw him given the prestigious honor of being named one of the five Wisden cricketers of the year.

But it was on the 1968 Ashes tour that D’Oliveira would make his name, hitting an impressive 87 in the opening Test before the first chapter in a distasteful story began to surface.

With the 1968-69 tour of South Africa coming up on the horizon, there was a group of members within the MCC who were embarrassed at the prospect of including D’Oliveira. Instead, to prevent any chance of that happening, he was inexplicably dropped from the team until receiving a last-minute call for the final Test.

It was the chance D’Oliveira had been waiting for – the opportunity to make it impossible to leave him out of the touring party. His 158 helped England win the match, draw the series and propel him to the top of the Test averages for the season.

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Walking off the field that day, the world believed D’Oliveira had booked his place on the tour – what happened next was an episode of great embarrassment to English cricket, with the MCC accused by Arlott of having “never made a sadder, more dramatic or more potentially damaging selection.”

A media storm erupted with the MCC heavily lambasted for failing to stand up to apartheid and bowing the racist regime. While D’Oliveira grieved privately, the rest of the country rallied around “Dolly” and protested against his treatment.

“I thought at the time I would be accepted,” he told the BBC in an interview on April 3, 1969.

“I thought they would accept the side. I think if it had been anybody else – if it had been a West Indian, or an Indian or a Pakistani, or an Aborigine or a Maori – they would have accepted him.

“I think I was too close to home … it was too near to home for them to accept me as a member of the team.”

The furore surrounding the affair shocked the MCC into action and on September 16 it responded, replacing the injured Tom Cartwright with D’Oliveira. It was greeted by opponents of apartheid as a groundbreaking moment.

But D’Oliveira’s inclusion was ridiculed by the South African government, which forced the MCC to cancel the tour after insisting it would not allow him to play.

“I think the importance of Basil D’Oliveira was that he educated ordinary people who until then had instinctively sympathized with white South Africa about the sheer horror and nastiness of the racist regime,” Peter Oborne, author of “Basil D’Oliveira. Cricket and Conspiracy: The untold story” told CNN.

“Basil was such a decent, unassuming and honest man that it seemed outrageous that he should not be allowed to play in his own country.

“The D’Oliveira affair of 1968 therefore marked the breaking off of English cricketing relations with South Africa and in led in due course to the complete sporting isolation of South Africa.”

While disappointed at not being able to play cricket in his homeland, D’Oliveira continued to prosper. When South Africa’s tour in 1970 was canceled, he performed admirably against a Rest of the World side before going on to play a starring role in England’s Ashes win in Australia. His innings of 117 helped save the match at Melbourne and underline his credentials as a leading international player.

He played his final Test in 1972 at the age of 41, against Australia, bringing down the curtain on an international career which had seen him win 44 caps, score 2,484 runs and five centuries at an average of 40.06, while taking 47 wickets at 39.55 runs apiece.

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D’Oliveira continued to play for another eight years at Worcestershire, finally retiring in 1980 before taking up a coaching role where he led the county to the title in 1988 and 1989.

His death on November 19, 2011, following a slow decline with Parkinson’s disease, was met with great sadness, but Gifford is adamant that D’Oliveira’s legacy must live on.

“England and South Africa play for the Basil D’Oliveira trophy in his memory, which is wonderful,” he said.

“But we also want to set up a foundation in his name to help young South African cricketers come over here and play county cricket.

“Basil was lucky in the fact that he got out and was given the opportunity to play in England. But just think how many others missed out and how many talented kids never got the chance to show they could play at the highest level.

“We want to make sure they get that chance.”

But perhaps the final word should be left to Oborne, who describes D’Oliveira’s meeting with Nelson Mandela a few years after a coaching trip to South Africa.

Oborne describes their parting. “At the end Mandela rose from his chair and hugged D’Oliveira. “Thanks for coming, Basil”, he said. “You must go home now. You’ve done your bit.”