Basil D’ Oliveira in his lifetime accomplished what only handful of sportspersons in the world has managed to achieve. Not only was he one of the greatest all-rounders to have ever set foot on the cricket field, but he also inspired a revolution that tore down apartheid in South Africa. The legendary Basil D'Oliveira could have been spoken of in the same breath as a Garfield Sobers or an Ian Botham if he had not been born in South Africa during the apartheid.
D’Oliveira, who died in England on 19 November 2011, at the age of 80, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, was unfortunately born in the wrong country at a wrong time with a wrong colour. Dolly- short for D’Oliveira- as he was lovingly called had to bear the dubious tag "Cape coloured" by virtue of his birth in freed slaves dominated Bo-Kaap neighbourhood of Cape Town. The stinging racial discrimination that his folk suffered made D’Oliveira battle-hardy and fuelled a passion in him to prove to the world that coloured people given the same opportunity as whites had the ability, talent and potential to become stars in their own right.
It was this steely resolve to succeed despite the odds that made Basil Lewis D’Oliveira an indelible part of one of the biggest controversies that toppled white dominance in world sports. The dormant volcano of racial exclusion exploded when the coloured all-rounder was initially left out of Marylebone Cricket Club’s England squad of 1968 under pressure from South Africa’s white minority government. The crisis worsened when Tom Cartwright dramatically withdrew from the squad citing injury and the MCC had no choice but to include Dolly on the tour to South Africa. The selection triggered panic in South Africa and John Vorster, the hard-line Prime Minister, deplored his inclusion saying: "It is not the MCC team. It's the team of the anti-apartheid movement."
This stance sparked a fury; prompting a crisis that shook the apartheid. The South African government refused Dolly a visa and this led to mass resignations from MCC and the formation of a protest group under the former England captain, David Sheppard. Negotiations, subsequently, broke down between MCC and Vorster, and the tour was eventually cancelled on 24 September 1968.
The 1968 tour crisis, popularly known as the D'Oliveira affair, exposed South Africa as a racist state and led to the intensification of opposition to apartheid around the world. South Africa bore the brunt of international wrath against its racist policies and was immediately isolated from international sport- not just cricket- in 1969. The infamous sports boycott that was clamped came right on the heels of the indefinite ban announced by International Olympic Committee on the country's white team – which meant South Africa was barred from competing in the Mexico City Olympics.
The D’Oliveira affair turned out to be an Achilles’ heel of the apartheid government. The more than two decades of sporting isolation, which hastened the dismantling of apartheid, came to an end only in 1991 after the release of Nelson Mandela. South Africa’s excruciating exile from international cricket came to an end finally in 1994 with the fall of apartheid. The country was soon readmitted to the ICC with the formation of the United Cricket Board that put an end to racial divide in South African cricket.
The entire controversy catapulted D’Oliveira to stardom. He was hailed as the messiah of the non-whites in South Africa. Literally overnight he had become a global celebrity, spoken of in the same breath as a Luther King or a Mandela as a defining symbol of the racial equality struggle.
Before 27 August 1968, the day on which the England selectors picked the touring party for the expedition to South Africa, Dolly’s life was a fairytale.
Born on 4 October 1931 in Signal Hill, South Africa, D’Oliveira’s cricketing skills were honed at an early age under the guidance of his father, Lewis D’ Oliveira — a tailor and an accomplished cricketer. Young D’Oliveira’s fascination for the game was such that he went to the extent of climbing the trees outside the Newlands cricket ground to catch a glimpse of what international cricket looked like. On these occasions he made it a point—just like the members of his coloured community who sat in the stands—to support the visiting team. Years of racial subjugation had instilled in them an antagonism towards their white-dominated South African cricket team.
As his community was denied access to sport facilities, D’Oliveira and his friends had to walk miles on Cape Town’s dirt tracks to find a suitable strip of grassless earth, sand or gravel. After zeroing on a strip they used to first prepare the pitch with a spade and wheelbarrow and would later convert it into a cricket pitch by laying a mat over it. Since there were no facilities at either of the schools he went to, St Joseph's Catholic and Zonnebloem Training College; he joined St Augustine's Cricket Club, for which his father played as an all-rounder and skippered for 40 years.
D’Oliveira soon began his career alongside Kenyan Asians, Malays and other oppressed groups in South African club cricket. His all-round skills and cricketing genius came to the fore, scoring 80 centuries in the coloured leagues, and he shot to fame by becoming the best cricketer in the non-white leagues of South Africa. At the mere age of 21, he hit an astounding 46 runs-- seven sixes and one four-- in an eight ball over. At 23, he scored 225 runs in an astonishing 75 minutes – out of his team's total of 236.
Alfred Amansure, an erstwhile team-mate at St Augustine's CC, testified to Basil D’Oliveira’s batting gifts by his description of an innings against Griqualand West in 1948-49. “His first shot was struck over the long-off boundary for six. When a fielder was dispatched to (guard) the off-side boundary, Basil responded by hitting another huge six over mid-on. So the Griqualand captain moved a player there too. Then Basil hit a straight six, cutting between both fielders.”
D’Oliveira was also a successful medium pace bowler, once scalping nine for two in one innings. He also figured in one or two testimonial matches in South Africa against White teams and against the Kenyan Asians. In 1958 he went on an all-coloured team's tour of East Africa; before he was appointed captain of St Augustine's—the premier Cape Town club. In 1959, aged 28, D’Oliveira started a new chapter in his life when he married his childhood sweetheart Naomi and took up a job as a machinist at a printing firm.
The turning point in D’Oliveira’s life came later that year when he was denied the opportunity to play first class cricket in his homeland because of the colour of his skin. Realizing he had no future in a country where only white men were allowed to represent the country, D’Oliveira —downcast and disillusioned—wrote a series of pleading letters to the BBC commentator John Arlott seeking his “powerful assistance” to help him.
D’Oliveira did not expect any good to come out of it, but to his sheer luck Arlott ended up resurrecting his flagging career. The magnanimous Arlott—realizing the obvious potential in Basil—along with John Kay, the cricket correspondent of the Manchester Evening News, persuaded Middleton Cricket Club to engage D’Oliveira as their professional in the Lancashire League. Fortunately, their last-ditch efforts bore fruit as the MCC finally relented and offered D’Oliveira a contract at £ 450 for the 1960 season.
Though the window of opportunity miraculously opened for D’Oliveira, the savings he made from his low paying job as a machinist was not enough fund his air travel. But this roadblock was averted when the locals came to know about the misery of their favourite hero and organized raffles, fetes and matches to raise money for his fare to England.
So D’Oliveira, riding on his luck and his well-wishers goodwill, finally moved to England with his wife Naomi and their newborn son Damian in April 1960, just days after the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. However, the transition turned out to be very traumatic for D’Oliveira - both on the field and off the field.
The weather and playing conditions were so alien to D’Oliveira that he struggled to get acclimatized to the English pitches. Having lived all his life at the mercy of the white man, the opportunity to mix freely with white people was a harrowing experience for Basil. Once when D’Oliveira was walking down a street in London, his wife Naomi shrieked in dismay on seeing a white girl walk hand-in-hand with a black man. When they went to the cinema, Naomi assumed they would have to sit in a separate section, just like they did in South Africa. However, she was shocked to death when the lights went up in the interval and she found herself surrounded by white people. She gripped D’Oliveira’s arm so tightly with tension that it was bruised the next day.
But once D’Oliveira settled he was unstoppable. His all-round skills in the League, 930 runs at an of average 48.95 and 71 wickets at 11.72, was slightly better than that of even Gary Sobers—considered to be the greatest all-rounder in the world at the time. In 1963, D’Oliveira played a blinder, a century in 60 minutes, in a tour game in Nairobi which caught the eyes of Tom Graveney, who convinced him to play county cricket for Worcestershire. The following year, D’Oliveira created history when he became the first non-white South African in English county cricket. He soon became a British citizen by making his first-class debut in Worcestershire, where he played till 1980.
D’Oliveira’s entry into county cricket was a bit controversial as he reportedly lied about his age when he was signed up. It is believed that he gave the club a false birth date, late by three years, to help persuade them he was worth a gamble. He claimed he was only 30 years old when he was actually 33. D’Oliveira himself later admitted, “If you had said I was closer to 40 than 35 when I first played for England, I could not have sued you.” The move proved, however, lucky for him as he ended up playing a vital role in Worcestershire’s Championship victory in 1965, scoring a phenomenal 1,523 runs and snaring 35 wickets.
D’Oliveira capped his first full county season, in 1965, on a high as he finished fifth in the national batting averages, behind four Test players. D'Oliveira’s personal best was his 51 not out on a turning pitch at Cheltenham against Allen and Mortimore in 1965. His sublime performances earned him a place in England’s playing eleven against the all-black West Indies in 1966. Unluckily, D’ Olivier was run out on his debut for England at Lord’s after a Jim Parks' drive deflected off his heel and crashed into the stumps. The danger-man D'Oliveira, aged 34, was applauded from the field by the opposition, though he had scored only 27.
But D’Oliveira’s batting prowess soon caught up, and he cemented his place in the pantheon of greats, when he smashed Wes Hall—the fastest bowler in the world at the time—straight back over his head for six in the fourth Test. He immediately became an England regular and went on to play 44 test matches and four one-day internationals for England, scoring 2,484 runs at an average of 40 and taking 47 wickets.
In 1967, D’Oliveira was in the form of his life registering his maiden Test ton against India and striking rich in a series at home against Pakistan. Therefore it did not come as a surprise when D’Oliveira was named one of the five Wisden cricketers of the year.
By now D’Oliveira had carved a name of his own in the list of cricketing greats. It had become increasingly difficult for others not to stop and take notice of this 36-year-old revelation. While everyone in England seemed to boast about the new “kid” on the block, Ministers in the South African government felt uneasy in their seats of power. With the English tour of South Africa hardly a year away, John Vorster became wary of D’Oliveira’s rise. If D’Oliveira continued his good run, he would figure in the English scheme of things in the SA tour and this would result in a loss of face for the apartheid government. The SA government could not swallow the possibility of coloured native turning up against their white side, so they appointed Pieter le Roux, South Africa's minister of the interior to make amends.
In January 1967, Roux met MCC Secretary, Billy Griffith and made it clear that, "If this player is chosen he will not be allowed to tour." The controversial comment soon snowballs into a heated debate with the former British Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, who had commercial interests at stake in South Africa, giving tacit approval to D’Oliveira’s exclusion.
D’Oliveira, who was training in South Africa all this while, politely refuses to comment on the brewing controversy. He, however, vents his angst and admits not watching the ongoing South Africa –Australia series as he did not want to face the ignominy of sitting in special enclosures set aside for coloured people.
The controversy seemed to play on D’Oliveira’s mind as he hit a lean patch on the tour of West Indies in 1967-68, registering only one half-century in the five-Test rubber. The slump in form and the pressure to make it to the 1968-69 expedition to his homeland prompted him to seek solace in alcohol. Aware that he had damaged his cause, D’Oliveira felt guilty as well as miserable. His drunken revelry would later turn out to be one of the factors for his exclusion from that original tour party for South Africa.
Despite the disaster tour of West Indies, luck continued to favour D’Oliveira and his name figured in the squad for the first Test against Australia in the summer of 1968. Though England lost the first Ashes Test at Old Trafford by a huge margin of 159 runs, D’Oliveira stood out with a well- made unbeaten 87; no other home batsman reached 50.
When it seemed D’Oliveira had done his bit to stay in contention for a place in the second Ashes Test; his skin colour got the better of him. D’Oliveira was ditched for Lord's Test in favour of a seamer, Colin Milburn. It turned out that D’Oliveira was conveniently ignored by the MCC to avoid sending wrong signals to the sundry South African grandees who would be in attendance at the second Test. D’Oliveira’s relegation as 12th man was a ploy played by MCC to appease the Pretoria government.
D’Oliveira was heartbroken and was fed up of being tossed around as a political football. Motivated by the apartheid government, Billy Griffith, MCC Secretary, and EW Swanton, influential Daily Telegraph correspondent, try to cash in on D’Oliveira’s moment of weakness and agony. They try to convince him to withdraw from England’s scheduled tour to South Africa and to instead turn up for South Africa. D’Oliveira could have accepted the offer knowing very well that his future in England now was bleak. But D’Oliveira stuck to his principles and angrily retorted, “Either you respect me as an England player or you don't.”
Completely distraught, D’Oliveira returns to county cricket in June 1968 and runs into a wretched form with the bat, accumulating a meagre 205 runs at 12.81. He, however, made up for the poor batting display by snaring a breathtaking 21 wickets in two matches, against Hampshire and Gloucestershire.
Meanwhile on July 7, the squad for the third Ashes Test at Oval is announced. Colin Milburn, Basil’s replacement in the second Test, is injured; D’Oliveira still is not considered in the 12. In the same month MCC approaches 30 players to check their availability for the upcoming winter tour to South Africa; D’Oliveira does not receive an intimation—he is left behind this time too.
Had any other player suffered the series of setbacks D’Oliveira suffered; he would have undergone a nervous breakdown. At this juncture John Vorster’s government plays its trump card. On August 10, D’Oliveira is called by Tienie Oosthuizen, the head of a tobacco firm, and offered a lucrative ten-year coaching deal, worth £4000 per annum, in South Africa. Though the offer is tempting given the crisis he is embroiled in; D’Oliveira stoically refuses to make a deal till the tour party to South Africa is named.
Eleven days later, D’Oliveira’s persistent hardwork finally pays off. In a dramatic turn of events Roger Prideaux pulls out of the Test with an injury. The ideal replacements- Tom Cartwright and Barry Knight- are both injured and D’Oliveira gets a late call-up. Oosthuizen cancels his telephone call with D'Oliveira and they never speak again.
D’Oliveira’s last-minute inclusion triggers intense speculation over whether he would be picked for the South Africa series. He was now under tremendous pressure to perform and prove a point. However, his dream of being on the English tour party to his home country produced one of his greatest Test innings.
The knock of 158 at The Oval- after being dropped four times- was a life-changing moment. Basil’s most celebrated innings helped England beat Australia by 227 runs and set up a thrilling series-leveling victory. It seemed no one could now stop D’Oliveira from wresting a seat on that flight to South Africa.
But it was not to be so— at a six-hour selection meeting at Lord's, which ends at 2 am, the squad is picked. The minutes of the meeting are suspiciously. The tour party for South Africa is named on August 28 and D’Oliveira is not among the 16-man squad. Doug Insole, the chairman of selectors, says: "I think we have got rather better than him in the side".
When the tour party announcement reached the Worcester dressing room the next day, D’Oliveira was left shell-shocked. His team-mates ushered him into the physio's room, where D'Oliveira wept. "I was like a zombie," D'Oliveira wrote in his autobiography. "The stomach had been kicked out of me. I remember thinking, 'You just can't beat the white South Africans.'"
However, a dignified D'Oliveira, who had scored 128 for Worcestershire just the previous day, declines to say anything other than admitting it "is a bitter disappointment". The MCC denies suggestions that his omission was because of political pressure from those not wanting to jeopardise relations with South Africa. In South Africa, members of the ruling National Party applaud when a rally is interrupted with the news that D’Oliveira has not been selected.
On September 6 the News of the World announced that it would be sending Basil to cover the South Africa series for them. This decision causes a huge uproar in South Africa and on September 12, MCC receives a letter threatening to blow up the plane carrying the squad to South Africa. However, before another controversy could flare up, Basil is called up after Tom Cartwright withdraws from the squad.
The whole D’Oliveira affair was no less than a classic political espionage thriller. It had everything: on-field and off-field battles, insurmountable odds, race, class, spies and bribes. But D’Oliveira, with his never say die spirit, gallantly overpowered destiny and emerged as the nemesis to apartheid South Africa. Mr. R. Arid, President of MCC, paid tribute to the "great dignity which Basil D’Oliveira maintained throughout the whole business."
In 1970, Labour minister Peter Hain's, 'Stop the Seventy Tour' campaign cancelled South Africa’s tour of England at short notice. D’Oliveira, however, continued to script success with the bat in the five Tests against a replacement Rest of the World XI side. In the following winter, he played a crucial role in England's Ashes-winning tour of Australia, scoring a match-saving 117 at Melbourne. By the time he played his last test in 1972 at the age of 41, D’Oliveira had featured in 44 Tests in all, scoring 2,484 runs and five centuries at an average of 40.06 and picking up 47 wickets at 39.55 runs apiece.
After retirement from international cricket, D’Oliveira stayed on in the Worcestershire team for another eight years. In the county championship of 1974, D’Oliveira played a monumental innings scoring 227--his highest first-class score. When he finally bowed out in 1980, having averaged 40.26 with the bat in 367 first class matches, with 45 hundreds and 551 first class wickets at 27.45; D’Oliveira was an astonishing 49 years old. In 1979, the Playfair Cricket Annual went a little too far when it gave his year of birth as 1031.
D’Oliveira continued his association with cricket and remained with Worcestershire as an avuncular coach and guided the county to two more championships in 1988 and 1989. In 1980, D’Oliveira’s autobiography, Time to Declare, written by Pat Murphy was released. In 2003, Worcestershire honoured D'Oliveira by naming a stand at their New Road ground after him. The Test series between South Africa and England was also christened Basil D'Oliveira trophy. In 2004 Peter Oborne wrote a book on D’Oliveira’s life called, Basil D'Oliveira - Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story. In 2005, D'Oliveira, was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in the Queen's birthday honours, a step up from the Order of the British Empire which he had received earlier.
Basil D’Oliveira is survived by his wife Naomi and their two sons, Damian and Shaun. Damian played for Worcestershire and represented the county for 13 years, 1982 to 1995. Brett D'Oliveira, grandson of Basil, became the third generation of D'Oliveiras’ to play for the club when Worcestershire signed the 19-year-old leg-spinner on a one-year contract in August 2011.
D’Oliveira’s demeanour, integrity and dignity made him well known around the world by an audience that went far beyond the game of cricket. Arguably one of the greatest all-rounders’ of all time, D’Oliveira carried the hopes of his people and helped usher in a world where apartheid was consigned to the dustbin. He leaves a wider legacy as cricket unwittingly made him a key agent in the transformation of South Africa from the injustice of apartheid to today's non-racial society. He was no politician. But he achieved far more than most of them. He will forever remain a giant in the annals of South African sport.
"The cricket field was a stage on which selected individuals played representative roles charged with social significance" wrote CLR James about cricket during the colonial era.
D’Oliveira played to perfection the representative role with social significance for racial minorities in his country.