Cricketer whose selection for England led to isolation of apartheid-era South Africa
Published 27/11/2011 | 05:00
Basil D'Oliveira, the cricketer who has died aged at least 80, was a 'Cape Coloured' South African subjected in youth to the full rigour of apartheid; through supreme natural talent and quiet determination, however, he was able to transform himself into an England Test player.
It was also his fate that his success as a Test cricketer, far from liberating him from the injustice of apartheid, once more enmeshed him in its toils. From the moment D'Oliveira made his debut for England in 1966, he set his sights on returning to South Africa on MCC's tour scheduled for 1968-69. And after he had averaged more than 50 over the three series against West Indies, India and Pakistan in 1966 and 1967, his place in the side seemed assured.
He did less well in the West Indies in 1967-68, when he succumbed rather too easily to parties, and showed no distaste for rum. By contrast, in the first Test against Australia in 1968 he was the only batsman to put up much resistance, scoring 87 not out.
Earlier in 1968 John Vorster, Prime Minister of South Africa, had privately informed Lord Cobham, a past president of MCC, that England's tour would have to be cancelled if D'Oliveira were selected. At a dinner on the eve of the Lord's Test, Billy Griffith, secretary of MCC, had approached D'Oliveira with the extraordinary suggestion that he could solve the dilemma by making himself available to play for South Africa, not England -- though of course South Africa would hardly have selected a non-white player.
Then in August Tienie Oosthuizen, a leading figure in the British branch of Carreras Tobacco, offered D'Oliveira a lucrative coaching contract in South Africa, provided he refused to go on the tour.
D'Oliveira remained deaf to these blandishments. His batting form, however, had slumped under the pressures brought to bear on him, which gave the selectors a plausible excuse to keep him out of the England team. It was only at the end of August 1968, after Roger Prideaux had declared himself unfit, that D'Oliveira was called up as a replacement to face Australia in the fifth Test at the Oval. He scored a brilliant 158 and took a vital wicket as England won handsomely. The next day the selectors announced the party to tour South Africa. D'Oliveira's name was absent.
Privately, he wept in disappointment and disbelief. Now, though, the selectors were under pressure. The press accused them of appeasing South Africa and various MCC members resigned.
In September, when injury forced Tom Cartwright to drop out of the tour party, the selectors thought it wise to replace a bowler who could bat a bit with D'Oliveira, a batsman who could bowl a bit. Shortly afterwards the South African government announced that an England side containing D'Oliveira would be unacceptable. MCC called off the tour.
Basil Lewis D'Oliveira was born into a strict Catholic family which lived at the bottom of Signal Hill, on the east side of Cape Town. Wisden states that the date was October 4, 1931. The year of his birth, however, proved to be variable. In 1964, when D'Oliveira joined Worcestershire, he claimed to have been born in 1934. In fact he may have been three years older, not three years younger, than Wisden's official date. In his autobiography he hinted that he masked his true age to prevent being overlooked by the England selectors. "If you told me I was nearer to 40 than 35 when I first played for England in 1966," he wrote, "I would not sue for slander."
The D'Oliveiras were classified as 'Cape Coloured', a term used to designate those who were neither Indian nor African, but a combination of either Indian and white, or African and white.
Basil had no coaching, and learned his cricket almost entirely in the streets of Signal Hill, where the uncertain bounce on the cobbles demanded razor-sharp reactions. It was soon clear that Basil possessed this talent to the point of genius.
In nine years between 1951 and 1960, D'Oliveira notched up 82 centuries in club and representative cricket. Arguably, this was the most astonishing part of his career.
In 1959 the last-minute cancellation of a tour by a West Indian team against black South Africa brought home to D'Oliveira that, if he was ever to do justice to his extraordinary talent, he must seek to play in England.
To this end he wrote to John Arlott, the cricket commentator, who in turn contacted John Kay, a Manchester journalist closely concerned with the Lancashire League. Kay, hearing in 1960 that Wes Hall was unable to take up the position of professional at Middleton, secured the post for D'Oliveira.
When D'Oliveira sought advice on playing conditions in England from a former Nottinghamshire professional called Tom Reddick who was coaching in Cape Town, it was the first time he had ever been inside a white man's house.
After a testing start, however, he rose to the challenge, ending the season at the top of the Central Lancashire League averages, ahead even of Gary Sobers.
In 1966 D'Oliveira was called up to England colours. Though unluckily run out at Lord's on his debut when going well, he then reeled off scores of 76, 54 and 88 against a fearsome West Indian attack that included Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Gary Sobers and Lance Gibbs.
By the winter of 1970-71, when MCC toured Australia, D'Oliveira's joints were beginning to creak. Yet he played an important part in winning back the Ashes. In 1972 he performed usefully enough against Australia. England, however, retained the Ashes only after drawing the series, and D'Oliveira's Test career was extinguished by the cry for younger talent. He continued to play for Worcestershire until 1979, when he was conceivably over 50.
After his retirement D'Oliveira was the Worcestershire coach from 1980 to 1990. In 1980 he was a member of a Sports Council Delegation which visited South Africa; typically, he saw "much that was extremely encouraging". He and his wife, though, were completely at home in England, and never ceased to declare their gratitude to the English people.
Basil D'Oliveira was appointed OBE in 1969 and CBE in 2005. He married Naomi Brache in 1960; they had two sons, one of whom, Damian, played for Worcestershire between 1982 and 1995.