Quiet subversive dressed in white

2011-11-22 00:00

WHEN Basil Lewis d’Oliveira was named in 2000 as one of South Africa’s 10 cricketers of the century, astonishingly it was the first time he had walked onto the field at Newlands. That one step he took across the boundary rope sums up the tortured history of South African cricket, of which d’Oliveira was one of the most significant figures. His death on November 19 was a crucial reminder not just of the past of this country’s sport, but also its present.

He was a man of humble origins who proved to be a star performer in the quadrangular, intercommunal cricket that emerged under the South African Cricket Board of Control after World War 2. His club, St Augustine’s in Cape Town, played in the atrocious conditions typical of black cricket at the time and made his accomplishments all the more laudable.

In 1956 he led a genuinely mixed national side against the Kenya Asians and in the eyes of many this makes him South Africa’s first real cricket captain. He skippered a similar team on a tour of East Africa in 1959 with success and then, with assistance from that great commentator and liberal, John Arlott, he moved into English league cricket in 1960, playing for Middleton. Several black South African cricketers took this courageous step that required an enormous adjustment in lifestyle and cricketing technique. Although age was against him, d‘Oliveira was the only one who made a lasting transition to county cricket and he played with great distinction for Worcestershire for 15 years from 1964 to 1979.

More importantly, he was chosen for England 44 times and was particularly well-respected by the British public. He was picked primarily as a number six batsman — he had a textbook technique, strong forearms and a good eye — and all-rounder. He bowled medium-paced off cutters and was used by England as a first change bowler, although he is better remembered for the ability later in his Test career to tie down an end and break partnerships. Making his debut in 1966 against the West Indies at Lord’s, he was then already officially 34 (his age was a constant matter of speculation). His walk to the crease was a moment to be savoured and carried with it an air of solidity, dependability and the enormous dignity that was his hallmark. His last Test match was at The Oval against Australia in 1972 and his place as all-rounder in the England team was ironically taken by another South African of very different demeanour, Tony Greig. D’Oliveira scored 2 464 runs for England (at a respectable average of 40 with five centuries) and took 47 wickets. In first-class cricket he amassed nearly 19 000 runs (43 centuries) and captured 548 wickets.

D’Oliveira would have remained a distinguished, but relatively unknown cricketer, had it not been for the South African government. Prime Minister John Vorster, insecure as the successor to the assassinated Hendrik Verwoerd, was attempting to promote a more flexible foreign policy that included easing up on sport. Arlott wrote prophetically that d’Oliveira’s initial exclusion from the England touring team of 1968–9 was potentially the most damaging decision ever made by the MCC. Eventually he was named and the conspiracy to exclude him was defeated, but the inclusion of a Cape coloured player in a touring England cricket team was a step too far for the National Party and the tour was called off. Only d’Oliveira emerged with credit and the episode led directly to the cancellation of South African tours of England and Australia, and the eventual isolation of Springbok cricket.

He was a victim of many forces — apartheid ideologies and their conservative allies in England; and both the white cricketing establishment and the left in South Africa. The last found d’Oliveira’s quiet approach unacceptable, slated him for not putting enough back into his community, and wrote him off as an adoptive Englishman. D’Oliveira, like many self-made men, was not always sympathetic in public to broader political causes. Yet the one-eyed view of Cape Town radicals with their noisy rhetoric failed to appreciate the impact of his conduct on the wider world and the resultant benefits derived by the anti-apartheid movement. As Norman Arendse put it: “He represented all of us who were committed to non-racial cricket.”

From white South Africans, d’Oliveira received disgraceful and shameful abuse. The cricket writer Louis Duffus bleated that South African cricket was being victimised for one, by implication irrelevant, man, and ignorantly charged the England selectors with trying to break the law. Perhaps d’Oliveira’s greatest achievement in response to this was his lasting impact on British politics and society. He was known affectionately by a respectful public as Bas or Dolly and played no small part in breaking down the racism of sixties’ Britain. The Stop the Seventy Tour Campaign of 1969–70 was the first successful grass-roots civic campaign in Britain since the Suffragettes. It changed British political life forever, ushering in a growing realisation that it would have to come to terms with a multi-ethnic society.

Sadly, this man of great physical and mental strength and character ended up with Parkinson’s disease. He has been immortalised by the trophy for which Test series between South Africa and England are now played and he was awarded the CBE in 2005. A stand at New Road ground in Worcester in the shadow of its cathedral is named after him, as is the Oaks section at Newlands.

The spirit of d’Oliveira will forever be part of South African history and a reminder of the hypocrisy all too often evident in sport. In the sixties, white South Africans claimed that politics had no part in it while their chosen prime minister acted as de facto MCC selector. Anti-apartheid groups justifiably and successfully campaigned for South Africa’s isolation. Yet moves by the government to interfere in team composition in ways reminiscent of the sixties have plagued the post-liberation period.

Sport can have a sordid face. But the lives of players like d’Oliveira leave enduring memories of the best that it can produce.

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