Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Basil D’Oliveira by Peter Oborne

For those unfamiliar with one of cricket’s most famous stories, Basil D’Oliveira was a South African cricketer of immense talent who would have become one of his country’s great cricketers if only the colour of his skin had not been a tad too dark for the tastes of his country’s Apartheid rulers. Instead, D’Oliveira (who was Cape-coloured in the nauseating vocabulary of that place and time) and his compatriots were condemned to performing on rough wasteland. On the evening before any game the players would gather to clear stones from the designated pitch area (there was no such thing as a cricket square). National representation was limited to white players, who played on the manicured fields that D’Oliveira could see from his home in Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap, but could never play on.

D’Oliveira’s ambition led him to look for possibilities outside his homeland. Persistence secured him a contract with Middleton in the Central Lancashire League in 1960. From there his talent took him to a county career with Worcestershire and 44 Tests for England. In 1968 he was selected to tour South Africa (after originally being omitted), which caused the South Africa’s Prime Minister Johannes Vorster to cancel the tour, and thus hasten his country’s long period of sporting isolation.

It is a story of some personal significance for me. D’Oliveira was first picked for England in 1966 when I was a young fan enjoying his first cricket season. I was drawn to his forceful, fluent batting, while the nascent proof reader and pedant within was intrigued that a name could have an apostrophe in it, or—wrongly according to Oborne—sometimes be written beginning with a lower case letter.

If 1966 was my cricketing foundation year, then 1968 was the start of political awareness, triggered not by events on the streets of Prague or Paris that momentous summer, but by those in the committee rooms of Lord’s. The understanding that a man could be refused a place on a cricket team on the grounds of colour was a shock; that South Africa was organised on racial grounds with whites the superior race was incomprehensible.  As a nine year old I knew that the proposition that people with other-than-white skins were inferior in some way to be a nonsense. My certainty on this matter was because I had seen Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Wes Hall, Clive Lloyd, John Shepherd, Asif Iqbal, Basil D’Oliveira and others play cricket. No further information was required.

I have taken too long to acquire Peter Oborne’s 2004 re-telling of the D’Oliveira story. It won every award for which it was eligible, and deservedly so. Oborne is a political journalist with a love of cricket, which is the right way round for this assignment. He explains the historical and political contexts—everything to this story—with the utmost clarity and brings the skills of a journalist accustomed to revealing the mysteries of Westminster to the task of unravelling the events around the selection of the MCC touring party in August 1968.

Oborne is particularly strong on D’Oliveira’s cricketing career in South Africa before he left for England. He argues that D’Oliveira was so good a young player that had it not been for the whites-only policy he would have been selected for the South African touring party to England in 1951, 15 years before he finally played Test cricket at the age of 34 (D’Oliveira maintained the fiction that he was 31 at that time; he believed that he would not have been selected had his real age been known). His actual Test career was a proud one: five hundreds, an average of 40 and a partnership breaker with his deceptively plain medium-pace bowling. But Oborne makes a persuasive case that had D’Oliveira’s talent been allowed to flourish unfettered by Apartheid he would have been one of the great players.

It is impossible to read without outrage the description of the indignities that were part of the everyday life of D’Oliveira and every other non-white South African. The deep imprint that daily humiliation leaves on a human being was shown by D’Oliveira’s constant unease during his first days in England:

The following day Kay[i] and D’Oliveira caught the train to Manchester. As they walked down the platform, D’Oliveira asked anxiously which was his separate carriage, but Kay firmly told him that things were not done that way in Britain…Kay told Arlott later that “he dined on the train, a factor that he could not get over because he was allowed to eat and travel with white people”
It is incredible that the argument that politics and sport should not be mixed gained such traction in those years.

Osborne’s account reflects very differently upon the reputations of two of the heroes of my youth. John Arlott, the great commentator and writer, had been appalled by his experiences in South Africa as the BBC’s man on the 1948/9 MCC tour. So when letters in green ink from an unknown South African seeking a league contract began to arrive in the late fifties they were taken seriously. Arlott’s copious humanity made him determined to secure his correspondent the position as a league professional that was his dream. The political Arlott knew that if successful, he would be striking a blow against Apartheid, though he could not have predicted how great a blow it would be. Without John Arlott, there would have been no story to tell.

Colin Cowdrey, on the other hand, emerges as a man of straw. During the South African tour business Cowdrey assured D’Oliveira of his support while arguing against his selection in the privacy of the committee room, his responsibilities as captain compromised by his need to be universally well thought of.

Oborne’s analysis of the events around the selection of the MCC tour party to South Africa in 1968 is forensic. He concludes that there was no conspiracy to omit D’Oliveira. Examination of the sequence of events around the selection has never supported the view that there was. Not even the bunglers of Lord’s could have conspired with such incompetence.

D’Oliveira had had a poor tour of the West Indies in the early months of 1968. He had become a drinker comparatively late in life and was making up for lost time; late nights on the rum had taken their toll. Here was a chance, had it so wanted, for the Establishment to sideline D’Oliveira for the summer. Yet he was selected for the first Ashes Test, won by Australia, and top scored with an unbeaten 87 in the second innings. Then he was dropped.

The conspiracy kicking in? If so, it had no resolve. D’Oliveira had a below-average summer with Worcestershire and made no case for a recall up to and including the naming of the twelve for the final Test, from which he was omitted. Debate about the political viability of the tour all but ceased so unlikely had D’Oliveira’s selection become. Then Roger Prideaux, the Northamptonshire opener (and former Kent player), dropped out and was somewhat improbably replaced with D’Oliveira, a middle-order batsman. Had there been a plot to exclude D’Oliveira this lifeline would never have been thrown.

He grabbed it with such relish. 158, gloriously made, and, as a bowler, the breakthrough as the final hour of the game began, opening the door for Derek Underwood to mesmerise the remaining Australians on a drying pitch for a series-levelling victory. Now, they had to pick D’Oliveira, surely.

There were ten people in the six-hour selection meeting—the four selectors, Cowdrey, tour manager Les Ames (who had dealt with D’Oliveira’s drinking issues in the Caribbean) and four representatives of MCC (in whose name England toured in those days). Oborne talked to chairman of the selectors Doug Insole and studied all available accounts. Insole told the assembled group that that they should proceed as if they were picking a team to tour Australia. The political context was not referred to, which is not to say that it was not a factor.

Oborne believes that “at least one of the people in the room was acting as a spy for South Africa”. Others were aware of backdoor communications from the highest levels in the Cape affirming that the tour would be cancelled were D’Oliveira picked. Oborne does not go quite as far as he might have done in exploring the effect that this knowledge had on proceedings.

Though it would be unfair to cast all those present at the selection meeting as apologists for Apartheid, the view that sport and politics should be separate would have found no dissenters. The idea that the cancellation of a major tour would result from their deliberations would have been anathema to every one of them. It seems to me that this knowledge was enough to sway them, enough to explain why, as Oborne says, D’Oliveira had no strong advocates.

Oborne outlines the cricketing argument against D’Oliveira’s selection and points out that Colin Milburn (a player born in the wrong time if ever there was) also missed out, and that Ken Barrington nearly did so. Prideaux and the young Keith Fletcher (despite a famously disastrous debut at Headingley a few weeks before) were picked.

The all-rounder position went to Tom Cartwright, who was no more a true all-rounder, worth picking as a batsman or bowler, than D’Oliveira. They were at opposite ends of the all-rounder spectrum, D’Oliveira a No 5 or 6 batsman who could trundle efficiently, Cartwright a medium pacer of renowned parsimony (77-32-118-2 v Australia at Old Trafford in 1964—glad I missed that one) but a No 8 or 9 in a Test order at best.

Cartwright was one of the few left-wing cricketers, and Oborne raises the possibility that his withdrawal through injury two weeks was politically inspired. Though D’Oliveira was not a like-for-like replacement—Insole had made a point of saying that he was regarded as a batsmen only in South African conditions—a fortnight of furore had made the selectors repentant, and his addition to the touring party was a formality, as inevitable as the subsequent cancellation of the tour by the appalling Vorster.

Oborne timed his book well, sufficiently distanced from the events for historical perspective, but while many of the protagonists were still alive and talking. The result is one of cricket’s most important pieces of literature. It is clear-headed and insightful about the cricket and the politics. Most of all it does justice to its subject, portraying D’Oliveira as a man of decency and dignity, and reminding us what a fine cricketer he was.

[i] John Kay, cricket correspondent of the Manchester Evening News whose contacts had secured D’Oliveira his contract with Middleton.

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