October 2001

Cape crusader

Basil D'Oliveira © Getty Images There is nothing like being the centre of an international crisis to prove a cricketer's true mettle

Christopher Sandford pays tribute to Basil D'Oliveira, who turns 70 this month

Basil D'Oliveira © Getty Images
There is nothing like being the centre of an international crisis to prove a cricketer's true mettle. 'It was awful, but in a strange way I came out of it a stronger man,' Basil D'Oliveira told me. D'Oliveira, who turns 70 on October 4, was of course in the very eye of the hurricane bearing his name some 33 years ago. It was a long and melancholy saga beginning in the summer of 1968, embracing MCC's cancellation of that winter's tour to South Africa once D'Oliveira had been termed ,unacceptable' by the host government, leading in turn to the abandonment of the Springboks' visit to England in 1970 and ultimately to the suspension of all fixtures between the two countries for 25 years. This was a lot of grief to be associated with, especially as Basil himself is one of the most genial men ever to put bat to ball.

D'Oliveira gave rein to his natural ball-playing skills in the leprous back streets and wastes of his Cape township in the 1940s. Tall, muscular, almost freakishly strong in the arms, he developed into a murderous but essentially orthodox batsman and a slow-medium bowler with a textbook side-on action. Hearing of the prodigy on a private tour of South Africa, John Arlott arranged for him to play for Middleton in the Central Lancashire League, though neither man seriously thought that, at 28, D'Oliveira had real hope of a career in first-class cricket, let alone in Tests.

That all changed in March 1962 when, on a pre-season tour of Rhodesia, Tom Graveney, recently transferred to Worcestershire after a venomous row at Gloucester, watched D'Oliveira pound 51 off a top-class attack in four or five overs. Graveney approached him that evening in the bar (second only to the field, in those days, as Dolly's natural habitat). 'How old are you?' asked Graveney. The muscles in D'Oliveira's face twitched; he may well have gulped. `Twenty-five,' he said. As soon as Graveney got home to Worcester he made a point of mentioning D'Oliveira to the county chairman, Sir George Dowry. How old was he? `About 30,' said Graveney.

Basil, then actually 32, made his debut for Worcester's Second XI in 1964. It was down to luck and, increasingly, his all-round prowess that the county were just approaching their peak: back-to-back Champions in 1964-65, runners-up in 1966. Suddenly D'Oliveira was a middle-aged new boy who batted and bowled as if compensating for lost time. He and Graveney - a feast of batting contrasts, Tom's natural restraint co-existing with Basil's cold-blooded homicide-were the most prolific scorers in England. Both were selected for the Second Test against West Indies at Lord's in June 1966. For Graveney it was the end of three years in exile, for D'Oliveira the culmination of a fairy tale journey from township to cricket's headquarters to represent his adopted country.

Basil's Test career, which would last until 1972, was a similar case of improbable triumph against the odds. He will be remembered more for his fitful genius than for any Boycott-like application or consistency. D'Oliveira had a knack of making runs when others failed - notably under Ray Illingworth in Australia and New Zealand in 1970-71- and for taking crucial wickets, not least that of Australia's Barry Jarman at The Oval in 1968, enabling Derek Underwood to polish off the tail with six minutes left.

Dolly, however, was nothing if not exasperating to his many fans. He had an indifferent time on the 1967-68 tour of the Caribbean where, not averse to the tempting mixture of rum and sun, he was quietly taken aside and spoken to by his captain, Colin Cowdrey. Nothing much went right for him in the home season of 1968. Basil was brought back by England for the final Test only because of a long injury list, and thus providentially given the chance of winning a last-minute place in the squad to tour South Africa due to be chosen immediately stumps were drawn.

What happened at The Oval that last week of August is history. Cowdrey won the toss, England batted and D'Oliveira (after being dropped on 31) scored a superb 158. In one of the most gripping finishes in the history of Ashes Tests, the home side won in the dying minutes, levelling the series and providing yet another plot twist in Basil's rags-to-riches story. It seemed inevitable that selection for the tour of South Africa would crown the most dramatic comeback in cricket history since Compton had returned from near paralysis to top-score, also in the final Test against Australia, a dozen years earlier.

What happened instead can be quickly recalled: D'Ohveira's sensational omission; the explosion in the Press, some of which divined a conspiracy between the British and South African governments; the raised voices of MPs; the mass resignations from MCC; the formation of a protest group under the former England captain David Sheppard; the later announcement that, because of Tom Cartwright's injury, Dolly would tour after all; the South African president's refusal `to accept a team thrust upon us' by the anti-apartheid movement; the melodramatic flight to London by members of the South African Cricket Board; and finally, a month after the original selection, MCC's announcement that since their side was unwelcome the tour was off.

`The Affair' was, in a way, a useful experience for Dolly. It showed him the more fanatical extremes on both sides of the apartheid debate, and generally turned him from being a happy-go-lucky court jester into someone vividly familiar with the term `political football'. Years later, the one thing about the affair not disputed by any of the parties concerned was that Basil himself had behaved with dignity throughout the whole business, where others might have succumbed to the attention. Literally overnight he became 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. People who had never been near a cricket match suddenly knew the name and, above all, the skin colour of Basil D'Oliveira.

The hastily arranged substitute tour of Pakistan in 1968-69 was a farce, played out against a backdrop of rioting students, fickle umpires and hardened mud pitches. On a wicket at Dacca where the likes of Cowdrey, Graveney and Keith Fletcher barely troubled the scorers, Basil flailed an almost sadistic 114 not out. No English batsman would so utterly dominate an innings again until Ian Botham single-handedly demoralised the Australians at Headingley and Old Trafford in 1981.

Dolly played on until the mid-1970s and his own mid-40s, including a famous twilight knock of 47 in the 1973 Benson and Hedges Cup Final defeat to Kent; futile but so full of brutal, tracer-like shots that those with long memories sighed of Hammond. In all he played 44 Tests, with an average marginally over 40, and hit a total of 43 first-class hundreds. Old men still talk of what those figures might have been had Basil started his career a decade or so earlier.

Everything that he did, on and off the pitch, was done with character. D'Oliveira was never anonymous. Even when he was out of sorts, the eye was drawn to him as it somehow was not with more efficient, nondescript players. Whether swinging hard against the fastest bowling, appealing lustily or bringing off improbable catches, Dolly lived well above his technical income.

He retired approaching his 50th birthday and became Worcestershire's first - and highly successful - coach. His career was not a triumph only of skill, it was more a triumph of character, perseverance, example. D'Oliveira gave pleasure to tens of thousands who watched him in England, but something rarer to millions - more who followed his Cinderella career from the shanties and townships he left behind in South Africa.

To them he meant hope.