February 10, 2008

The man who became a cause

The D'Oliveira affair, superbly chronicled by Peter Oborne, is a reminder that cricket can be about so much more than just sport

D'Oliveira's story is one of heroism and persistence, of the triumph of good over evil © Getty Images

Between Bodyline and Kerry Packer, the biggest controversy in cricket was the D'Oliveira affair. Bodyline led to changes in the laws of the game, and Packer changed its economics. D'Oliveira rewrote history, contributing to the end of apartheid, one of mankind's most abhorrent systems.

When a player goes from being an individual to a cause and lends his name to a revolution, then clearly it is a story that involves more than a game of cricket.

When the MCC called off the tour of South Africa in 1968-69 because the government there would not accept the presence of a coloured cricketer from Cape Town in the England tour party, it signalled the start of South Africa's sporting isolation. D'Oliveira, an underprivileged son of a tailor, had overcome obstacles that would have crushed a lesser man. His story is one of heroism, of persistence, of talent coming through in the end, of the triumph of good over evil. Much of that is detailed in his autobiography, Time to Declare.

But for the whole picture, the definitive book is Basil D'Oliveira - Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story by Peter Oborne. Here, the heroism of the individual is met with villainy by the cricket associations and governments, persistence meets compromise, and the talent is for political shenanigans and deception. In the end good does triumph, but it is no thanks to the moral fibre of the officials and ministers involved. Oborne was a political editor of the Spectator, and his book, which received the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in 2004, details the odds that D'Oliveira had to face once the possibility of his being selected for a tour of the country of his birth became very real.

D'Oliveira came to England in 1960 thanks to the efforts of John Arlott (Arlott was to say later that this was one of the best things he did in his life) and moved rapidly from club to county to Test cricket. He had not played on a turf wicket till he was 29, hadn't played first-class cricket till 30, and fudged his age by three years so as not to frighten the selectors away. He was a 1950s player who played a whole decade later thanks to the lack of opportunities for non-Whites in his own country.

For these reasons, his 158 against Australia at The Oval in 1968 is considered one of the greatest innings in the history of the game. As Oborne writes, "The runs were scored under conditions of unspeakable personal difficulty, against an attack comprising Prime Minister Johannes Vorster and South African Apartheid at its most savage and corrupt, supported by the weight of the British establishment. No other cricket innings has changed history. This one did." D'Oliveira was now a certainty for the South African tour to follow, but he was dropped instead, and then picked when Tom Cartwright pulled out with injury.

Vorster had a double spin attack. He let the MCC know he would call off the tour if D'Oliveira was chosen. He also organised an elaborate scheme of bribery that would have given D'Oliveira four times as much money as the best earned by an English player, for a period of ten years, if he pulled out of the tour. A former prime minister, some future political leaders, England captain Colin Cowdrey - who promised to stand up for D'Oliveira in the selection meeting but didn't - all played their dirty roles, but in the end some vestige of fairplay remained, and that was enough to shake a system.

Racism continues to be a problem on the sports field. But we have reduced it to a few catch words. Oborne's book is a sickening account of the collusion between the public racist and the private racist in a democracy. There is anger and disgust; there is, too, admiration for the real heroes - those who supported D'Oliveira, advised him in his time of need, and showed themselves to be aware of the big picture at all times. As the memory of apartheid recedes, a book like this is a reminder of man's inhumanity to man. It also suggests an answer to the question, "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?"

Basil D'Oliveira - Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story by Peter Oborne; Little, Brown; 2004
Time to Declare by Basil D'Oliveira, Dent, 1980

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore