No. 4 January 11, 2009

Dolly gets a life

The dropped catch that let D'Oliveira make his legendary 158

D'Oliveira during his 158 at The Oval © PA Photos

London, 23 August 1968

The government of the ignoble land he'd fled tried to bribe him, then terrorise him. The return of this pesky Cape Coloured under another flag could only highlight its racist tyranny to an outside world all too willing to turn a colour-blind eye. Fortunately, Basil D'Oliveira was steeled by a rare determination and an even scarcer brand of bravery.

Even his new compatriots conspired against him: he was dropped after he made 87 not out in the first Ashes Test of 1968. Further success at Lord's would have enhanced his claims for selection on the impending MCC tour of South Africa, a tour that would almost certainly be cancelled if he was chosen.

Then fate got busy. Roger Prideaux dropped out of the final Test at The Oval with a mysterious illness. D'Oliveira was recalled. Then, on the second morning, on 31, he offered a catch. Barry Jarman, one of the ablest stumpers ever to don the baggy green, declined.

It would take another withdrawal, this time by that selfless socialist Tom Cartwright, for D'Oliveira's eventual 158 to secure a tour berth, prompting South African Prime Minister Vorster to greet the party as "the team of the anti-apartheid movement" and rescind the invitation. Thus did those seeking a boycott of South African sport find their first symbol of resistance. But for Jarman's error, Nelson Mandela might still be on Robben Island. EW Swanton called it "the most fateful drop in cricket history". Make that the most splendid error in sporting annals.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. This article was first published in the print version of Cricinfo Magazine