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How Dolly changed the colour of our sport

Basil D'Oliveira is hoisted onto the shoulders of his Worcestershire team-mates in 1969 Getty Images

Of the South African cricketers who are presently in Adelaide, and who are soon to engage in the first Test of a much anticipated three-match series against Australia, how many would know about the man who helped to start it all?

Of late, the South African minister for sport has made it a prerequisite of selection that the team should include six players of colour, but 50 years ago, no one with a hint of "colour" was allowed any nearer a Test match pitch than the "cage" - an enclosure that kept them segregated from their fellow white human beings.

It has been a long, hard and often painful journey. Along the way, many fine cricketers of all backgrounds have had ambition thwarted. In the coming weeks, the joy on the face of Temba Bavuma when he makes a score, or Kagiso Rabada when he captures an Aussie wicket, will delight all but the most extreme of politically motivated white South Africans. Up above, looking down on it all, will be the pioneer of a movement that began in England in 1964 and, in his own case, reached a remarkable crescendo four years later.

Basil D'Oliveira was a Cape Coloured cricketer of special ability who made his debut for Western Province in the non-white provincial tournament of the late 1940s at the age of 16. In a club match, he once made 225 out of a team total of 236 in little more than an hour. Legend has it that he hit 16 sixes, and a whole lot of fours from the other balls bowled. He bowled lively medium pace and ruthlessly exploited the uneven matting surfaces on which these ostracised lovers of the game found their fun. Unsurprisingly, the standard of cricket was pretty ordinary, but for a decade D'Oliveira stood above it, a colossus of the only game he could find in town. Frustrated beyond measure by the apartheid policy that drove the South Africa of the day, in 1959 he wrote to John Arlott, the liberally outspoken English broadcaster and journalist, and asked for help. Arlott was moved by D'Oliveira's story and helped to secure him a job as a pro in the Lancashire League for the 1960 season. After a dodgy start in cold weather and on damp pitches, he got the hang of things - so much so that he pipped a gifted fellow by the name of Garfield Sobers to the No. 1 spot in the league's batting averages.

"Incredible as this now sounds, D'Oliveira was asked by the secretary of MCC, Billy Griffith, if he would declare himself unavailable for England and pledge allegiance to South Africa"

The next season was barely any different, neither were the next two. In 1964, Worcester signed D'Oliveira on the back of Tom Graveney's kindly words and after a year of 2nd XI cricket while qualifying for British citizenship, he made his first hundred for the county on a tricky early-season pitch. The technique acquired on the matting back home and forensically close attention paid to the ball itself, rather than the peripherals, allowed D'Oliveira to finish eighth in the national batting averages as Worcestershire won their second consecutive championship title. To the astonishment of all those cricket people back home - whether black, white, brown, pink or just green with envy - in the summer of 1966, "Dolly" was picked for England.

This was the moment he caught the eye of a young boy playing Test matches in the street outside his London home. Stumps were chalked on the wall and Basil's first Test match hundred was replicated with that child's enthusiasm for thrilling back-foot drives and a generally fearless approach to the game. The following summer, D'Oliveira was in the team to face the Australians, and though England lost the first Test, he finished unbeaten with 87 in the second innings when England were bowled out for 253.

I was that boy and I was fascinated by this man and by his bat, upon the face of which was a logo hitherto unseen. I scraped off the bat-maker's logo on my own piece of willow and drew, or painted perhaps, my own version of the deep black triangle that pointed down to the bat's toe. It was another ten years before I was to learn that this Duncan Fearnley bat was made by a man who existed, a former county cricketer who lived and breathed the game from his small factory in the middle of Worcester, which supplied handmade bats to some of the world's finest players. I came to know Duncan well and was never to use any other make of equipment during my own playing days.

None of us knew it at the time - and only a very few predicted the seismic knock-on effect of D'Oliveira's selection - but England's scheduled tour to South Africa the following winter was already in jeopardy. John Vorster, the South African prime minister and an especially hardline apartheid activist, had already flagged his disapproval of D'Oliveira's presence in the England side around the corridors of Lord's.

Incredible as this now sounds, at a dinner before the second Test, to celebrate the 200th match between England and Australia, D'Oliveira was asked by the secretary of MCC, Billy Griffith, if he would declare himself unavailable for England and pledge allegiance to South Africa. Basil was furious. His 20-year story - from the rough grounds of the Cape, where there seemed to be no escape and no hope of fulfilment, to the lush turfs of England's green and pleasant land - was on course for a happy ending. Griffith blew that notion apart, though not half so devastatingly as the selectors, who omitted D'Oliveira from the 200th Test. Try to imagine this moment for yourself; it is difficult, for it so beggars belief. Basil was dropped by England because the prime minister of South Africa said so.

He returned to Worcester, but for a month or so couldn't make a run. Then, in a world of mysterious ways, a mysterious thing happened. With England still one down in the Ashes series, the selectors named a team, and unusually, with it were named three replacements. Two were bowlers, the third was D'Oliveira. The bowlers broke down, Roger Prideaux - who, incidentally, was later to emigrate to South Africa - pulled out of the match with a virus, and Basil was back.

He made 158.

Peter Oborne, in his award-winning Basil D'Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy, insists that it is the greatest innings ever played. After all, says Oborne, he played it "against an attack comprising... Vorster and South African cricket at its most corrupt, supported by the weight of the British establishment...No other innings in test history has done anything like so much good".

After a storm on the last day, England won the match when Derek Underwood brilliantly exploited the wet pitch. Dolly captured the breakthrough wicket and "Deadly" did the rest. D'Oliveira's innings made headlines all around the world, which meant there was a serious problem. Announce D'Oliveira in the team and risk the wrath of Vorster or leave him out and live with a backlash on the home front. The tour party to South Africa was to be named within a couple of days. The selectors, along with those in their corridors of power, debated long into the night. They announced a team without Dolly and tears fell down the cheeks of a gentle, delightful man.

I say gentle, and by that I mean of nature. He sure loved a party, though by the time I roomed with him on a short tour to the Middle East in 1980, I was told he was easing off. He must have been something at his best then, because often was the occasion that he hit the hay as I was emerging from it. His stories were gold, his love of life irresistible. We laughed and laughed. He was still using a bat with the black-triangle motif, as by now was I - three stumps angled in a V and joined across the top by two bails.

"Basil was brave, he was feisty and he was strong; he was young, gifted and he was coloured. And he knew he was right, so he blazed a trail that eventually helped to change the order of the world"

D'Oliveira's omission shook things up all right. The newspapers were on the warpath, the public weren't far behind, and the MCC called a special general meeting. This national debate featured in both parliament and church. Three weeks passed before another mysterious thing happened. Tom Cartwright, a medium-fast bowler of note, was declared unfit for the tour. Basil, a batsman whose bowling was handy but no more, was chosen to replace him. Vorster went ballistic, calling it "not the team of the MCC but of the anti-apartheid movement". He got a standing ovation at the National Party Congress. The tour was off.

In 1970, South Africa were due in England. No chance. The anti-apartheid movements in Britain now had more than just scraps from which to feed. Peter Hain, a young liberal, led a campaign against the tour and the government stepped in to cancel South Africa's invitation. A Rest of the World team, which included four Springboks, came instead. Though Australia went to South Africa in 1969-70, the return visit, in 1971-72, was aborted. Another Rest of the World team replaced that tour.

For 20 years South Africa remained in isolation. The pain was clear and present. Names that might have adorned the history books, names of all origin and background, were denied. It had taken the sporting authorities 75 years to make a stand against an evil discrimination and a relatively small group of sportsmen suffered for it. After D'Oliveira many a South African cricketer came to reside in and play for England. They say sport and politics should not mix. Sport and politics are joined at the hip.

Basil passed away on a November day five years ago. He was 80 they say, which tidies up the uncertainty about his age. He is missed around Worcester every day. Indeed, he is missed everywhere. He was brave, he was feisty and he was strong; he was young, gifted and he was coloured. And he knew he was right, so he blazed a trail that eventually helped to change the order of the world. Fabulously, he was named one of South Africa's ten cricketers of the 20th century. He was made CBE in England in 2005 and has a stand in his name at New Road, Worcester. Series between England and South Africa are now played for the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy.

Had the ministry of sport insisted on six players of colour in Basil's day, he would have been a shoo-in and played alongside luminaries such as Roy McLean and Johnny Waite, Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards and Mike Procter. As it happened, it was Geoffrey Boycott and John Edrich, Ray Illingworth, Alan Knott and John Snow who became his team-mates and friends. Not one of them would have a bad word to say about this man who crossed a Rubicon and inspired a generation.

The quota system, as it has been called, is not universally popular because there is potential in it to compromise the quality of the team. It is important for South African sport in general that heroes are born out of winning teams. But no one can argue about the thinking or the direction. All Basil would ask is that it is applied with common sense and fairness to one and all.