Cancellation of South African tour, 1969

The D'Oliveira case

Michael Melford

The bitterness engendered by the sequence of events leading up to the cancellation of M.C.C.'s proposed tour of South Africa only six weeks before the scheduled starting date made a sad end to the 1968 English season.

Almost from the moment that England walked off the field at The Oval with a rare victory over Australia to their credit, English cricket was caught up in a whirlpool of acrimony and political argument such as it can seldom have known before. The culmination, on September 17, was the refusal by the South African Prime Minister, Mr. John Vorster, to accept Basil d'Oliveira, a Cape Coloured, as a member of the M.C.C. team, and the M.C.C. committee's consequent cancellation of the tour.

Since D'Oliveira came successfully into English cricket, and even before he first played for England in 1966, it had been evident that a delicate situation might arise if he were selected for this tour of his native country. However, what appeared to be a relatively simple problem of whether he was acceptable or not had been greatly complicated when the time came, especially by his original omission from the team and the outcry which greeted it.

When the New Zealand Rugby Board were refused permission to bring their Maoris to South Africa in 1967 by Mr. Vorster's predecessor, Dr. Verwoerd, they cancelled the tour with so little rancour that it was soon being replanned for 1970 with the ban removed. Cricket, however, ever more exposed to publicity, had to endure charges and recrimination of a passion which resounded far outside the sporting world.

Not until December, when, at a special general meeting of M.C.C. the Committee defeated three resolutions put forward by dissident members, was relief in sight from a period of unpleasantness which must have been a nightmare to the ordinary sensitive lover of cricket.

By a coincidence, M.J.K. Smith's M.C.C. side, managed by the secretary, S.C. Griffith, was in New Zealand in March 1966 when the New Zealand Rugby authorities were about to cancel their tour of South Africa. Mr. Griffith was asked what action he thought his committee would take in similar circumstances and he replied unequivocally that no other course but cancellation was conceivable.

In the following winter Mr. Griffith visited South Africa at the invitation of the South African Cricket Association. With one other cricket correspondent, Louis Duffus of the Johannesburg Star, I interviewed Mr.Griffith and the then President of the S.A.C.A., Mr. Boon Wallace, in Cape Town at the end of the visit. Asked if the case of D'Oliveira had been discussed with the S.A.C.A., Mr. Griffith said that naturally it had in principle and he had made M.C.C.'s position abundantly clear.

They had considered the broader question of non-European cricketers in general as members of M.C.C. sides. In view of the number of cricketers of West Indian descent likely to be playing in English domestic cricket in the future, the discussions had not concerned only one player.

Later in January 1967 a reporter of the Johannesburg Sunday Express put a similar question by telephone to Mr. P. Le Roux, the Minister of the Interior, one Saturday night. The reply, as given in next day's paper, stated the law as it existed at the time and the inference was drawn that D'Oliveira would not be acceptable.

Though to most people in South Africa at the time this seemed far from an inspired statement and to be running against the tide of the Prime Minister's policy, it excited public criticism in Britain and the West Indies. In one quarter it induced questions in the House of Commons and in the other the withdrawal of an invitation to three South Africans, the Pollock brothers and Colin Bland, to play in Barbados.

After a week Mr. Denis Howell, the Minister with special responsibility for sport, in a statement in the House, scotched suggestions that M.C.C. might give way. "M.C.C. has informed the Government that the team to tour South Africa will be chosen on merit. ... If any player chosen were to be rejected by the host country, then ... the projected tour would be abandoned." This was what Mr. Griffith had told the New Zealand Rugby Board a year before.

On April 11, 1967, Mr. Vorster, speaking in the House of Assembly in Cape Town, clarified the position of coloured sportsmen in teams visiting South Africa. Visiting teams of mixed race would be able to tour the country if they were teams from countries with which South Africa had traditional sporting ties and if no political capital was made out of the situation.

Superficially this appeared to make the way clear for any non-European to visit South Africa, with an M.C.C. team, but D'Oliveira, as a native of South Africa, might be considered likely to be the focus of political influences where others would not. M.C.C. therefore wrote to the S.A.C.A. in January 1968 asking for an assurance that no pre-conditions would be laid on their choice of players. At about the same time Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the previous year's President of M.C.C., talked to Mr. Vorster in Cape Town during a tour which he made as Opposition spokesman on foreign affairs.

M.C.C. had received no firm answer to their question by late March and had then to decide whether to cancel the tour or to go ahead as planned, leaving the matter of a player's non-acceptability until it happened. On Sir Alec Douglas-Home's advice they decided to go ahead and for much of the summer the issue seemed unlikely to arise.

D'Oliveira had toured West Indies with Colin Cowdrey's team but without success. He had played in the First Test against Australia at Old Trafford in June and had made 87 not out in the second innings, but he had been left out at Lord's in favour of a third fast bowler. England almost won at Lord's and as their fortunes improved without him, D'Oliveira lost form for Worcestershire with the bat. Though he took plenty of wickets later in the season, they were mostly on imperfect pitches and were not obvious recommendations for a Test place.

However, after the team for the Fifth Test had been chosen on August 18, R.M. Prideaux, one of the opening batsmen in the prolonged absence through injury of G. Boycott, dropped out through bronchitis. He was replaced by D'Oliveira, an unexpected choice, made partly to help the side's balance and partly, perhaps, on a hunch.

The hunch came off. D'Oliveira, though little used as a bowler, made 158. England won and that night, August 27, the selectors sat down to pick the team for South Africa.

When it was announced next day that this did not include D'Oliveira, the chairman of the selectors, D.J. Insole, explained that the selectors regarded him "from an overseas tour point of view as a batsman rather than an all-rounder. We put him beside the seven batsmen that we had, along with Colin Milburn whom we also had to leave out with regret." This explanation of a selection was no new departure and followed the selectors' practice over the last fifteen years.

To the non-cricketing public, however, D'Oliveira's omission immediately after his innings at The Oval was largely incomprehensible. It was easy for many to assume political motives behind it and a bowing to South Africa's racial policies.

More knowledgeable cricketers were split between those who agreed that on technical grounds D'Oliveira was far from an automatic choice and who were doubtful if he would be any more effective in South Africa than he had been in West Indies, and those who thought that after his successful comeback to Test cricket, it was inhuman not to pick him.

Some holding the latter opinion were also ready to see non-cricketing reasons for the omission, refusing to believe Mr. Insole and Mr. Griffith, who publicly stated that none existed. Much was said which was regretted later -- four out of nineteen members of M.C.C. who resigned in protest applied for reinstatement within a few days -- and Lord Fisher of Lambeth, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was prompted to write to the Daily Telegraph condemning a leader which appeared to cast doubt on the word of the selectors.

A group of twenty M.C.C. members, the number required to call a special meeting of the club, asserted this right, co-opting the Rev. D.S. Sheppard as their main spokesman. For three weeks the affair simmered like an angry volcano.

During this period the News of the World announced that it had engaged D'Oliveira to report the tour in South Africa. This did much to antagonise Government opinion in South Africa, as had several events unrelated to the team's selection.

One of these was M.C.C.'s refusal in June to include Rhodesia in their itinerary. Two others, outside M.C.C.'s province, were the rejection of a mixed South African Olympic team and the turning-back of Colin Bland at London Airport in August because he had a Rhodesian passport.

Though the News of the World emphasised that D'Oliveira would only be reporting the cricket and though there were precedents (Wardle in 1958 and Close in 1967) for players left out of M.C.C. teams being sent by newspapers, suspicion of English motives and of political intrigue was undoubtedly increased in South Africa.

When so many voices in England were discussing the political side of the affair, it was hard for any one at a distance who did not know them to believe that D.J. Insole, A.V. Bedser, P.B.H. May and D. Kenyon, augmented by G.O.B. Allen and A.E.R. Gilligan and the captain, M.C. Cowdrey, were impervious to political influences and were picking a side purely on cricketing qualifications.

It was harder still after the final readjustment of the team on September 16. Cartwright had been unfit when picked originally but the assurances given by specialists of his imminent recovery had been provisionally accepted and he had bowled ten overs for Warwickshire on September 14 without apparent discomfort. However, the subsequent medical report ruled him out and D'Oliveira was chosen to replace him.

In view of Mr. Insole's previous statement that D'Oliveira had been considered only as a batsman, his substitution now for a bowler must have been the final proof to the South African Government that political influences were at work.

Mr. Insole's explanation that the balance of the side had had to be entirely reviewed made little impact. No replacement of Cartwright's type or experience did in fact exist in England in the unavailability, for different reasons of B.R. Knight, R. Illingworth and others.

On the following evening, Mr. Vorster said that South Africa was not prepared to receive a team which had been forced upon her by people "with certain political aims". It was one of many unhappy chances that he should be speaking in Bloemfontein where cricket has probably a less enthusiastic following than anywhere else in a country where it is generally booming.

A dignified speech of regret might have done something to heal the wounds but Mr. Vorster broke the eighty-year-old links between English and South African cricket in a speech for internal political consumption -- in crude and boorish words, as the Daily Mail leader put it -- and with a harshness which can have won him little sympathy outside his own party.

It only remained for the M.C.C. Committee to make the formal cancellation of the tour, which they did on September 24. At the meeting, the Committee discussed future cricket relations between the two countries with two members of the South African Board, A.H. Coy and J.E. Cheetham, who had flown overnight from Johannesburg.

The special general meeting of M.C.C. was fixed for December 5 at Church House, Westminster, with the President, Mr. R. Aird, in the chair. A vote was asked for on the following resolutions:

  • That the Members of M.C.C. regret their committee's mishandling of affairs leading up to the selection of the team for the intended tour of South Africa in 1968-69.
  • That no further tours to or from South Africa be undertaken until evidence can be given of actual progress by South Africa towards non-racial cricket.
  • That a Special Committee be set up to examine such proposals by the S.A.C.A. towards non-racial cricket; the M.C.C. to report on progress to the Annual General Meeting of the Club; and to the Governing Body for Cricket -- the M.C.C. Council.

The meeting, which lasted nearly four hours, was attended by over 1,000 members and, through a special decision of the Committee, by the Press. The main speakers for the resolutions were the Rev. David Sheppard and J.M. Brearley and for the Committee, D.R.W. Silk and A.M. Crawley.

Those putting the case for the resolutions said that their main concern was to debate future policy rather than to analyse past events, but they maintained that the Committee had acted weakly and irresponsibly and should have insisted on a definite answer from the S.A.C.A. in the spring to the question "Would D'Oliveira be acceptable as an M.C.C. tourist without conditions?".

Had the answer been a public "Yes", the selectors' disinterestedness in choosing the team in August could not have been challenged. Had the answer been "No", or continued equivocation, then, reluctantly, the tour should have been called off. Those who protest, they said, are frequently charged with bringing politics into cricket. "It is, of course, South Africa which organises its sport on political grounds and intrudes its politics upon all teams which visit the country."

The Committee said that they were motivated by a continuing desire to foster cricket wherever it is played. Over the years M.C.C. had never thought it the collective function of its Committee to act as inquisitor-general into the domestic attitudes towards race-relations, immigration, political orientation or anything else of the governments or governing bodies of their respective opponents.

They had accepted Sir Alec Douglas-Home's opinion that to confront the South African Government with individual possible selections was wrong and would undoubtedly result in a refusal to answer hypothetical questions. To have pressed to be not only hypothetical, but politically inspired. The England captain, Colin Cowdrey, stated that the selectors had never been put in an "intolerable position", as was suggested. "We were quite free to pick the best team on cricketing merit," he said.

The first resolution was defeated by 4,357 to 1,570, the bulk of the votes having been recorded by post. The Committee had a 386 to 314 majority in the hall. The second resolution was lost by 4,664 to 1,214 and the third by 4,508 to 1,352. The voting in the hall on these two resolutions was 516 to 137 and 474 to 155 respectively.

After the meeting, Mr. Sheppard said that the vote made clear that a large proportion of the M.C.C. membership cared about the issue. "What is more important than votes, however, is that ideas have been ventilated. Nothing will be quite the same in English cricket after the debate."

Mr. Aird, the President, said that he was pleased that most members of the Club still saw cricket as a game to be played wherever and whenever possible. "We shall strive for the welfare of all cricketers both in South Africa and wherever the game is played." Mr. Aird also paid tribute to the "great dignity which Basil D'Oliveira has maintained throughout the whole business."

© John Wisden & Co