"I come down on the side of honesty, a good honest piece of bungling by good honest men." Thus did Ted Dexter, sometime England captain and one-time prospective Tory MP, characterise the most important selection meeting in sporting history. More recently, in the Sunday Telegraph, the political columnist Kevin Myers delivered much the same verdict, except that he described the original omission of Basil D'Oliveira from the MCC party to tour South Africa in the winter of 1968-69 as "cretinous". In 2003 Observer Sport Monthly named it among its "Ten Worst Sporting Decisions". But were they all too generous?
D'Oliveira, the Cape Coloured South African allrounder playing for Worcestershire, was summoned as a replacement for Tom Cartwright three weeks later, whereupon John Vorster, South Africa's Prime Minister, denounced the party as "the team of the Anti-Apartheid Movement" and MCC cancelled the tour, fuelling the sports boycott that ultimately did much to bring down a despicable regime. Not for nothing would Nelson Mandela convey his heartfelt thanks to 'Dolly'.
It is amazing no film producer has brought this classic political espionage thriller to the screen. It had everything: a battle to beat seemingly insurmountable odds, race, class, Empire and Third World, spies and bribes. The problem is that the jigsaw lies incomplete. For all the decades of denial, the question still demands answering: was D'Oliveira's initial non-selection politically motivated? Indeed, could the same be said of his demotion to 12th man for the Lord's Test against Australia two months earlier?
Fundamentally the issue was all about power and white supremacy. Cricket was still a game dominated by the white elite. England, Australia and South Africa, the founders of the original Imperial Cricket Conference in 1909, had enjoyed double voting rights until 1958 and the first two would retain their hegemony until India's improbable 1983 World Cup triumph paved the way for the game's biggest constituency to assert itself. When the newly formed republic left the Commonwealth in 1961, it continued, with the support of England and the Australasians, to wave away any protests by India, Pakistan and West Indies, none of whom had ever played South Africa.
The growth of the anti-apartheid movement was in keeping with the climate of the times: free expression, the rejection of deference and privilege, dissent going on anarchy. In October the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos would hoist their Black Power salutes on the Olympic podium in Mexico City.
That fateful meeting at Lord's was on the evening and through the night of August 27. There were at least 10 men in the committee room: the four Test selectors - Doug Insole (chairman since 1965), Alec Bedser, Don Kenyon and Peter May - the tour manager Les Ames, the captain Colin Cowdrey, Billy Griffith and Donald Carr, respectively MCC secretary and assistant secretary, the club president Arthur Gilligan, and the treasurer and allround omnipotent Gubby Allen, who objected to D'Oliveira on purely cricketing grounds. Only Kenyon, the former Worcestershire captain, could be considered not a member of the establishment. Only three - Bedser, Carr and Insole - are alive now, all over 80.
Some, if not all, were privy to the fact that five months earlier Vorster had informed Lord Cobham, England's senior Viscount, that there would be no tour should D'Oliveira be chosen (their meeting did not become public knowledge until the following year). Cobham, who had been Governor of New Zealand, captain of Worcestershire and, like his father and grandfather, MCC president, had been targeted by Arthur Coy, the South African Cricket Association official assigned to persuade MCC not to pick D'Oliveira and hence ensure the tour went ahead.
Cobham had considerable business interests in South Africa. In Coy's words he would "do almost anything to see that the tour is on". After meeting Vorster he relayed the information by indirect means, keeping it on a need-to-know basis. Had he simply written to Griffith, the secretary would have been obliged to pass the news on to the club, whose official position, encouraged by Harold Wilson's Labour government, was that no interference in selection would be tolerated. The tour would almost certainly have been called off then and there.
"Far more is known about the cabinet meetings of Harold Wilson, or the activities of the secret service in Moscow, or the details of the Poseidon nuclear missile programme, than what the England selectors said and did that night," reckoned D'Oliveira's biographer, the political columnist Peter Oborne, who also contends that there was "at least one spy" in the room, "feeding information straight back to the South African Cricket Association, whence it was instantly passed on to Vorster". A private letter sent by Coy to Vorster a week after the party was chosen promised the "inside story" of the MCC meetings and stated that D'Oliveira was still a candidate. But the minutes are reported, curiously, to have disappeared.
Reviewing Oborne's book for The Observer in 2004, the Labour minister Peter Hain noted that the "disappearance" of the minutes from that selection meeting would be "both a frustration and a catalyst to the conspiracy theorists. I'm rarely inclined to join that number but Oborne is persuasive. He contends that Vorster used 'secret pressure, bribery and blackmail' to prevent D'Oliveira being chosen. Which surprises no one. But he adds that the MCC, advised by the former Conservative prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, 'helped to make Vorster's life as easy as it could'."
Hain, of course, arriving in the UK as a teenager in 1966 as his liberal parents fled South Africa, formed the "Stop The 70 Tour" campaign that kept Ali Bacher's tourists from these shores. "Most anti-apartheid activists didn't care about sport," Hain told TWC. "By August 1968 I was 18 and a rank-and-file activist. I'd already seen D'Oliveira bat for England at Lord's and The Oval: his story touched me very closely. So when he was excluded I was outraged. All I was aware of was John Arlott writing an article in The Guardian for which the headline read something like 'Nobody will believe D'Oliveira was omitted for cricketing reasons'. Everyone knew there was more to it." When Arlott told the BBC that he would not commentate on the scheduled 1970 tour the most unpleasant letter of condemnation he received came from Peter May.
It is via Arlott that D'Oliveira, denied opportunity in his homeland because of the colour of his skin, entered in the first place. In 1959 a series of pleading letters to him began a chain of events that resulted in a contract with the Central Lancashire League club Middleton for 1960, the year of the Sharpeville massacre. Friends clubbed together to pay the airfares for Basil, his wife Naomi and their newborn son Damian. When he was signed by Worcestershire in 1964, he gave the club a false birth date, late by three years, to help persuade them he was worth a gamble. He found a fast friend in Tom Graveney. Two years later he played for England. In another two, the storm was falling about his ears through no fault of his except his talent.
The political dilemma/scandal was blowing in the wind at Lord's in June. Nine days before the second Test there he had made an unbeaten 87 as England crumbled to Australia at Old Trafford. No other home batsman reached 50. The previous year he had made his maiden Test ton against India, represented the Rest of the World XI in Barbados during celebrations for the island's independence and been named one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year. In fact, he had missed only one Test since his debut two years previously. Five changes might have been a justified reaction to the Manchester debacle. That D'Oliveira was one of them, relegated to 12th man, made no sense except as a political expedient, cushioning later shock.
Insole, challenged last year on this, denied it robustly, adding: "There was never at any stage any objective in the selectors' minds other than that of picking the best team to beat Australia." D'Oliveira, though, had suspected the chop. At the eve-of-Test dinner, he subsequently revealed, "a top cricket official told me the only way the tour could be saved would be if I announced I was unavailable for England but would like to play for South Africa. I was staggered and angrily said, 'Either you respect me as an England player or you don't.' The next day an eminent cricket writer put the same proposition to me." D'Oliveira was too discreet to name names, even in an autobiography published in 1980, but the official was Griffith, the cricket writer EW Swanton, long-time ally of Cowdrey.
On cricketing grounds only hindsight justifies D'Oliveira's dropping on the morning of the match: his replacement, Barry Knight, took 3 for 16 as Australia were bundled out for 78, their worst Ashes total for 30 years; and but for rain, the rubber would, in all likelihood, have been squared. Wary that England had been fatally cautious in Manchester, Cowdrey had wanted a seamer like Knight for Lord's, not a swinger like D'Oliveira. In Manchester, Cowdrey would write, the latter - deployed, unusually, as first change - had "bowled tidily but without the thrust to keep the pressure on".
The backlash was strong. The "cynics", noted Cowdrey, "refused to believe that D'Oliveira's exit was not some sort of fascist plot". Perhaps they felt that to have him playing in front of Coy and Co, who were at Lord's, would have sent a provocative message when conciliation was so plainly the aim of the game? Or was it simply punishment for D'Oliveira's spurning the advances of Griffith and Swanton?
Cowdrey, for all his antipathy towards apartheid, had had little hesitation in accepting the captaincy for South Africa, albeit only after requesting assurances that there would be no political interference in selection. Yet he would later write: "Whatever we might think about apartheid, at least it seems to work in their country; it is none of our business." His role and influence should not be underestimated. When Vorster decreed that his tour party, by then including D'Oliveira, was not welcome, he wanted to hop on a plane to the republic and talk the PM round. "I had been at the heart of things throughout," he wrote, "and could answer every question." Two years later, when the projected visit by South Africa met the same fate, he told the Daily Mail: "I cannot reconcile an isolation policy and boycott with the Christian ethic."
In his autobiography Cowdrey related a chat with his friend Douglas-Home, lately MCC president, on the final day of the Old Trafford Test, when he took the opportunity to introduce the former PM to D'Oliveira. Sir Alec had just returned from meeting Vorster in South Africa. According to Cowdrey, Douglas-Home "believed the moral issue was not Britain's to enter into. He was certain that to break off cricket relations with South Africa would have no effect on her attitude to apartheid, however long we refused to play against them."
In the Caribbean earlier in 1968, D'Oliveira had struggled with only one half-century in the five-Test rubber and lacked penetration or control with the ball. He had also displeased many in authority, Cowdrey among them, with his fondness for alcoholic consolation. But if the selectors fancied they had an excuse for not picking him in the party for South Africa, it went in the final Ashes Test.
In July letters had been sent to 30 tour candidates, asking whether they would be available: he did not get one. Back on the county circuit he had struggled for runs. Aware that he had damaged his cause, he felt guilty as well as miserable. It was his bowling that jerked attention back to his cricket when, during the fourth Test, he had match figures of 11 for 68 against Hampshire. Put on stand-by for The Oval, he duly reported for duty on the eve of the match after Cartwright and then Knight phoned in sick. When Roger Prideaux pulled out with pleurisy, fate's fiendish plot was complete.
D'Oliveira survived a number of early chances, including a glaring muff by the keeper Barry Jarman on 31 - the most important miss in cricket history, as Swanton dubbed it - then went on to make a century. May said in his autobiography that good fortune should not mask the reality and D'Oliveira must not tour. But Cowdrey confided his fears: "They can't leave Basil out of the team, not now" - even if that contradicts his subsequent assertion at the selection meeting that he did not warrant a place.
Enter Geoffrey Howard. As Stephen Chalke relates in his 2001 biography of Howard, At the Heart of English Cricket, the Surrey secretary's office phone rang shortly after D'Oliveira was out. "The caller was on the line from Prime Minister Vorster's office in Pretoria. A fellow called Teeni Oosthuizen. He was a director of Rothmans, based in South Africa, and had been trying to contact Griffith, the MCC secretary. 'I can't get hold of him, so will you take a message to the selectors. Tell them that, if today's centurion is picked, the tour will be off.'"
Oosthuizen had delivered another message from Pretoria earlier that summer, directly to D'Oliveira, a key chapter that would not be revealed until September. Oosthuizen had offered D'Oliveira a handsomely paid coaching job back in the republic if he declared himself unavailable and he went on courting him until late August but D'Oliveira had declined. As he told the Sunday Mirror nearly 30 years later, he wanted "to prove that I could bat and that people from the black and coloured community, whatever you like to call it, know how to conduct themselves".
Asked in 2001 to respond to Howard's recollections, Insole replied: "No way I'm saying Geoffrey didn't tell me of Pretoria's telephone warning. What I do remember is opening a very long meeting by saying, 'Gentlemen, forget South Africa. Let's just choose the best MCC cricket team to go overseas, Australia, anywhere ... '"
The tour selection meeting took place on the final evening of the Test. Three evenings earlier Cowdrey had found D'Oliveira alone in the dressing room and taken the opportunity for a quiet word. "Can we get away with it without getting too involved in politics?" he had wondered. D'Oliveira, he decided, "had clearly thought it all out ... even down to the kind of social functions he would attend". The reply was riddled with guilt: "Look, I know I have put you all on the spot ... but the whole situation is beyond me. I'm in the hands of people I trust." But was he?
When the tour party announcement reached the Worcester dressing room the next day, Graveney was disgusted. Seeing the shock and dismay on his team-mate's face, he ushered him into the physio's room, where D'Oliveira wept. "I was like a zombie," D'Oliveira wrote in his autobiography. "The stomach had been kicked out of me. I remember thinking, 'You just can't beat the white South Africans.'" Kindly as ever, he has never believed that Cowdrey did not back his selection.
"I would say the original decision was made on the basis of cricketing ability but it all looked so awful," conceded Carr recently to TWC. "I think I believed, or was talked into believing, that it was all on cricketing grounds. There had been so much chatter about it. I think there were people high up in the cricketing hierarchy in England who were talking a lot about it and knew what the possibilities could be."
There was another twist to the tale, though. On September 16 Cartwright was advised by Bill Tucker, the orthopaedic surgeon in London who had worked on Denis Compton's knee, that he could risk his shoulder but any aggravation could mean never bowling again. Back at Lord's, in conflab with Griffith, Carr and Insole, he was torn every which way. He went with his heart. According to Stephen Chalke's biography of him, The Flame Still Burns, he had seen "a little news item" in the Daily Express, which reported that, when the squad was announced, members of South Africa's ruling National Party stood and cheered in parliament. "When I read that, I went cold," he said. "And I started to wonder whether I wanted to be part of it."
Cartwright "knew immediately I'd done the right thing, even though it created a lot of upset". Not that it stopped Cowdrey having one last go. The tour skipper's 4.05pm phone call from Lord's greeted Cartwright as he came through his front door, though the captain's autobiography forgets to mention it.
"Colin said, 'Will you agree at least to start the tour? When you get out there, if things go wrong, there are people out there who are coaching, like Don Wilson, who we could bring in.' Basil certainly wasn't mentioned. Nobody had suggested to me that, if I dropped out, Basil would be the one who took my place." The answer was still no. Ten minutes later, avowed Cowdrey, a decision was made on his replacement: Cartwright out, D'Oliveira in.
The intention, said Cowdrey, had been to let the SACA have a list of the official reserves, D'Oliveira among them, "but now it was too late". Curiouser and curiouser: 19 days had passed since the original party announcement. Did the absence of the list stem from fear of the response? Had it, indeed, allowed Vorster to hide his hand?
By any standards the switch from Cartwright to D'Oliveira was a leap and a half. Substituting a batsman who bowled a bit for a bowler who batted a bit (Cartwright's days as a potent allrounder had long passed) made little sense - unless one interprets the decision as an attempt to curry public favour and/or correct the error of August 28. Back then D'Oliveira's exclusion had been explained away on the ground that he offered little as a bowler.
"I think some people [at the original selection meeting] put a lot of onus on Dolly's poorish tour of the Caribbean, maybe unfairly," Carr recalled to TWC. "Cartwright was a perfectly good choice as a bowler-cum-batsman. Then he pulled out and we had the toing and froing with South Africa in the meantime, and we decided that Dolly was the best bet, but it all looked so fearful. Dolly wasn't anything like as good a bowler as the chap he was replacing but a miles better batsman. Once it had been decided to pick him I think people accepted the position, though some feared what the result might be. I felt it had not been very well handled."
If Cartwright was an active participant in the affair, Barry Knight was innocently passive. He told TWC recently he was not surprised to be called up for the Lord's Test. "They picked me quite often there. I did well there. I knew the slope, bowled on it for years - for the RAF, Combined Services, Essex, Leicestershire." He had been surprised, though, at D'Oliveira's demotion at Lord's, "especially after that knock at Old Trafford. He was a terrific batter who bowled a bit. He kept it tight with those gentle outswingers but you never worried about him as a bowler. I never thought he was all that dangerous, and certainly not a first-change" - which is how Cowdrey used him at Old Trafford, almost as if trying to set him up to fail. Knight's unavailability for the fifth Test was pure mischance. He had rolled an ankle at Leyton.
Was the circuit abuzz with D'Oliveira talk all summer? "Not in the early part but as soon as he got that 158 at The Oval it was," Knight recalls. "God, we thought, that might cause problems. How could they leave him out after that?" Had he been fit, he was confident he would have been picked for South Africa himself. "I think they assumed I wasn't. I certainly don't remember any phone calls inquiring about my health." Yet, like D'Oliveira, he was not among the 30 recipients of that MCC availability letter in July. "They probably never bothered to send them to the likes of me and Dolly because we were pros. They knew we'd go anywhere. Pros like us never said no."
While still officially a state secret, rumours about Vorster's communiqué had reached the dressing rooms. "We'd heard, certainly by then, that he'd said the team wouldn't be welcome there if Dolly was included," Knight recalls. "We thought the MCC didn't have the guts to pick him. When the party was first announced, I thought, 'They're as weak as gnat's piss. They're kow-towing to Vorster.' The pros were revulsed. It was always them and us. We thought Gubby Allen was a snob, a bit up himself. And Basil was one of us."
Hence the widespread delight around the circuit as he progressed to that Oval hundred. "Pleased? Oh God, yes. For Basil and because he was making it difficult for them at Lord's. You thought, 'That's got 'em!'"
Of the three alive now who were 'got' then, Carr was asked recently about those supposedly missing minutes. "I probably wrote them," he said. "I certainly don't know about them being missing." Yet no one outside that Lord's committee room that night has ever seen them. Forty years on the mystery remains.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. his article was first published in the July 2008 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here