When it comes to countervailing the wilfully naïve, almost invariably right-wing hordes who insist that sport and politics should never mix, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, whose impact on the American civil rights movement was undeniably profound, are most readily cited. Basil D'Oliveira, whose inspirational if turbulent career saw him become, however unintentionally, a stirring symbol of the battle to end apartheid, is no less worthy of global gratitude. In reaching the cricketing heights he did, he was a beacon of inspiration to anybody striving to overcome the drawbacks inherent in being born the wrong colour in the wrong land at the wrong time.

The "D'Oliveira Affair" of 1968, one of the most politically charged episodes in sporting history, "led directly", Gerald Majola, chief executive of South Africa Cricket, argued after D'Oliveira's death was announced, "to the intensification of opposition to apartheid around the world and contributed materially to the sports boycott that turned out to be an Achilles heel of the South African government". Ironically, as Huw Richards observed in the International Herald Tribune - not a newspaper renowned for its interest in cricket - the events of that summer "exposed the reality that while supporters of playing South Africa criticised opponents for bringing politics into sport, it was the apartheid regime that did precisely that by insisting that others conform to its racist norms". That South Africa's top-scorer against Australia on the day D'Oliveira died should be Hashim Amla was a welcome sign of the new order.

Peter Hain, the future MP who orchestrated the protests that forced the abandonment of South Africa's 1970 England tour, says Nelson Mandela himself told him he believed the campaign was "decisive" in the eventual triumph of the anti-apartheid struggle. But for D'Oliveira, and the anger his plight roused in the young Hain, himself a South African émigré, it might never have begun. Yet D'Oliveira never openly backed that struggle. "At the time many campaigners felt let down," admitted Hain. "But in retrospect, because he retained the quiet dignity of a cricketer first and last, he touched parts of public opinion that anti-apartheid activists could never reach."

It would be misleading, though, to depict D'Oliveira as wholly apolitical. As he told the Daily Mirror in 1998, he wanted "to prove that I could bat and that people from the black and coloured community… know how to conduct themselves". His greatest accomplishment, amid the maelstrom, was to prove just that.

Somewhat inevitably his qualities as a player tend to be overlooked. Possessed of a short backlift, stern concentration and withering power, "Dolly" amassed nearly 20,000 first-class runs at 40.46, with 45 centuries. How many more he might have compiled had he been born in a more advantageous environment we can only guess. In 44 official Tests, plus four against the Rest of the World in 1970, he made 2792 runs at over 40, including six centuries. If that history-changing 158 against Australia at The Oval stands tallest - it made his subsequent omission from the winter tour to South Africa all the more indefensible on cricket grounds but also because he had the determination and self-belief to promise his wife nothing less - no less admirable was an unbeaten 114 against Pakistan in Dacca, more than double the next-highest score.

Adversity was his fuel. At the MCG in 1971 he came in at 88 for 3 and made 117; in the decisive final Test, a fifth-wicket stand of 69 with Ray Illingworth, in the context of a contest England won by 62 runs, was vital. Two weeks later, a match-winning hundred on a capricious Christchurch pitch came from a launchpad of 31 for 3.

Those wobbly medium-pacers, moreover, delivered with the most deceptively easeful of actions, accounted for 551 first-class victims, and 47 in Tests at a smidge under 40 (plus nine against that mighty Rest of the World line-up). Much the most memorable came at The Oval in 1968, when Barry Jarman left a delivery that clipped the wicketkeeper's off- stump, opening the floodgates for Derek Underwood to pour through and square the series.

A SO-CALLED "CAPE COLOURED" from Signal Hill in the Bo-Kaap area on the outskirts of Cape Town, his birth date remains uncertain even now. He was coy about his age when he came to England, for practical reasons. Officially recorded as having been born in 1931, he claimed he was three years younger so as not to be deemed too long in the tooth. "If you had said I was closer to 40 than 35 when I first played for England," he later admitted, "I could not have sued you."

Early outings for Western Province testified to his batting gifts. "His first shot was struck over the long-off boundary for six," related Alfred Amansure, an erstwhile team-mate at St Augustine's CC, of an innings against Griqualand West in 1948-49. When a fielder was dispatched to the off-side boundary, "Basil responded by hitting another huge six over mid-on. So the Griqualand captain moved a player there too. Then Basil hit a straight six, cutting between both fielders."

In reaching the cricketing heights he did, D'Oliveira was a beacon of inspiration to anybody striving to overcome the drawbacks inherent in being born the wrong colour in the wrong land at the wrong time

He was also a shrewd swing bowler - indeed, he owed his fateful recall to the England XI for the 1968 Oval Test in part to 21 wickets in two matches, against Hampshire and Gloucestershire. His all-round feats in South Africa, and for the nation's first black representative sides, most notably when leading a 1958 tour of Kenya, made him a local legend. That he was the finest non-white South African player of his generation was undisputed.

Famously, it was a letter to John Arlott in 1958 that led, two years later, to a contract with Middleton, a Central Lancashire League club. The transition was traumatic. Weather and playing conditions were alien, likewise the opportunity to mix freely with white people. "We'd walk down the street and [his wife Naomi would] say, 'Do you see that?' as a white girl walked hand-in-hand with a black man." When they went to the cinema she assumed they would have to sit in a separate section. "Whenever the lights went up in the interval, she would die the death. She would grip my arm so tightly with tension that it would be bruised the next day."

Once settled, however, he was unstoppable. Signed by Worcestershire, his first full county season, 1965, saw him finish fifth in the national batting averages, behind four Test players. Within a year he was making his England debut at Lord's. The symbolism was not lost on Garry Sobers and his West Indian tourists: unluckily run out after Jim Parks' drive deflected off his heel, D'Oliveira was applauded from the field by the opposition, though he had scored only 27: call it brotherly solidarity.

The next season brought a maiden Test century, against India, but he was acutely conscious of the potential consequences of selection for the 1968-69 expedition to his homeland and endured a poor tour of the Caribbean, prompting a recourse to alcohol, one of the alibis for his exclusion from that original tour party for South Africa. Come the summer of 1968 he had become increasingly isolated.

In the first Ashes Test at Old Trafford he made 87 not out in an unexpected defeat, only to be ditched for Lord's in favour of a seamer, Barry Knight; a far more plausible explanation was that MCC, aware that sundry South African grandees would be in attendance, and bent on ensuring that the winter tour of the Republic would not fall foul of the Pretoria government, felt his presence would send out the wrong signals.

Mike Brearley, an active supporter of the "Stop the Seventy Tour" campaign, captured the sense of a man cornered: "He was under pressure from all sides, from militant black groups accusing him of selling out, to friends relying on him to carry the flag of non-white cricket, to those who would prefer him to be out of the picture." The measure of the man was that he kept his head while all around were losing theirs. Blighted in his latter years, like Ali, by Parkinson's disease, he personified dignity.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton