BASIL D’Oliveira died on November 19. I remember him because of the fact that he was a principal actor in what was the first international series of cricket which I followed on the radio. Later, when I was much older, I realised the significance of the role that he had played in exposing apartheid for the evil it is.
The year was 1968 and I was 11 years old. Back then Sri Lanka — which was known as Ceylon — was not yet an international cricket-playing country. That would take another 13 years. But the interest in the game was phenomenal, so much so that the local radio station was able to find a sponsor to cover the charges of broadcasting BBC commentary on the Ashes series that year.
Before the series even began, the South African prime minister John Vorster had told Lord Cobham, a past president of the MCC, at that time the body administering the game in England, that if D’Oliveira was selected for the forthcoming tour of South Africa, the tour would be cancelled.
D’Oliveira played in the first Test of that series which Australia won. He made just 9 as England collapsed for 165 — the Ceylon Daily News described it as a case similar to that of cows going to the slaughter — and ceded a lead of 192 to Australia on the first innings.
Facing a victory target of 413, England got to 253 mainly because of D’Oliveira who made an unbeaten 87, and Bob Barber. John Edrich made 38 but the rest of the batting was a shambles.
Funnily, after this, D’Oliveira was made 12th man for the second Test at Lord’s. A little while earlier, the MCC secretary, Billy Griffith, suggested to D’Oliveira that he make himself available for South Africa and not create a problem by being selected for England.
The MCC was thus fully aware that if a coloured South African was able to lay claim to a spot in the England squad for South Africa, there would be some uncomfortable times to be gone through. As an innocent 11-year-old I knew nothing about this – leave alone anything about South Africa’s official system of apartheid.
In August, another attempt was made to prevent any trouble. Tienie Oosthuizen, a top executive in the British branch of Carreras Tobacco, a South African company, made D’Oliveira the offer of a lucrative coaching contract in South Africa. There was a catch – he was told he would have to refuse to go on the tour.
But he was dealing with a man of integrity. D’Oliveira refused the blandishment.
The next three Tests were drawn. In the fifth Test, D’Oliveira returned as Roger Prideaux declared he was unavailable. On the first day, England ran up 272 for 4, with Edrich being the chief contributor, 130 not out. D’Oliveira was not out on 24. The next day, he made a marvellous 158. England won that Test on the final day, with Derek Underwood taking seven for 50 on a sticky wicket as Australia crumbled for 125.
But when the squad for South Africa was announced, D’Oliveira’s name did not figure. Then followed a period when unrest dogged the MCC. Various members resigned. The Reverend David Shepherd formed a protest group.
Then providence intervened. Tom Cartwright pulled out of the tour due to injury and, given the public pressure, D’Oliveira was selected as his replacement. Vorster then announced that the tour could not go ahead if D’Oliveira was part of the touring party. The MCC, having tried everything in its armoury to prevent a situation of this kind coming about, cancelled the tour.
The only official cricket tour of South Africa after this was in 1970 when Bill Lawry led an Australian team there for a four-Test series. England cancelled a 1970 tour by South Africa and instead a Rest of the World XI, which included a few South Africans, played a few Tests. In late 1970, the International Cricket Conference suspended official tours of South Africa.
Had D’Oliveira responded to the bribes and not stood on principle, cricket tours would have gone on with the rest of the cricketing nations turning a blind eye to the fact that South Africa was unwilling to play against black and coloured teams.
One man changed the system.