By Aslam Khota.
Tributes continue to pour in for the late Basil D ‘Oliveira who died aged 83, in a nursing home in Worcestershire on 18th November. He was born to a ‘coloured’ family in Signal Hill, Cape Town in 1928. Among those paying tributes are former cricketers, cricket correspondents and radio and television stations in South Africa and abroad. Basil unwittingly became one of cricket’s most influential figures of the last century.
Basil was known as ‘Bas’ to his county colleagues and ‘Dolly’ to journalists around the world. Dolly’s magnificent career straddled two eras’ in two countries and in 1968 through his inclusion in the England team to tour South Africa, became a pawn that put the final nail in the coffin for apartheid sport and the subsequent worldwide boycott.
Whilst South African soccer and athletics were already banished from competing internationally, cricket enjoyed favour with England, Australia and New Zealand. The South African government and white administrators including a former Springbok captain met with their English counterparts and Captain Colin Cowdrey to block Dolly’s inclusion in the English team to tour South Africa.
At a dinner during the Ashes series that marked the 200th match between the two nations, Dolly was asked by the secretary of the MCC, Billy Griffith to declare himself unavailable for England and pledge allegiance to South Africa! Dolly angrily refused. Then there was a bribe of £45000.00 offered from a South Africa tobacco company to Dolly to withdraw from the tour and enjoy a ten year coaching contract in South Africa. Dolly refused. He wanted to play in his country of birth, knowing that he will have the full support of the non-white South African public.
Dolly was rated as England’s most effective batsmen and the Aussies were astonished when he was controversially dropped for the second test in that Ashes summer of 1968. He was dropped allegedly due to ‘poor form’! This was the establishments plan to get Dolly out of the way. When he was recalled for the fifth Test, he scored a brilliant 158, took a vital wicket that broke an obdurate partnership to win the Test and draw the series. Seemingly and against all odds, he had booked his seat on the plane to Jo’Burg. But the MCC capitulated because cricket was more important to the establishment than human rights. They capitulated to the pressure borne on them by the apartheid regime. They appeased apartheid sympathisers in England and South Africa and didn’t include D ’Oliveira! White South Africa celebrated.
When all-rounder Tom Cartwright pulled out of the squad after failing a fitness test, Dolly was re-instated, the apartheid regime refused him entry and England called off the tour and South Africa were thrown into sporting isolation and the world finally saw the abhorrent apartheid state for what it was. That in a nutshell is the crux of the ‘Dolly Affair’ as it is famously known.
It is now common knowledge that Dolly lied about his age fearing he will not get selected for England. He forward dated his birth to 1931, and made his debut in 1965 purportedly at the age of 34 when he was actually 37! This is where his cricket life took on even more astonishing turn.
In South Africa he dominated the scene between 1947 and 196. He made his debut at sixteen for Western province after an astonishing run of scores that included 225 made in seventy minutes out his club team’s total of 236, with 16 sixes! Dolly captained Western Province and the first ever non-racial South African cricket team in 1956 and 1958 against the Kenyan Asians. A number of administrators then attempted to get the West Indies under Frank Worrell to tour but was aborted on advice by the ANC in exile. Basil was frustrated and wrote to the late doyen of radio commentators, John Arlott to find him a club in the UK. Two years later, after money was raised by locals in Cape Town and Johannesburg for his airfare, Dolly debuted for Middleton. Batting for the first time on turf wickets he managed to top the averages, ahead of the great Sir Garry Sobers!
Worcestershire county cricket club signed him and his county debut was on a treacherous early season pitch at Worcester. He came in at 58-3 and made 106 and began one of the most endearing sporting relationships in the county’s history. He scored over 1000 runs, finished eighth in the national averages and Worcester won the championship for a second season in a row. That he appeared in 43 Tests and scored 5 centuries and 15 fifties with an average of 40.06 speaks volumes of his courage, determination and obvious precocious talent. Most cricketers retire at this age; Basil strode the world stage like a colossus!
He failed in his debut match against the Windies but registered 3 fifties in the remaining three Tests to consolidate his new found status among the world’s elite. He played a masterly innings of 88 on the first day of 2nd Test against the fastest bowlers of the time; Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith. He hit 8 fours and 4 sixes that signalled his arrival.
Dolly’s maiden Test century (109) was against India in Leeds. The famous 158 against Australia at the Oval in London sealed victory for England and the fate of white South African cricket. Basil’s three other hundreds were scored on foreign soil. The 114 not out against Pakistan in Dhaka was incidentally the last hundred to be scored in East Pakistan before it became Bangladesh. He scored a superb 117 against Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) at the ripe age of 41 and two months later in Christchurch, scored exactly 100 against New Zealand.
When Dolly was recalled for that fifth Test, England were 238-4 when he strode to the wicket and finished 24 not out overnight. He was missed by ‘keeper Barry Jarman on 31 and that was; “the most fateful drop in the history of cricket!” wrote E W Swanton. When he got to a magnificent hundred, the umpire, Charlie Elliot said; “Oh Christ, you’ve set the cat amongst the pigeons!” He was still dropped after that innings which according to Peter Oborne who wrote; Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy that it is the greatest innings ever played. ‘No other has been against an attack comprising of Prime Minister John Vorster and South Africa cricket at its most corrupt, supported by the weight of the British establishment. No other cricket innings in Test history, to put the matter simply, has done anything like so much good.’
To give a small example of his talents and what could have been had he played Test cricket in his early twenties, is by doing a comparison, an illuminating one, with his white compatriot South African, Trevor Goddard. Goddard was born in 1931 and made his debut in 1955 aged 23 and played his last Test in 1970, aged 38. He played in 41 Tests, averaged 34.47 and scored one century against England and took 123 wickets @ 26.22. So Dolly (average 40.06, 5x 100’s) was a better batsman and Goddard a better bowler and his 41 matches spanned 15 years because South Africa only played against England, Australia and New Zealand. Basil took 47 wickets at an average of 40.06 with an economy rate of just 1.95 runs per over. Dolly’s 44 Tests took just seven years.
Between his commitments to England, Basil visited and played exhibition matches all over South Africa. In the big cities and country towns the people turned out in great numbers to acknowledge their only true icon. He scored a rollicking century off a Transvaal attack in Vrededorp (Fietas) and later coached scholars in Lenasia. He played one season for Eastern Province after his retirement from Test cricket.
Basil scored an amazing 144 centuries including those five Test hundreds, 82 of them in South African provincial and club cricket. He notched up 48 centuries for his beloved Worcestershire. Two of those centuries were scored in the end-of-season fixture between a SACBOC XI and the champion province in Cape Town. Dolly and Ismail ‘Morris’ Garda repeated an amazing sequence when both scored hundreds and shared in huge partnerships in the SACBOC team for two consecutive years in 1971 and 1972. In 1967 he averaged 67 with the bat and was voted the Wisden magazines Cricketer of the Year. He played first class cricket till he was 45. He took over as coach of his county and led them to historic championship victories in two successive seasons in 1988 and 1989. Dolly had much influence over Ian Botham, Graham Dilley and a young Graeme Hick. The county named a stand at the New Road ground in Dolly’s honour in 2005.
In 2004, the Western Province Cricket Board moved to name a stand after Dolly at Newlands but this was sadly scuppered when factions from within the black communities vetoed the idea. Cricket South Africa then suggested to the England and Wales Cricket Board to play for a trophy named after Basil. Ironically, the English team’s first series win in South Africa since unification came when the two nations challenged for the Basil D’Oliveira trophy.
Dolly maintained grace and charm and dignity throughout the turbulent year of 1968 and beyond as the ‘affair’ finally isolated South Africa. He was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1970 and later in 2005 it was upgraded to a CBE (Commander of the British Empire).
Son Damien commented that he’d rather celebrate a great life rather than mourn death. He also said that the public should remember that Basil was a great cricketer and not just that pawn that helped isolate South Africa!
Over up Basil, thank you for playing!
(Partly referenced: Cricket and Conspiracy, And God Created Cricket.)