He's a Dolly good fellow

Forget cricket and international recognition, the biggest privileges that England gave Basil D'Oliveira — from the time he first landed as a 29-year-old in April 1960 — were freedom and boundless land.

N. U. ABILASH

GETTY IMAGES

FOR the second time in his life, Basil D'Oliveira has received an honour whose motto is `For God and the Empire'. Many `free' citizens of modern Independent Nation States might find it a paradox that the South Africa-born England cricketer received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1969 (a lot of non-white people with South Asian and Caribbean origins have turned down the honour) and will now be gratefully receiving his upgraded Commander of the British Empire (CBE). After all, D'Oliveira, when he was at the peak of his cricketing skills, had been discriminated against by apartheid, which has been repeatedly explained by the Afrikaner National Party (NP) — the organisation that presided over the four-decade long inhuman system — as sanctioned by a Christian God.

D'Oliveira, who is of non-white `Cape Coloured' origin, while receiving the OBE in 1969, did not spout rebellion. He benignly said (as if to underscore that freedom and oppression are relative concepts), "I am happy to receive the honour. Britain gave me privileges that I could never have dreamt of while growing up in Cape Town, and playing cricket on mud-heaps." Twenty-six years later, D'Oliveira's cricket-playing son Damian — who represented Worcestershire — speaking on behalf of his father, who is confined to a nursing home with Parkinson's Disease, welcomed the CBE with almost the same words that were first heard in 1969.

Forget cricket and international recognition, the biggest privileges England gave D'Oliveira — from the time he first landed as a 29-year-old in April 1960 to join Central Lancashire League club Middleton — were freedom and boundless land. D'Oliveira repeatedly wanted to know from journalist and Middleton member John Kay where he was supposed to sit and what he was supposed to eat. This was hours after D'Oliveira was swarmed in the airport by reporters who fired away about apartheid, when he was scared at facing questions about his oppressive rulers from a fleet of white people in an alien land.

Kay, in his book, Cricket in the Leagues, narrates how D'Oliveira was excited at the sight of white people driving buses in Middleton and serving in restaurants. D'Oliveira enjoyed sharing the Middleton dressing room and the sleepy little ground of the club with fellow white cricketers. Luckily for D'Oliveira, the practice in England of working class professionals being grouped in separate dressing rooms away from elite amateur players had long passed and within a few years of him settling down in English league cricket the class-based amateur-professional distinction itself was abolished. Small wonder the �450 a season Middleton offer (including lodging and travel expenses between Cape Town and London), measly by league cricket standards then, had appeared a godsend to get out of apartheid oppression.

Before he came to England, D'Oliveira's amazing exploits in the matches organised by the non-racial South African Cricket Board of Control (SACBOC) had gone unnoticed — he had belted 50 centuries in non-white cricket, including a knock of 225 in 70 minutes. English commentator and columnist John Arlott campaigned for D'Oliveira's inclusion in the English league, and was able to find a place for him in Middleton, where `Dolly' flourished in the later half of the season. His improvement, as Kay writes, began the day the club chairman offered him re-engagement terms for the next season. Fear and insecurity, which had been scripted into his mind from childhood by the system, had been magically removed.

In the third year of his stint with Middleton, D'Oliveira was selected in a Commonwealth team that toured Rhodesia. Tom Graveney, his teammate, had no hesitation in recommending D'Oliveira to his county Worcestershire.

In 1965, he made his first-class debut. The very next year, D'Oliveira became a British citizen, and within a few months made his Test debut against the West Indies in the second Test at Lord's. Arlott, in the BBC Test Match Special commentators' box, gushed: "This is a fairytale moment for cricket. We have someone from the heartland of injustice performing in the heartland of the game. It is better late than never for Dolly. Nobody can say where he would have been now had he started his international career at the tender age that Gary Sobers did."

In the summer of 1968, D'Oliveira scored 158 in the first innings of the last Ashes Test and in Australia's second innings, on the final day, he took the crucial wicket of wicketkeeper Barry Jarman enabling left-arm spinner Derek Underwood to run through the rest of the Aussie batting and England registered a series-levelling win. The very next day — August 28, 1968 — the England selectors headed by Doug Insole met to select the team for the winter tour of South Africa. The signals from the apartheid government, and the Labour government at home, to the MCC had been clear. In January 1967, apartheid interior minister Peter le Roux said: "We will not allow mixed teams to play against our white teams here." Dennis Howell, the Labour sports minister of Britain, retorted, "Any tour of South Africa would be abandoned if any member of the English team is rejected."

Closer to the event, there were signs of a political intrigue brewing up. When former Conservative Prime Minister and MCC President Alec Douglas-Home met South African Prime Minister B. J. Vorster in early 1968, he was told that the South African government would not interfere with the selection of visiting sides provided they were not politically motivated. However, Lord Cobham, former MCC president, also met Vorster and came back to the MCC with a different tale — that D'Oliveira was not welcome in the country of his birth.

The eight people who met at Lord's on August 28 — selectors Insole, Alec Bedser, Peter May, Donald Kenyon, the MCC representatives Gubby Allen and Arthur Gilligan and captain Colin Cowdrey — did not pick D'Oliveira. (Instead, they picked an injured fast bowler, Tom Cartwright, and two out of form batsmen, Keith Fletcher and Roger Prideaux.) A NP rally in Potchefstroom celebrated the news with loud cheers.

In England, 19 members of the MCC, headed by Reverend David Sheppard, resigned. The Labour government asked the Race Relations Board to investigate the selection process. But, for the apartheid government, the political time bomb came when the British tabloid, News of the World, deputed D'Oliveira to report the tour. Apartheid laws, when applied to journalists, meant that D'Oliveira would not have been able to interview players and would have had to sit in the non-white stands. If he had come as a player of England — a country with which South Africa had sporting links — there would have been a provision for the government to exempt the legislation being applied on him. Vorster raged: "Guests who have ulterior motives or who are sponsored by people with ulterior motives usually find they are not welcome."

Succumbing to the pressure at home, the MCC announced that D'Oliveira would replace the injured Cartwright in the team to South Africa. The next day, Vorster told the NP conference: "The team is not the team of the MCC but the team of the anti-apartheid movement... The matter has passed from the realm of sport to the realm of politics. Leftist and liberal politicians have entered the field of sport." One month after the original tour party was selected, the MCC called off the tour because D'Oliveira was not welcome in South Africa. Sport had triumphed over racist politics.

Even in the United States, caught in the wave of the Black Civil Rights Movement, the issue made front-page news. And, the International Olympic Committee, which was dilly-dallying on South Africa's participation in the Mexico Olympics of 1968, made up their mind to ban South Africa from the event as a fall-out of the D'Oliveira Affair. The sporting exclusion of South Africa had begun. In 1970, the country was expelled from the Olympic Movement and in 1971 the ICC expelled it.

D'Oliveira remained shell-shocked right through the controversy — he found it difficult to digest that he had become a global symbol of a battle against injustice. However, he was as politically active against the apartheid South African State as any other fellow sufferer. After retiring from international cricket in the summer of 1972, when England retained the Ashes that they had recaptured in 1970-71, D'Oliveira spent his winters playing and coaching in the midst of non-white cricketers in apartheid South Africa and even used his celebrity status to bring some money and sponsors into it.

Broadcaster Brian Johnston called him a "Dolly good fellow for English cricket." He certainly is one, for the cause of human rights as well.