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The D'Oliveira Affair of 1968

By David Flin

Basil D'Oliveira, who, according to Wisden, was: "The most important sportsman who ever lived." Some hyperbole, but he had a global impact beyond that of sport.

Picture courtesy The Telegraph.

As Pete Usher explained in his article series on the Olympics (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), sport and politics have long been inextricably linked. Linking politics and sport is probably as old as sport itself. Or possibly politics. I guess it depends which came first.


Well, since my stockpile of incoming articles (save for those from the prolific Tom Anderson) is thin (to say the least), I’m reworking something of mine I did a while ago, which looks into a sporting controversy that was highly political. The title is a bit of a clue as to what it’s all about. It’s a story with heroes, villains, dignity, politics, and shabby treatment.

The D'Oliveira Affair.

Basil D’Oliveira was born in South Africa, and under the Apartheid regime in existence at that time, he was classified as a Cape Coloured, having Portuguese and Indian parents. Although he was a talented cricketer, there were no opportunities for him in South Africa. The matter would have ended there, just one more talent gone to waste under the Apartheid regime, had it not been for the intervention of John Arlott, the cricket commentator and journalist. Arlott recognised D’Oliveira’s talent, and arranged for him to come to England as a professional cricketer.


D’Oliveira proved successful, and presently became a reliable test player for the England side after finishing his qualification period. A tour of South Africa by the MCC (as the English cricket team was called when touring) for 1968/69 was approaching.


There was a problem. In January 1967, Peter Le Roux, South Africa’s Minister of the Interior, had stated: “Our policy is clear. We will not allow mixed teams to play against our white teams here.” The MCC stated that the tour party “would be chosen on merit”, and that “any preconditions the host country lays down will be totally disregarded.” Fine words from the MCC, sounding like a refusal to bow down to bullying pressure over team selection. However, the MCC then went and displayed how far it could go in hypocrisy.


Having stated that it would choose the touring side based on merit, the MCC then went out of its way to ensure that D’Oliveira wasn’t chosen. After the first Test of the summer against Australia, D’Oliveira was dropped from the side. The intention was to avoid picking him for the tour, and he was asked by the MCC to make himself “unavailable for the tour”.


When the final Test of the summer came, to be played at the Oval, the England captain, Colin Cowdrey, decided that he wanted a player of D’Oliveira’s type in the team, as he felt that would gave him the best chance of winning the Test and drawing the series. The first player chosen of D’Oliveira’s type was Barry Knight, but he became injured. The next player chosen was Tom Cartwright, who, when chosen, declared that he was not fit. In desperation, England finally decided to select D’Oliveira for the spot of a player of D’Oliveira’s type.


It would have been convenient for the MCC and the South African Government if D’Oliveira had a bad match. If that had happened, he could have been left out of the touring party, and the pretext of it being a decision based on merit could be maintained. It would have been convenient for the MCC and the South African government, but it was not to be. On 23 August, D’Oliveira scored 158, took a vital wicket, and set up victory against the Australian side.

On his way to 158 at the Oval.

Picture courtesy Wisden.

This led to a selection crisis. If the MCC selected D’Oliveira, the South Africans would cancel the tour. If it didn’t select him, it would be allowing hosts to dictate selection policy. It was something of a crisis for the MCC, and the MCC responded with a shameful display of spinelessness and a total lack of honour. It put huge pressure on D’Oliveira to announce that he was unavailable to tour. He resisted, and so the MCC selected Tom Cartwright rather than D’Oliveira to tour, and tried to pretend it was a merit-based decision.


The stated explanation is that the MCC wanted a bowler who could bat, and that D’Oliveira was a batsman who could bowl.

Cartwright, however, disliked the Apartheid regime, and declared that he was unwilling to tour.


Which threw the ball back into the MCC’s lap. They applied pressure on D’Oliveira to say that he wouldn’t tour. Colin Cowdrey, the captain of the side, privately asked D’Oliveira not to cause the selectors embarrassment and to drop out (although publicly, Cowdrey said that he supported any decision D’Oliveira might make).

Colin Cowdrey. Captain of England. Gentleman. Respected Establishment figure. Hypocrite and regarded by some as a cheat.

Picture courtesy Cricket Web.

The MCC then started to explain that the situation might put exceptional pressure on D’Oliveira and they thought that he might not be able to handle the pressure. The weasel was strong in the MCC.


Finally, after a great deal of prevarication, the MCC selected D’Oliveira for the tour. Inevitably, South Africa called the tour off. This led, almost inexorably, to a cancellation of all official international cricket tours to South Africa, and from 1970, South African tours abroad were cancelled while Apartheid was in effect. This led, in due course, to the Gleneagles Agreement, in which the Commonwealth nations excluded South Africa from sporting links.


That is what happened in OTL. Like many events in sport, what happened at the Oval Test could have been very different. There were several occasions during his innings of 158 that the Australians made mistakes. Four catches were spilled, and D’Oliveira could easily have made a very modest score.


If that had happened, then the exclusion of D’Oliveira from the squad would not have attracted the media attention that it did. In turn, this would have meant less public attention. In OTL, there were voices calling for politics and sport to be kept separate, and in this situation, there would have been no public outcry regarding his omission.


The MCC tour cancellation was the first of the high-profile moves towards the exclusion of South Africa from international sport, and was followed in rapid succession by various other sports, including expulsion from tennis’ Davis Cup in 1970, and South Africa was expelled from the IOC in 1970. The D’Oliveira affair brought the Apartheid situation in South Africa as headline news on both the front and back pages of newspapers, and presented a striking example of the unfairness of the system home to many people.


Peter Hain was later to gain fame as a leading supporter of campaigns to sever sporting links with South Africa because of Apartheid. Without the D’Oliveira affair prominent, he would have been regarded as just another fringe protestor, and the whole anti-apartheid movement would have had a harder time convincing an otherwise largely apathetic public.

Peter Hain. Anti-Apartheid protestor. The D'Oliveira case started his political career, and he became Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under Tony Blair.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, other African countries and India were strongly against the inclusion of South Africa in sporting and cultural events, and this would have continued, in whatever manner the D’Oliveira Affair turned out. However, for England, it gave a huge boost to the anti-apartheid movement. Even with the D’Oliveira Affair, there was strong resistance from large sections of the British Establishment to any implementation of measures against South Africa. In particular, Margaret Thatcher was famously reluctant to impose economic sanctions. In a world with a weakened interest in the anti-apartheid movement, then it is likely that the regime may have continued for longer. Not indefinitely; the system was inevitably going to fail, but it may very well have taken longer.


The sporting and cultural boycott also ensured that white South Africans were made aware that the Apartheid system was detested in the rest of the world. If the boycott is at a lower level, then that awareness is also going to be at a lower level. This could, in turn, lead to greater attempts to maintain the Apartheid system, greater violence in the Townships, and a messier and later transition.


Basil D’Oliveira never got to play Test cricket in South Africa. However, there is a little post-script. When England and South Africa play a cricket test series, they compete for a trophy. In 2004, that trophy was called the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy.


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David Flin has written a number of books, including:





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