The Sporting Life: The D'Oliveira Affair

By David Flin




One of the major interests of a large number of people is sport, be it kicking a spherical pig’s bladder, throwing a pig skin around and bumping into people, hitting a small, hard ball with a stick, or watching to see if one animal can run faster than another. You only have to look at the impact the Olympics or the Football World Cup or the Superbowl has on public attention to see how important a subject sport is.

In this series, I’ll be looking at famous moments in sport, one of the most contingent of human activities, and doing a quick overview of how the world might be different had the sporting event ended up differently.

In this first article, I’ll be looking at cricket, and specifically at the events of 23 August 1968, at the Oval in London.

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 qualifying. 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.”

However, the MCC then went out of its way to ensure that D’Oliveira wasn’t chosen with the pretext that it was a merit-based decision. 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 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, and then 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, but it was not to be. On 23 August, D’Oliveira scored 158, and set up victory against the Australian side.

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.

Cartwright, however, disliked the Apartheid regime, and declared that he was unwilling to tour, and after a great deal of prevarication, the MCC selected D’Oliveira. Inevitably, South Africa called off the tour. 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.

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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