There is a rather wishful school of thinking that presumes that sport and politics do not mix. That view was held with pious dedication by the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, long time opponent of sporting boycotts against South Africa’s apartheid regime. Playing cricket on a pitch was an apolitical extravagance, an expression of the fair go even if it took place with purely white players.
Basil D’Oliveira, who died on November 19 in England, was one who knew better than most that the distinction was specious. South-African born, he played 44 tests for England and four one-day internationals. His average in tests was a more than respectable 40.06, and to that could be added 47 wickets, which he obtained with a more than decent swing bowling technique. Dolly, as he was called by his teammates, had an impressively calm temperament – a ‘waiter’, as Geoffrey Boycott termed him, the cool, reposed individual indispensable to a dressing room.
In his homeland, he was barred from playing at the highest-level, having fallen into the dreaded category of being ‘coloured’. As a result of that state sponsored deprivation, he would only make his debut for his adopted country at the age of 34. This took place largely at the encouragement of that venerable voice of English cricket commentators, John Arlott. Arlott, on receiving a pleading letter from D’Oliveira about the prospects of playing in England, moved heaven and earth to find him a job as a professional in the Lancashire league club of Middleton (Telegraph, Nov 20).
The flashpoint for this talented cricketer came in 1968. Having been selected to tour South Africa with the English side, the South African cricket authorities thought better. But the cricket authorities were doing the bidding of their masters, the ruling National Party led by the immoveable Balthassar Vorster. Far from being a politically untrammeled domain, the party would make sports another battle ground in white supremacy. Drop Dolly, or don’t tour. The absurdity of the stance was also compounded by the fact that D’Oliveira had just played a blinder of an innings against Australia at the Oval – a wonderfully crafted 158. His form earlier that season had been poor, marred by injury. But the prize, or at least he thought, would be a tour of South Africa.
An idea, says the French aphorist Joubert, can be a cannonball. The mere presence of D’Oliveira on the team, playing against all-white South African sides, would have been a cannonball at the racial establishment, an explosive device reverberating off anything on the field. One exception might have led to many. But it had a key consequence. Apartheid, very much an invisible phenomenon in the eyes of the British public till the late 1960s, was brought to the fore with devastating effect. Because of that fateful encounter, South Africa was barred from playing cricket for 20 years. Other sporting bodies duly followed, freezing South Africa out of various international competitions.
Dolly’s influence in South Africa itself was noted by Haroon Lorgat, chief executive of the International Cricket Council. ‘At the time, his influence and his legacy in a divided South Africa stretched way beyond the cricket field’ (Washington Post, Nov 21). But the perversions of the politicized game now mean that South African sport doesn’t exist on the basis of talent as a pure and solitary criterion for selection. The politics of race has left its enduring mark. An all-white team, however talented, will be deemed unrepresentative. This became all too evident when South Africa’s successful coach Mickey Arthur left his post earlier this year out of sheer frustration of being dictated to by authorities to ensure a racially mixed team. The ‘D’Oliveira’ legacy endures.
D’Oliveira should be remembered for many things. Boycott, in an unusually sentimental piece in the Telegraph, remembers a wonderful character of man. In the annals, he ranks as a cricketer of talent and modesty who might have done so much better had he been given the chance; a figure who, simply because he wanted to play cricket at the highest level, could not; and the reason why sports and politics, however undesirable it might be deemed, mix with an all too often vicious quality.