Basil D’Oliveira – Cricket Icon

Back in June 2005, Sky One launched a series of programmes that invited the public to vote for their greatest sporting legend. 


Cricket encompassed a pantheon of cricketing icons ranging from Don Bradman, Ian Botham and Shane Warne. 


Conspicuous by his absence was Basil D’Oliveira, but I doubt he would have featured in many fans’ top 50.


But the legacy D’Oliveira imprinted on the game is still fondly remembered today.


Born in 1931 in Cape Town, with Portuguese and South African parentage, no one could have prognosticated the tumultuous path that lied ahead for the young D’Oliveira.


His childhood and early youth was pre-dominantly spent amongst friends with a cricket bat at his disposal.


He left school at 16 to work in the printing trade.  A year later his life would take an unforeseen direction into a world of negativity that would become etched in South African political folklore.


1948 was the year that saw the National Party elected to power.  One of their first changes was to implement a racial uprising that would leave the non-white communities facing many years of hardship.


A major legislation policy was introduced whereby non-whites’ luxuries and pleasures were eradicated, leaving them ostracised from mainstream society. 


Undeterred, D’Oliveira adopted a siege mentality, determined to let his cricket do the talking.  He would run daily to the summit of Signal Hill, the Caucasian quarter of town.


His father happened to be the captain of the local cricket club, St. Augustines – a club run solely for Christian coloureds.  Father indoctrinated son to play fair and honestly and never to give up. 


D’Oliveira reached the stage where he averaged a staggering 295, unheard of anywhere in the world.


Despite these exploits he realised that he needed to leave his native country to play the game professionally.


After writing to English cricket commentator John Arlott he was watched by scouts who confirmed how potent D’Oliveira was.  An offer was soon made to join Lancashire club Middleton, earning D’Oliveira £450 for the season.


The problem of raising the money to afford the fair overseas was soon dispelled after his close friend, Damoo Bansda, set up a trust fund that soon raised £600.


Despite early reservations D’Oliveira soon settled into a routine, earning rave reviews.


He became a British citizen in 1964, subsequently signing for Worcestershire. 


In 1966 he was called up to the England squad for the forthcoming test series against the West Indies.  


Much to the aghast of the Apartheid regime, D’Oliveira was received as a hero in South Africa’s non-white communites, acting as a bastion for those hoping to follow in his footsteps.


Determined to bring D’Oliveira’s career to a shuddering halt, the since-elected South African President John Forster set about a callous plan that was to elicit one of the largest controversies in cricket history.


The fifth Ashes test at the Oval in 1968 won’t just be remembered for England retaining the Ashes with a dramatic victory, but D’Oliveira’s position for the upcoming winter tour.


He may have scored 158 in the aforementioned match but the tour happened to be to his native South Africa.


Since making his international debut, D’Oliveira set himself a target of one day returning home as an England cricketer. 


Under Apartheid legislation all coloureds were still prohibited from competing at professional level, even if representing the opposition.


Reaching virtual desperation stakes, Forster’s office attempted to bribe D’Oliveira by offering him £50,000 coupled with a life of luxury to coach in his homeland.  D’Oliveira instantaneously vetoed the offer!


Now faced with mounting problems, the MCC decided to inexplicably omit him from the tour party. 


Unbeknown, Forster sent a document via Lord Cobham stipulating that D’Oliveira’s inclusion could damage relations between the two countries. 


Further controversy raged when it transpired that one of the selectors, Alec Bedster along with the MCC president, Mr Gilligan, had links to separate right-wing lobby groups that supported the Apartheid movement.


D’Oliveira’s dream lay in tatters until another dramatic turn ensued when his replacement, Tom Cartwright, withdrew through injury. 


Due to the public outcry that greeted D’Oliveira’s omission, the MCC were compelled to recall him, a move that resulted in the tour being cancelled.


Major ripples caused a worldwide outcry leaving South Africa in the sporting wilderness for 22 years until the Apartheid legislation was obliterated once and for all.


D’Oliveira remained dignified when many wouldn’t have bemoaned his decision to rebel against those concerned.


If there was poetic justice it arrived at the 2003 cricket World Cup, held in South Africa.


D’Oliveira had never played at the Newlands stadium in Cape Town but was bestowed with the ultimate accolade of leading the opening ceremony: The ultimate honour for the ultimate human being.    


ã Copyright Graham Suppiah 2005