In 1960, a 29 year old Basil D’Oliviera emigrated to England where he played club cricket for the English teams. Six years later, in 1966, the Coloured cricketer was selected to play for the English national team and in 1968, he was instrumental in ensuring the 22 year international boycott of South Africa’s apartheid cricket team. The events that unfolded between 1966 and 1988 became known as, the D’Oliveira Affair.
Born on the 4th of October, into a Catholic family living on Signal Hill, Basil grew up at a time when apartheid’s racial segregation determined every aspect of his life, including the type of cricket clubs he could play for. He played cricket for his father’s club, St Augustine’s , on what he calls, “vast open space a few miles from both Cape Town & the sea”. They had the most basic of equipment and every morning before a match, Basil would walk 16 km’s to the cricket pitch, to help prepare the wicket, watering and rolling it so it would bake hard on the surface. They would nail the matting down and place rocks and boulders on the edge to stop animals as well as people from walking straight across the wicket. There were 25 teams and everybody would share responsibility for making sure that everything was in order for the matches. There was no formal coaching and everybody played with passion without caring much about the strategy and tactics. Sometimes they played in the streets, but back in those days, they had to keep a watch out for the police. If a player of colour was caught playing cricket in the streets, they would get arrested and hauled off to jail. It was a punishable offence for persons of colour to play sports in the streets.
Basil admits that there were cricketers in these 25 teams that were far better than him, but what set him apart was that his father instilled in him a burning desire to succeed. His father was a hard and unforgiving man who hated failure and pushed his children to succeed. When it came to cricket, his father expected nothing but excellence from Basil and excuses were not part of his (father’s) vocabulary. Basil loved and respected his father for his pursuit of excellence. Basil remained in awe of his father until his death in 1979.
As a kid, Basil would go climb the trees outside of Newlands stadium to watch the national side play cricket. He would dream of becoming a great cricket player but back in those days, apartheid made it impossible for a cricketer of colour to play professional cricket at the highest levels.
He reached the peak of his cricketing career in South Africa when he captained South Africa’s national non-white cricket team, but at the time, non-white teams could not compete in first class competitions. He admitted that he slowly gave up hope of becoming a first class cricketer, when a 1959 match between South Africa’s non-white teams and a West Indies team was cancelled. However, he was still his father’s son and never gave in to defeat. He decided to take a bold step to satisfy his desire for success.
He decided to write to John Arlott, a man who was at the time, the most famous and most influential British cricket commentator. John, who was actively opposed to apartheid, spent two years trying to convince English teams to give Basil a chance. During those two years, Basil once again began to lose hope, but then a letter arrived. Middleton in the Central Lancashire League offered him a one season season contract for £450.00 (at the time, this was a lot of money). Naturally, he was overjoyed, but his road to success hit another bump when he realized he did not have the money to get to England. Despite being pregnant, his wife, Naomi, encouraged him to make a plan and he soon managed to get the money with the help of three of his closest friends, sports writer Damoo Bansda, his brother in law Frank Brache, and Ishmail Adams. Another person who helped him was Gerald Innes, a former first class South African cricketer who raised a third of the money. John, a Coloured Christian, says that it is important to note that the people who helped him included an Indian person (Damoo), a Muslim person (Ishmail), and a white person (Gerald). This confirmed to him that being good or evil has nothing to do with the colour of your skin or your religion. It is you who decides to be good or evil.
Basil admits that when he had the money in his hand, he was overcome with another fear: the fear of failure. He wasn’t sure if he would be good enough and he didn’t want to let everybody down. He writes that he feared going halfway around the world only to become a laughing stock. He also felt guilty about leaving behind his pregnant wife, but his family assured him that they would take good care of her. Despite his fear and guilt, he was still his father’s son so he picked up his suitcase and boarded the plane.
Once in Britain, he started playing for Middleton but his starting performance was poor. He eventually began to improve and ended his time at Middleton successfully. He established a wider reputation by playing televised matches for a team called the “Cavaliers”, and took part in overseas tours with some leading cricketers. Several English counties expressed an interest in him, and he eventually joined the first-class county team Worcestershire County Cricket Club in 1964. Soon after, he became a British citizen.
He says that at the beginning, the strangest part of being in England was the fact that white people did their own menial work and that white waiters served him at restaurants.
In 1966 he was selected for the England cricket team as an all-rounder to face the West Indians in the second Test. He made a solid debut, scoring 27 before being run out, and returning bowling figures of 1 for 24 and 1 for 46 in 39 overs. In the third Test he scored 76 and 54, while capturing 2 wickets for 51 and 2 for 77 at Trent Bridge. He contributed a fighting 88 in the fourth Test at Headingley.Basil was quietly efficient in the final Test as England turned the tables on the West Indies, winning by an innings and 34 runs to lose the series 3-1. Against India he hit 109 in the first Test where England won by six wickets and went on to win the series 3-0. Facing Pakistan he hit fifties in both innings of the first Test, in a series that England won 2-0. He was one of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year for 1967.
Next up was an away series against the West Indies, early in 1968. D’Oliveira didn’t turn in his best showing in the five matches, scoring only 137 runs at an average of 27.4. He did a lot of bowling, but picked up only three wickets, even though he was economical. Once back in England, it was time for a five-Test Ashes series. The Aussies crushed England by 159 runs in first Test as England crumbled in their second innings, despite D’Oliveira’s top scoring effort of 87 not out. He was then dropped for the subsequent three Tests. He was recalled by the selectors for the final Test at the Oval, and 158 runs in the first innings against Australia seemed to have guaranteed his place in the side to play the 1968–69 Test series in South Africa. He was left out of the touring party under the pretext that his bowling would not be effective in his native country. What followed became known as the D’Oliveira Affair.
(Continue to Part 2: An Affair to Remember)