Thursday, 28 March 2013

Basil d'Oliveira

I've just finished reading Peter Oborne's powerful biography of the great South African-born cricketer who went on to represent England. The climax of the book is the furore over d'Oliveira's selection for the MCC 1968/9 tour of South Africa, but it is particularly good on d'Oliveira's early life and career. The author rather loses interest in his subject after the latter's retirement from playing and I don't think Oborne gives enough space to those South African test players, like Dr Aaron (Ali) Bacher, who worked to undermine the separatist ethos of their homeland. However, these are minor quibbles, especially as the d'Oliveira affair is increasingly seen as a turning-point in the history of South Africa.

Oborne is scrupulous in quoting at length the evidence linking the white supremacist president of South Africa to the official South African Cricket Association and the collusion between the latter and key administrators in the MCC. The citations are almost too frequent, but clearly he felt it essential that there should be no doubt about the history of the cancelled tour as he tells it. Briefly, d'Oliveira had seemed to cement his place in the party with a score of 158 in the Oval test match against Australia. There was widespread dismay in Britain and jubilation in South African government circles when he was omitted. However, a vacancy arose when Tom Cartwright failed a fitness test and was replaced by d'Oliveira. South Africa declared that a MCC party including "a certain gentleman of colour" was unacceptable and MCC called the tour off.

Cartwright, who became an influential bowling coach for Glamorgan and Welsh schools and lived in Caewern, Neath until his death in 2010, never spoke about the deterioration of his shoulder injury which caused him to pull out of the tour, allowing d'Oliveira to take his place. John Arlott (who had eased the way for d'Oliveira into Lancashire club cricket, which gave him his start over here) once recounted the sympathy that county professionals in general had for the anti-apartheid movement, unlike the dinosaurs at Lord's, and one assumes that Cartwright's heart was not in a tour which excluded d'Oliveira.

Oborne's thoroughness extends to the statistics of d'Oliveira's career, both in England and in South Africa. His performances on native soil are remarkable. The figures underline the impression that we did not see him at the peak of his abilities and that apartheid held him back. More interesting, and significant for the person that he was to  become, is Oborne's description of d'Oliveira's upbringing and his youthful surroundings.

Twenty-five pages cover the post-1968 career of Basil d'Oliveira and of that Oborne concentrates on the trips home, culminating in the rapprochement with post-apartheid South Africa. The final chapter ends with the new president inviting d'Oliveira to lunch.

The two old men talked over many things. At the end Mandela rose from his chair and hugged D'Oliveira.  'Thanks for coming, Basil,' he said. 'You must go home now. You've done your bit. Tell your family to look after you. They must look after you now.'

The news from South Africa today about Mandela's health lends poignancy to that closing paragraph. D'Oliveira himself died in 2011.

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