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Saturday, 19 November 2011

Basil D'Oliveira CBE dies aged 80

To those of you who have little appreciation of the sport of cricket, and I know there are many such people in Scotland, the name Basil D'Oliveira may not mean much to you.

But it should. Because not only was this enormously talented man a world-class cricketer who in all likelihood would have achieved even more if his skin had been white, in 1968 the "D'Oliveira Affair" not only highlighted the injustices of apartheid but it threatened to challenge them head on. D'Oliveira, a black South African who had just scored 158 against Australia at The Oval, was dropped by his adopted country - England - from the forthcoming tour of South Africa in order to appease the Vorster government. A truly international controversy ensued in which the English cricketing authorities emerged with little credit intact as they insisted that the decision was made for "purely cricketing reasons", while D'Oliveira himself always retained his dignity and sense of reasoned perspective.

What D'Oliveira had inadvertently done by single-handedly defeating the Australians was to set off a chain of events that would ultimately lead to South Africa being boycotted from international sporting competition until the early 1990s. The Olympic team had been barred from participating in Tokyo four years previously, but it was the overtly racist treatment of an international cricketer hoping to ply his trade in the country of his birth that resulted in the popular call for longer-term actions from the sporting world. No-one seriously believed the "Dolly simply isn't good enough" quote attributed to one English selector and an enormous public outcry resulted. Following the withdrawal of Tom Cartwright from the England squad, the selectors had little option but to include the hero of The Oval.

Vorster responded with a string of barbed and racist comments, insisting that following D'Oliveira's selection the team now represented "the anti-apartheid movement" and that it would "not be welcome" in South Africa. The political controversy it sparked in South Africa was predictable, but it also inspired liberals in Britain to crank up calls for action to end apartheid.

Young liberals - including Peter Hain who initially believed D'Oliveira to have been misguided even to consider playing against a white South African team - were spurred into action by events and provided leadership in popular anti-apartheid campaigns. There is little doubt that the call for direct action against the Vorster government unsettled Jeremy Thorpe and the political establishment as a whole. Certainly the Liberal Party leadership was tolerant of the "Red Guards" - in all probability because it recognised that their call had incredible popular appeal and because, while suspicious about the remedy, the party recognised the need to advocate tackling the shameful shadow apartheid continued to cast on the world. Thorpe had, after all, been an active champion for human rights within the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The party's consistent line in condemning apartheid may have had some effect on the Liberal vote in the February 1974 election.

D'Oliveira, always opposed in principle to apartheid, was not particularly politically motivated - preferring to let his sporting talent talk for him. But liberalism and the anti-apartheid movement owes him a great deal: without his unwitting but telling contribution the South African team may well have continued to play an active role within the international sporting community and the events and political victories that led to the dismantling of apartheid might have taken longer to achieve.

It is easy to read Basil D'Oliveira's story as a tragic one; one of unfulfilled potential, a victim of prejudice and exclusion. It is certainly true that in a different time he would have won more than 44 England caps. But it is also true that his success in England created major headaches for the South African government and increased support for the anti-apartheid cause. His refusal to allow racist attitudes to hold him back and his determination to simply play at the highest levels caused the barriers and obstacles he had experienced to be broken down so completely that in today's South Africa the aspirations of young blacks to play professional sport in their own country are no longer unattainable.

D'Oliveira was, of course, the victim of injustice. But he was so much more than that: he was, in the bigger scheme of things, a victor - and the only person to emerge with credibility from the 1968 selection debacle. He continued playing professional cricket until he was 48 and since retiring has been an inspiration for many South Africans. The tolerance and belief in equality that embodied his outlook on both cricket and the world continues to provide an example to the rest of us - especially at a time when FIFA presidents are making ill-considered statements on the subject of racism in sport.

What happened in 1968 deprived D'Oliveira of achieving his dream of playing cricket in South Africa. But he lived to see another dream fulfilled; that of a South Africa liberated from the oppressive philosophy of apartheid. I'm sure he'd be the first to agree that if the former in any contributed to the achievement of the latter it was a price worth paying.

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