Basil D'Oliveira (left) en route his 158; Derek Underwood (right) during his 7 for 50 © Getty Images
Basil D Oliveira (left) en route his 158; Derek Underwood (right) during his 7 for 50 © Getty Images© Getty Images

It was a drama in many acts at The Oval for the fifth Test in 1968. Basil D’Oliveira changed the course of history by scoring 158 — his runs as much against Australia as against the forces of apartheid. And then on the final day Derek Underwood beat the rains and a stubborn Australian resistance to square the series. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at one of the most impactful Tests in history that ended August 27, 1968.

Willow, leather, cloak and dagger
Was it the best innings ever played in Test cricket?

On the scoreboard it is just another hundred — 158 in a score of 494. Garth McKenzie, Alan Connolly, John Gleeson and Ashley Mallett were able bowlers but did not really set the docile Oval pitch on fire. He had walked in with John Edrich already past his century and the score was read not too uncomfortable 238 for 4.

But, Basil D’Oliveira did not bat for just 5 hours 9 minutes. The saga of his innings had already started months, even years earlier, painstakingly eked out on the political pitch filled with the viciousness of apartheid.

In front of him the bowling attack did not consist of the Australians. The spearhead was Balthazar Johannes Vorster — the Prime Minister of South Africa, along with his political think-tank.

As early as January 1967, Piet Le Roux, South Africa’s Minister of Interior, had declared, “We will not allow mixed teams to play our white teams over here. If this player is chosen, he would not be allowed to come here. Our policy is well known here and overseas.”

In March 1968, Lord Cobham, a former President of MCC had met Vorster in South Africa, and informed, “Mr. Vorster gave me to suppose that if D’Oliveira were selected, the tour would probably have to be cancelled.”

The foreign attack was supported in England by the apologists for South Africa who sat in the MCC. Billy Griffith, the MCC Secretary approached D’Oliveira during a dinner on the eve of the Lord’s Test. The resulting suggestion, to put it mildly, was bizarre.  D’Oliveira was asked to sort out the deadlock by making himself available to play for South Africa! It was more than just ridiculous. The country that would not allow a coloured player play against their national team on their soil would have found it outrageously amusing if asked to include such a cricketer in their own side. D’Oliveira angrily refused.

Then there was Tiene Oosthuizen, an executive working for the tobacco company Rothmans. He called D’Oliveira to his Baker Street office offered a ten-year contract to coach in South Africa with an outrageous salary of £40,000 along with a car and a house. The caveat was that he would have to leave before the start of the fifth Test. The Cape Coloured cricketer refused again.

He had been battling the controversies for many months. D’Oliveira had left for the West Indies in early 1968 with a batting average in the 50s. Already all through the past year, in England and during the interim visits on a coaching assignment to South Africa, speculations were rife about his participation in the next winter’s tour to South Africa.  Every known and unknown face asked about it, and the questions did not cease in the obviously interested Caribbean islands.

With the charms of social life discovered only in his late youth, he had recently given up his habits of a teetotaller. The jolly parties of the Caribbean evenings, mostly in the company of Rohan Kanhai, had proved a bit too enjoyable. He had discovered the smooth, heady delights of the rum that sloshed about in the islands to be a soothing antidote for the intolerable tension that was building up inside him. His form had deserted him. During the tour, 8 innings had brought forth only one half century. He had dropped Garry Sobers in the slips in the second Test, allowing victory to slip through his grasp. And when he had returned, his Test average had slumped to 41.70.

Nevertheless, he had been included in the side for the first Test against Australian at Manchester. He had waged a single-handed battle to score 87 not out in an abject defeat — the only fifty by an English player in the match. Yet, he had been in for a shock for the second Test at Lord’s.

The match-eve dinner had seen Griffith coming up with his peculiar suggestion. He had been backed up by the pro-establishment cricket writer Jim Swanton, who had repeated the proposition of turning out for South Africa. It was a hurt and angry D’Oliveira who had made it to the ground on the day of the Test match. He had been having a knock at the nets, when he noticed the approach of the apologetic captain Colin Cowdrey. The skipper had mournfully explained that England needed a genuine seam bowler rather than a batting all-rounder. Hence, the Essex seamer Barry Knight had been chosen in his place.

“Bas, I know you did very well at Old Trafford and that you’re disappointed, but before the season is out you’ll be back.” Even Bobby Simpson, the Australian skipper, had been surprised by the decision.

So, after having batted out of his skin as the last man standing, D’Oliveira had been relegated to watch the game and run errands. He had started out on his responsibilities as a twelfth man, collecting tickets from the team-members to be picked up by friends at the main entrance to the ground. None of the England players had said a word. As he had walked down to the ground, passers-by not yet aware that he had been omitted, had cheerily wished him luck. D’Oliveira had kept his head down.

That very same day, as he had sat in the dressing room, Wilfred Isaacs, a prominent South African cricket personality, had come in to meet him. He had talked warmly of the forthcoming tour. Isaacs had offered D’Oliveira his flat and hospitality during the trip. Incidentally, when he returned to South Africa a few weeks later, Isaacs told the press that D’Oliveira would not be selected.

D’Oliveira had retreated to the county scene and had been unable to bat through all the problems. It had been a world suited for a spy-thriller, skills with the willow and leather were of little use in the domain of cloak and dagger. D’Oliveira had made 2 and 4 against Kent, 10 against Nottinghamshire, 6 against Somerset, 16 in the return match against the Notts, 9 against Essex and a duck against Warwickshire.

Things had looked a little brighter in mid-July, as scraps of old confidence had managed to emerge through the turbulence of a confused mind. He had made 22 and 29 against Sussex and 8 and 51 against Yorkshire. But, again, the string of low scores had resumed, and 13 and 4 against Somerset, 0 against Leicestershire, 0 and 16 against Hampshire and finally 25 against Glamorgan had reduced him in a morass of misery. In spite of an 89 against Warwickshire in early August, he had again slumped back into his bad patch with 9, 7, 4 and 29 before scoring 40* against Middlesex. And during this stage Oosthuizen had called him, asking for an interview in his office.

The call-up

In the fourth Test match at Headingley, Northamptonshire skipper Roger Prideaux had made an impressive debut, scoring 64 and adding 126 with John Edrich for the first wicket. And then fate had finally switched sides and teamed up with D’Oliveira. Prideaux had become afflicted with pleurisy and had to withdraw for the fifth Test.

Having refused the bribe of Oosthuizen on phone, D’Oliveira left his agent’s office and drove back to Worcester via High Wycombe, through the Chiltern Hills, and past Oxford. He arrived at Worcester and stopped at a local pub for a drink. Fred Trueman was the man he had run into, having come with the Yorkshire team to play Worcestershire on the morrow. The two cricketers chatted and D’Oliveira turned to the veteran pro, threatening to take his bowling apart the following day. Trueman had replied, “But, you won’t be here, cock, you’re in Thursday’s Test squad.” It had just been announced in the 6 o’clock radio bulletin that D’Oliveira was to be the replacement for Prideaux.

Cowdrey, who had scored a century for Kent against Surrey at The Oval immediately before the Test, noted that fast bowlers would be toothless on the wicket. The need of the hour was a medium pacer. Tom Cartwright and Barry Knight both had fitness worries. Eventually, to fill in both the positions of the batsman and the medium pacer, D’Oliveira was summoned.

“I just knew I would do well in the Oval Test,” D’Oliveira remembered later on.

With England 0-1 down in the series, he came in to bat at 238 for 4 on the first day. John Edrich greeted him saying “This is a lovely flat wicket, you can get a hundred here.” He was unbeaten on 24 when stumps were drawn. On the evening, he called his wife Naomi and his two sons and said, “Just watch the Test match on television tomorrow.”

Setting the cat among the pigeons

Yet, everything might have gone wrong. Early on the second morning, when on 31 he went back to a leg-break from Ian Chappell. The ball beat the bat and went off the edge to’ keeper Barry Jarman. And one of the ablest pair of hands that ever wore the big gloves for Australia, dropped the sharp chance. Fate had extended her arm. D’Oliveira proceeded to hook with ease and drive magnificently. And umpire Charlie Elliott could already hear the rumblings in the curiously intersecting world of sports and politics.

When he got to 50, Elliott said, “Well played — my God, you’re going to cause some problems.” By now every cover driven boundary was a direct blow to Vorster. When he dabbed a ball from Gleeson down the leg side to get to his hundred, Elliott said, “Oh Christ, you’ve put the cat among the pigeons now.” Gleeson was a bit more reserved as he offered his hand, “Well done, Bas, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

He went for his shots after his hundred and was put down three more times before finally caught off Mallett — the ninth man out. He had scored 158. The Oval crowd rose to its feet and applauded. The cricket world was changed forever.

On the Saturday, Doug Insole, chairman of selectors, asked him whether he was available for the South Africa tour.

The Australian plan was to drag their first innings out as long as possible. The mission was led by the greatest exponent of such tactics, Bill Lawry. The ‘corpse with pads on’ batted like a still life picture. Beginning his innings on the second evening he was still there on the fourth morning, with just 135 against his name. But, he was out early in the day, a controversial caught behind decision given in favour of John Snow.

The visitors ended the innings 170 behind. The England batsmen hit out, losing wickets fast but managing to extend the lead to 351. The innings was closed with 35 minutes left on the fourth day. Before nightfall, the big fast bowler David Brown had the huge wicket of Lawry, caught at short leg off bat and pad by Colin Milburn. And in the last over of the day, Ian Redpath offered his pads to a ball from Derek Underwood that straightened.

Australia finished at 13 for 2, needing to bat out the 6 hours on the final day.

Yes, there was play even after this © Getty Images
Yes, there was play even after this © Getty Images

The final act

The following day, Underwood had Ian Chappell leg-before and Doug Walters caught behind. Ray Illingworth got one to nip back and snared Paul Sheahan. Lunch was taken with Australia tottering at 86 for 5.  The opening batsman John Inverarity still there, battles on alone, with Barry Jarman having just joined him at the wicket. Little batting remained. The English players were buoyant as they went in for lunch.

And then the soaring hopes were almost washed away. The first drop of rain fell at 1:27. Within ten minutes it was a torrential downpour. Within half an hour, most of the grass had disappeared under an inch of water. In another thirty minutes, the sun was shining brightly, the rays sparkling off the ripples of water down below.

The reflection of the stands stared ominously back at Cowdrey from the huge pond like water-body stretching across the outfield. The England team had just started to back their bags when the captain made his way to the middle, trousers pulled high over his boots. He started by urging the Oval ground-staff to do something about it. And he quickly realised that just those hands would not do.

The captain turned to the spectators for help, appealing on the loudspeaker. And the crowd swarmed in, with personal blankets, handkerchiefs and parts of their clothing. At 2.15 pm, they started their mopping operations under the astute guidance of the groundsman Ted Warn. Gradually water drained away. Patches of green became larger and larger and linked up. And by 4.45 pm, the miracle had been achieved. The large hand of the Vauxhall Lane stand clock showed 20 to 5 when John Snow ran in. Just 75 minutes of play remained.

And John Inverarity and Jarman stubbornly held on. David Brown, John Snow, Ray Illingworth and Derek Underwood failed to dislodge them even with ten men around the bat. The bowling was changed around and dealt with dead bat and judicious defence.

Finally, with about 40 minutes left in the game, Cowdrey tossed the ball to the man who was scripting his own magic in the match. D’Oliveira ran in with his innocuous medium-pace, both arms raised upwards just before delivery. The last ball of his second over was short enough for Jarman to think he could leave it well alone. He shouldered arms and the ball hit the top of his off-stump.

Cowdrey immediately motioned Underwood to run in again. The skipper stood at slip with Tom Graveney, D’Oliveira, Colin Milburn, John Edrich, Ted Dexter, John Snow, Allan Knott, Illingworth — all crouched within touching distance of each other. At one of the short-legs, with his six foot four inch frame lurked David Brown, almost breathing down the neck of the batsman. Twice in an over, Ashley Mallett and Garth McKenzie lunged forward and did not quite smother the ball. And twice Brown swooped up the catch practically from the batsman’s boot.

John Gleeson hit out boldly in an attempt to scatter the fielders, swinging his bat several times, connecting just once. And after 13 minutes of heroic resistance, he was bowled by an Underwood ball that did nothing, just went straight through to hit the middle stump.

Allan Connolly was one of nature’s charming No. 11 batsmen, and Inverarity knew he had to hog the strike. And he was doing an extremely good job of it. There were just 6 minutes left in the game when Underwood bowled the third ball of his 32nd over. The opening batsman who had battled for more than 4 hours, now padded up. The ball came in with Underwood’s arm that famed arm-ball with a hint of inswing, and rapped him on the pad in front of off-stump. There was a huge appeal and Charlie Elliott’s finger went up. England had won, against Australia, rains and the clock. Underwood had taken 7 for 50. The last 4 wickets had fallen to him for just 6 runs, off 27 deliveries.

What followed?

– A day after the match, the England squad of 16 players for South Africa was announced. And strangely, there was no D’Oliveira in it. MCC had bowed to political pressure.
– The outrage was universal. The fans were shocked. The Members of the Parliament erupted in protest. MCC itself saw a spate of resignations.  An editorial in The Guardian said, “Any who would swallow that would believe the moon was a currant bun.”
– The man himself was in tears. Long-time friend Tom Graveney had gone to the extent of saying to his teammates, “If he doesn’t go, I’m not going.”
– The relieved South African government was suddenly stricken by a new headache. The News of the World announced that D’Oliveira would be sent to report on the Test series. And on September 12, MCC received a letter that threatened to blow up the aircraft that would carry the England squad to South Africa.
– And now fate sided with D’Oliveira again. Warwickshire medium-pacer Tom Cartwright withdrew due to a shoulder injury. The MCC could not toe the political line anymore. On September 16, D’Oliveira was selected as a replacement.
– The very next day, Prime Minister Vorster responded, “We are not prepared to receive a team thrust upon us by people whose interests are not in the game but to gain certain political objectives which they do not even attempt to hide. The MCC team is not the team of the MCC but of the anti-apartheid movement.” The condemnation from all around the world fell on deaf ears of Vorster. Even his country’s own media warned him that the refusal to admit D’Oliveira could result in isolation.  But, he remained adamant.
– A week after the Prime Minister’s reply, MCC met the representatives of the South African cricket board at Lord’s and the tour was cancelled.

Brief scores:

England 494 (John Edrich 164, Tom Graveney 63, Basil D’Oliveira 158) and 181 (Alan Connolly 4 for 65) beat Australia 324 (Bill Lawry 135, Ian Redpath 67, Ashley Mallett 43) and 125 (Derek Underwood 7 for 50) by 226 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)