Basil D'Oliveira © Getty Images
Basil D’Oliveira © Getty Images

Basil D’Oliveira, born October 4, 1931, was a phenomenally talented cape-coloured South African cricketer. His fascinating journey into the Test world in England reached a climax in 1968 when the refusal of the South African government to admit him into the country triggered the boycott of the nation from sporting activities for over two decades. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the man who arrived in England after his best years and played 44 Tests for the country.

Setting the cat among the pigeons

“Oh Christ, you’ve put the cat among the pigeons now.” Seldom has a batsman been applauded with these words on reaching his hundred — even less so by the umpire. But, when Basil D’Oliveira completed his century on that August day of 1968, umpire Charlie Elliott could not have been nearer the mark.

As is well known, D’Oliveira’s celebrated ton at The Oval was a fascinating concoction of brilliance, perseverance and fate. He battled not only Graham McKenzie, Alan Connolly, John Gleeson and Ashley Mallett, but also the surreptitious, powerful, political movements ceaselessly conspiring to keep him out of action. There were diplomatic missives, determined politicians, uncertain administrators, curious suggestions and outrageous bribes.

Yet, at the same time, destiny was paving the way for him through the devices of illness, injury and dropped catches. Finally the score against his name read 158 and he picked up a vital wicket on the dramatic final day. And after further off-the-field challenges, D’Oliveira made it to the England squad for the 1968-69 tour of South Africa. Never did a sportsperson have such an impact in the world of politics since Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics.

D’Oliveira had left for West Indies in early 1968 with a batting average in the 50s. However, 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 had proved to be a bit too enjoyable, and he had discovered the smooth, heady delights of the rum that sloshed about in the islands. Hence, during the tour 8 innings had brought forth only one half century and when he had returned his Test average had slumped to 41.70.

Nevertheless, he was included in the side for the first Test against Australian at Manchester where he waged a single-handed battle to score 87 not out in a defeat — the only fifty by an English player in the match. However, a string of low scores in the county games allowed the MCC decision makers — a fair share of them apologists for the South African regime — to keep him out of the side. After all, as early as in March 1968, South African Prime Minister John Vorster had already informed Lord Cobham, a past President of MCC, that England would not be welcome in their country with D’Oliveira in the team.

For the second Test at Lord’s D’Oliveira was the 12th man, ostensibly because captain Colin Cowdrey wanted to play another seamer. His replacement, Barry Knight, bowled well in a rain-interrupted match. However, stranger games were being played off the field.

At a dinner on the eve of the Lord’s Test, Billy Griffith, Secretary of MCC, approached D’Oliveira. 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 refused.

Back in the county circuit, there were 11 consecutive failures. The pressures had become excruciating and even the resilient shoulders that had borne the burden of every racial injustice in the last decade-and-a-half, seemed to have found the strain too much to bear.

As he spent his time in the wilderness of the Worcestershire county side, he was sought out with more enticing baits.  Tienie Oosthuizen, a leading figure in the British branch of Carreras Tobacco, offered D’Oliveira a lucrative coaching contract in South Africa provided he refused to go on the tour. It is rumoured that there was another clandestine offer of £40,000 — a result of Vorster’s personal initiative. Each time the Cape Coloured cricketer said no.

In the fourth Test at Headingley, Northamptonshire skipper Roger Prideaux made an impressive debut, scoring 64 and adding 126 with John Edrich for the first wicket. And then fate joined hands with D’Oliveira. Prideaux became afflicted with pleurisy and had to withdraw for the fifth Test. D’Oliveira was called up as a replacement at The Oval.

“I just knew I would do well in the Oval Test,” D’Oliveira remembered later on. However, he almost didn’t. With England 0-1 down in the series, he came in to bat at 238 for 4 on the first day, and was unbeaten on 24 when stumps were drawn. And early on the second morning, when on 31 he edged to the ’keeper. Barry Jarman, one of the ablest pairs of hands that ever wore the big gloves for Australia, dropped the sitter. Fate had extended her arm. D’Oliveira proceeded to hook with ease and drive magnificently on his way to his second century in Test cricket. And umpire Elliott could already hear the rumblings in the curiously intersecting world of sports and politics.

Fortunes favoured him all along. He was put down on three more occasions before he fell to Mallett for 158. Cricket world was changed forever.

Basil D'Oliveira on his way to an innings of 158 against Australia in 1968 Ashes Test at The Oval. It was an innings which was instrumental in changing world cricket forever © Getty Images
Basil D’Oliveira on his way to an innings of 158 against Australia in 1968 Ashes Test at The Oval. It was an innings which was instrumental in changing world cricket forever © Getty Images

He was not done yet. Neither was his connection of destiny with Jarman broken during the remainder of the match.

On the final day, as Australia stood at a precarious 85 for 5 in the second innings, the reflection of the stands stared ominously back at Cowdrey from the huge pond like water-body stretching across the outfield. The England captain turned to the spectators for help. The obliging crowd used personal blankets, handkerchiefs and parts of their clothing to ensure 75 minutes of play. And then 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. Finally, Cowdrey tossed the ball to D’Oliveira. The South African ran in with his innocuous medium-pace, both arms raised upwards just before delivery. And with the last ball of his second over D’Oliveira hit the top of Jarman’s off stump. Soon after that, Derek Underwood ran through the rest of the innings ensuring one of the most memorable England wins in the history of Ashes.

The cancellation

A day after the match, the England squad of 16 players for South Africa was announced. 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.

D’Oliveira was no anti-apartheid demonstrator. He was just a brilliant cricketer who wanted to play the game. But he ended up playing a huge role in defining the two decades that South Africa spent as sporting outcasts — a movement that followed the dictum: “no normal sport in an abnormal society”.

The letter written in green ink

The journey, that on its way traced the future of South Africa, had started with a letter written in green ink, sent to the ace commentator John Arlott. It had been sent from 14 Upper Bloem Street, Cape Town.

When South Africa had visited England in 1947, the young Arlott was still finding his way around the commentary box, just starting to sprinkle his descriptions of the game with incredible wit and bon mots. When the South African left-arm spinner Tufty Mann had Middlesex and England batsman George Mann in all sorts of difficulties, Arlott described it as, “A case of man’s inhumanity to man.” Down the line, Arlott was to play a much more serious role in the actual inhumanity associated with South Africa.

His first overseas assignment was in South Africa in 1947-48. His fascinating broadcasts announced to the cricket loving world: “Bouncer, goes past the leg stump, and Wade’s attitude of prayer prevents it from going for byes.” At the same time, the man in Arlott came to the fore when confronted by the immigration. Handed a form to write down his race with the options ‘white, Indian, coloured or black’, Arlott scribbled “human.”

It was in 1959 that D’Oliveira wrote to him: “Dear Mr Arlott, I daresay this is only a minor detail compared, I presume, to your other escapades, but I am sure that you would try your best and use your powerful assistance to help me …”

The desperate cry for help was heard. Life changed for this extraordinarily talented cricketer.

The colourful cricketer

Basil D’Oliveira was born into a strict Roman Catholic family living at the bottom of Signal Hill, a precipitous suburb on the east side of Cape Town. His official birth is listed in Wisden as October 4, 1931.

However, as is widely known, his year of birth was perhaps inaccurate. When he joined Worcestershire in 1964, he claimed to have been born in 1934. Later, after establishing himself in the side, he put the date back by three years. In his autobiography he hints that he was even older than that, having lied about his true age in order to avoid being overlooked by the England selectors because he was too old. “If you told me I was nearer to 40 than 35 when I first played for England in 1966, I would not sue for slander.”

He grew up as a ‘Cape Coloured’ Indian — a combination of Indian and African — in a society thoroughly dedicated to white supremacy. Even the non-white cricket was fragmented into separate leagues for Africans, Coloureds, Malays and Indians. Father Lewis D’Oliveira was the captain of St Augustine’s. The club played in an apology of a cricket field in the wasteland Green Point two miles from where the D’Oliveiras lived.

Even though his father was a cricketer, young D’Oliveira received no instruction in the game. An authoritarian despot, Lewis D’Oliveira had strict standards for clothes to wear and ways to conduct oneself in the field and otherwise. Hence, the kid took to the game more by himself with other young lads, and crudely shaped his raw talent on the streets of Signal Hill.

There was no cricket at school — the game was played afterwards, on the streets where the balls bounced awkwardly on the cobblestones. At the age of 15, D’Oliveira started working for a printing firm, Croxley and Dickinson. Every hour that could be snatched away was dedicated to cricket. And at 16, he turned out for St Augustine’s.

It was almost scandalous for Lewis D’Oliveira to see his son adopt an approach that believed in belting every ball bowled to him. Yet, contrary to all the principles of batsmanship the father believed in, the son scored heavily in an uncanny proportion of his innings. And by the time he succeeded his father as captain in 1950-51, he was already a legend in that part of the world. Almost a legend, that is.  Only among the non-whites.

However, some of his deeds did attract wide attention. In 1950-51, he began his innings with 5 sixes and scored 225 at incredible rate. According to some reports it was 70 minutes and others put it at 65. There were supposed to be 28 sixes and 10 fours. His team could manage just 236. And three years later, he hit 46 in an eight-ball over for St Augustine’s. He was soon selected for West Province, and even for them he carried on the all-out attacking game. That was the only way he knew to play.

From 1951 to 1960, D’Oliveira scored 82 centuries in club and representative cricket. Those were the halcyon years of the man who managed to hit the ball remarkably hard and often with minimal backlift. The breathtaking innings were played on uneven wickets, often on matting. And the world missed it all.

In 1956-57, D’Oliveira captained the black South African team to a crushing win against Kenya. And the following year he again led the non-European South Africans to a tour of East Africa and Kenya. Against opposition who did play First-Class cricket, he scored 139, 56, 48, 96, 3 and 50. And his medium- pace captured 25 wickets at 11.92. The outcasts of white South Africa had given a wonderful account of themselves against quality teams. The 139 at Nairobi ensured a huge win for the Non-European South Africans and led a journalist to draw comparisons with the great Wally Hammond.

Basil D'Oliveira was a change bowler who had a penchant for breaking partnerships. He took 47 Test wickets at 39.55 © Getty Images
Basil D’Oliveira was a change bowler who had a penchant for breaking partnerships. He took 47 Test wickets at 39.55 © Getty Images

It was the following year, 1959, that the communist cricket writer CLR James rallied for Frank Worrell to lead a West Indian team to visit the country and play the black South Africans. But, intense political reactions from the African nations resulted in the tour being cancelled at the last moment. This led D’Oliveira to realise that his opportunities in the cricket world would forever remain shunted in his native land. He thought long and hard before bringing out a pen with green ink and writing to the great John Arlott.
Lancashire League

Among his many accomplishments in life, encompassing the world of cricket commentary, poetry, and also food and wine, Arlott considers his role in D’Oliveira’s migration as the greatest. On receiving the touching plea, he contacted John Kay, a Manchester journalist who knew many important people in the Lancashire League. In 1960, the West Indian paceman Wes Hall was unable to take up his position as professional for Middleton. Kay acted swiftly to ensure that the post was offered to D’Oliveira.

The club offered £450 for the season, meagre but enough for the batsman who wanted to settle in a new land with the promise of cricket mixed into the fray. But, there were complications. The air ticket to England cost £200 and he had nowhere near that sort of money. It was thanks to an Indian journalist named Benny Bansda that the journey was made possible. The scribe started a fund-raising campaign and D’Oliveira was handed £450.

Just before the trip, D’Oliveira sought advice on the playing conditions in England from Tom Reddick, a former Nottinghamshire professional who was coaching in Cape Town. It was during this meeting that for the first time in his life he found himself inside the house of a white man.

When he arrived in England, D’Oliveira had not encountered companionship of white people, was uninitiated to modern appliances and had never even seen a television. However, he was treated like a star and the graciousness of his teammates touched him to the core. Even then, it was a while before he could get used to the adulation and social life.

On the cricketing front, he had to get used to grassy wickets. It was not easy at first, but he ended the season topping the Central Lancashire League averages. One famous name below him in the table was Garry Sobers.

In 1962, D’Oliveira was invited to tour East Africa with an international side. The other members included Colin McDonald, Roy Marshall, Tom Graveney, Saeed Ahmed, Everton Weekes, Sonny Ramadhin and Subhash Gupte.

It was in such convivial company that D’Oliveira started enjoying his drink. But, it did not prevent him from blasting a hundred against East Africa at Nairobi, in just an hour with 7 sixes. Everton Weekes remarked that it was one of the best innings he had ever seen. It turned out to be a thriller of a match that also saw D’Oliveira take 3 first innings wickets.

The next year, 1963-64, D’Oliveira played alongside Peter Richardson, Seymour Nurse, Basil Butcher, Rohan Kanhai and Graveney for Alf Gover’s Commonwealth side touring Pakistan. He enjoyed himself in the conditions of the sub-continent, scoring 260 runs at 52.00. The two tours also cemented a close friendship with Graveney.

Test cricket

After his success in the Lancashire League, D’Oliveira had expected to be selected for the county side. However, there were rumours that the great Cyril Washbrook had superciliously dismissed him as “just a Saturday afternoon slogger”.

It was another challenge thrown in his way, but help was at hand. Tom Graveney stood up for his friend and used his influence to make Worcestershire sign him in 1964. During the year he spent qualifying for the county, D’Oliveira scored heavily for Kidderminster in the Birmingham and District League. The season ended with a superb 119 against the visiting Australians for Arthur Gilligan’s XI in a Festival match at Hastings. The bowling he dominated that day included Garth McKenzie, Allan Connolly and Tom Veivers.

The following year, in 1965, Worcestershire retained the county championship. The two friends D’Oliveira and Graveney were the only men in England to score more than 1,500 runs in the competition. D’Oliveira scored 1691 runs that season with 6 hundreds. The Test call up took place the very next year.

The man who was persona non grata in the white echelons of South African cricket made his debut at Lord’s the headquarters of the game. He was run out for 27 on debut, but the next three innings realised 76, 54 and 88 against Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Gary Sobers and Lance Gibbs. The 88 at Headingley was scored after he had come in at 49 for 4, and included 4 sixes — one of them a magnificent straight drive off Hall.

D’Oliveira’s first century came against India, a one-sided rout of the Indian bowlers after Geoff Boycott had anaesthetised their very souls.  And soon he was off to West Indies, riding on a fabulous start to his Test career at the very autumn of his cricketing days. Of course, his batting had less of the debonair dash of the 1950s. But even in his late thirties — or perhaps early forties — he was definitely one of the leading lights of England batting.
After The Oval

After the cancelled tour of South Africa, D’Oliveira’s next assignment was in Pakistan. And even as the years started to tell on his body, he produced his best Test innings, 114 not out at Dacca on a snake pit of a wicket against high quality spin.

There did follow a lean patch against West Indies and New Zealand at home in 1969, but the following year saw the journey of the coloured South African cricketer come full circle.

In 1970 the ripples of the 1968 incident carried on and severe protests resulted in the cancellation of the planned South African tour of England.  It was then the unthinkable happened, which could not have been envisaged even a year earlier. D’Oliveira, a product of the South African coloured population, met cricketers of white South Africa on the field in an international cricket match. The Rest of the World tour of England was hastily arranged as a replacement for the cancelled series. Garry Sobers led the team of fabulous talent that included Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow, Graeme and Peter Pollock and Mike Procter. And they all played against Basil D’Oliveira.

In the first ‘Test’ at Lord’s D’Oliveira scored 78 in the second innings, and in the third match at Edgbaston, he hit 110 and 81. Peter Pollock bounced him and he hooked nonchalantly for six. Besides this, in the third match of the series at Trent Bridge, D’Oliveira claimed 4 for 43 and 3 for 63 with his seemingly harmless medium pacers. The 7 wickets included the scalps of Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd and Mike Procter.

It was a visibly aging D’Oliveira who went to Australia under Ray Illingworth in 1970-71, and played the long, long series. Overall he did not prove overwhelmingly successful, but there was an important 117 scored at Melbourne in the fifth Test. His final Test century came in the New Zealand leg of the tour, exactly 100 on a treacherous wicket at Christchurch. It was scored after the home side had been dismissed for 65 and the next highest score from England in the innings was 40.

In 1971 he scored 3 seventies in 4 innings against Pakistan, but by the time India came along he had run out of form. The last 8 Tests, 3 against India and 5 against Australia in the summer of 1972, saw him score just one fifty. Officially he was 41 and actually a bit more. There was a cry for younger blood and he left the Test scene after the Ashes series.

In retrospect

Having played his best years in the unrecognised circuit of non-white South Africa, D’Oliveira managed to turn out 44 times for England. He scored 2484 runs at 40.06, with 5 hundreds and 15 fifties. That landmark 158 against Australia at The Oval remained his highest.

A change bowler with a penchant for breaking partnerships, he took 47 wickets at 39.55.

D’Oliveira continued to play for Worcestershire till 1979, by which time he was probably over 50. Even in his last few years, he was one of the hardest hitters of the ball. His propensity for overcoming every sort of challenge was never more highlighted than in the Gillette Cup final of 1976. Fielding against Kent, he tore his left hamstring and hobbled off in great pain. The doctor’s verdict was that he would not be able to bat. However, D’Oliveira came out to stay rooted on back-foot and thrash the ball around to score a superb half-century.

After his retirement from cricket D’Oliveira was coached Worcestershire for a decade starting from 1980. That same year, in 1980, he was appointed a member of the Sports Council Delegation which visited South Africa.

D’Oliveira was appointed OBE in 1969 and CBE in 2005. He died of Parkinson’s in 2011.

Basil D'Oliveira with wife Naomi and son Damian at Buckingham Palace where he has just been presented with an OBE by the Queen. Damian went on to to play for Worcestershire, as did Damian's son Brett © Getty Images
Basil D’Oliveira with wife Naomi and son Damian at Buckingham Palace where he has just been presented with an OBE by the Queen. Damian went on to to play for Worcestershire, as did Damian’s son Brett © Getty Images

Basil D’Oliveira will be remembered as one of the greatest symbols against racial discrimination to have ever appeared on the sporting field. In a strange confluence, his 158 at The Oval almost coincided with the black power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos after the 200 metres final in the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

As for his coming out of South Africa of the 1960s to play Test cricket, Jackie Robinson’s breaking through the baseball colour lines is perhaps the closest parallel.

The Basil D'Oliveira Trophy © Getty Images
The Basil D’Oliveira Trophy © Getty Images

However, paradoxically, D’Oliveira was never an active voice or figure in the anti-apartheid movement. He just wanted to play cricket and find a stage to showcase his stupendous skills. And in the process he did more against politics in sports than perhaps any other cricketer. He also ended up playing more Test cricket than his white South African contemporaries.

According to Pat Murphy, ghostwriter of his autobiography:  “We reflect on one of the most significant cricketers of the 20th century because of the political sporting connection. In his own way, with his demeanour, integrity and dignity, the British sporting public took him to their hearts. He became a focus for all those who despised the whole concept of apartheid. Basil D’Oliveira’s influence helped to usher in a world where apartheid was consigned to the dustbin.”

The 2004-05 Test series between England and South Africa saw the commencement of the two teams playing for the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy signfying the progress made since the dark days of the late 60s. “The naming of this trophy after Basil D’Oliveira is to bring acknowledgement of his considerable contribution to cricket, at a time when he was not given the proper recognition in the country of his birth. He will now be remembered every time South Africa and England meet in Test matches in South Africa, as will all those many cricketers who were made nameless through racial discrimination.” said Gerald Majola, the chief executive of the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA).

In pictures: Basil D’Oliveira’s career

(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