WHEN Basil Lewis d’Oliveira was named in 2000 as one of South Africa’s ten cricketers of the century, astonishingly it was the first time he had walked onto the field at Newlands. That one step he took across the boundary rope sums up the tortured history of South African cricket, of which D’Oliveira was one of the most significant figures. His death on 19 November 2011 was a crucial reminder not just of the past of this country’s sport, but also its present.

He was a man of humble origins who proved to be a star performer in the quadrangular, inter-communal cricket that emerged under the South African Cricket Board of Control after the Second World War. His club, St Augustine’s in Cape Town, played in the atrocious conditions typical of black cricket at the time and made his accomplishments all the more laudable.

In 1956 he led a genuinely mixed national side against the Kenya Asians and in the eyes of many this makes him South Africa’s first real cricket captain. He skippered a similar team on a tour of East Africa in 1959 with success and then, with assistance from that great commentator and liberal, John Arlott, he moved into English league cricket in 1960, playing for Middleton. Several black South African cricketers took this courageous step that required an enormous adjustment in lifestyle and cricketing technique. Although age was against him, D’Oliveira was the only one who made a lasting transition to county cricket and he played with great distinction for Worcestershire for 15 years from 1964 to 1979.

More importantly, he was chosen for England 44 times and was particularly well-respected by the British public. He was picked primarily as a number six batsman – he had a textbook technique, strong forearms and a good eye – and all-rounder. He bowled medium-paced off cutters and was used by England as a first change bowler, although he is better remembered for the ability later in his test career to tie down an end and break partnerships. Making his debut in 1966 against the West Indies at Lord’s, he was then already officially 34 (his age was a constant matter of speculation). His walk to the crease was a moment to be savoured and carried with it an air of solidity, dependability and the enormous dignity that was his hallmark. His last test match was at The Oval against Australia in 1972 and his place as all-rounder in the England team was ironically taken by another South African of very different demeanour, Tony Greig. D’Oliveira scored 2 464 runs for England (at a respectable average of 40 with five centuries) and took 47 wickets. In first-class cricket he amassed nearly 19 000 runs (43 centuries) and captured 548 wickets.

Basil d’Oliveira would have remained a distinguished, but relatively unknown cricketer, had it not been for the South African government. Prime Minister John Vorster, insecure as the successor to the assassinated Hendrik Verwoerd, was attempting to promote a more flexible foreign policy that included easing up on sport. Arlott wrote prophetically that D’Oliveira’s initial exclusion from the England touring team of 1968–1969 was potentially the most damaging decision ever made by the MCC. Eventually he was named and the conspiracy to exclude him was defeated, but the inclusion of a Cape Coloured player in a touring England cricket team was a step too far for the National Party and the tour was called off. Only D’Oliveira emerged with credit and the episode led directly to the cancellation of South African tours of England and Australia, and the eventual total isolation of Springbok cricket.

He was a victim of many forces – apartheid ideologues and their conservative allies in England; and both the white cricketing establishment and the Left in South Africa. The last found D’Oliveira’s quiet approach unacceptable, slated him for not putting enough back into his community, and wrote him off as an adoptive Englishman. D’Oliveira, like many self-made men, was not always sympathetic in public to broader political causes. Yet the one-eyed view of Cape Town radicals with their noisy rhetoric failed to appreciate the impact of his conduct on the wider world and the resultant benefits derived by the anti-apartheid movement. As the lawyer Norman Arendse put it, ‘He represented all of us who were committed to non-racial cricket.’

From white South Africans D’Oliveira received disgraceful and shameful abuse. The cricket writer Louis Duffus bleated that South African cricket was being victimised for one, by implication irrelevant, man; and ignorantly charged the England selectors with trying to break the law. Perhaps D’Oliveira’s greatest achievement in response to this was his lasting impact on British politics and society. He was known affectionately by a respectful public as Bas or Dolly and played no small part in breaking down the racism of 1960s Britain. The Stop the Seventy Tour Campaign of 1969–1970 was the first successful grassroots civic campaign in Britain since the Suffragettes. It changed British political life forever, ushering in a growing realisation that it would have to come to terms with a multi-ethnic society.

Sadly, this man of great physical and mental strength and character ended up with Parkinson’s disease. He has been immortalised by the trophy for which test series between South Africa and England are now played and he was awarded the CBE in 2005. A stand at the New Road ground in Worcester in the shadow of its cathedral is named after him, as is the Oaks section at Newlands.

The spirit of Basil d’Oliveira will forever be part of South African history and a reminder of the hypocrisy all too often evident in sport. In the 1960s white South Africans claimed that politics had no part in it while their chosen prime minister acted as de facto MCC selector. Anti-apartheid groups justifiably and successfully campaigned for South Africa’s isolation. Yet moves by government to interfere in team composition in ways reminiscent of the 1960s have plagued the post-liberation period. Sport can have a sordid face. But the lives of players like D’Oliveira leave enduring memories of the best that it can produce.

This article was first published in The Witness on 22 November 2011 and entitled ‘Quiet subversive dressed in white’.


THIS summer’s cricket test series will see South Africa and England contesting for the first time the Basil d’Oliveira Trophy. As an additional fitting tribute to the great man, a stand at Newlands will be named after him. Not everyone, however, is happy about this: objectors, according to Die Burger, argued that D’Oliveira is just another Englishman. They could not be wider of the mark.

For most of the nineteenth century South African cricket, on both sides of the racial divide, was notably undistinguished: of a low standard, poorly organised and lacking any national structure. A limited amount of cricket was played across the racial divide with a number of matches won by black sides. The first match of real significance to take place in South Africa was the inaugural test against England at Port Elizabeth in 1889. Recognition of white South African cricket was simply an indication of Imperial interest in gold and the region’s geopolitical importance. The existence of a test side 21 years before nationhood encouraged white nationalism; and the country’s status in international cricket was cemented by the founding of the Imperial Cricket Conference, a South African idea, in 1912.

By this time cricket had been well used as a means of defining British space in South Africa and evoking memories of ‘Home’. In the process, the governed were excluded. But black cricket had followed a similar trajectory to the white game within a slightly different time frame. In 1896 Sir David Harris donated the Barnato Trophy, the black equivalent of the Currie Cup contested by cricketers of all black communities until well after the Great War.

During the inter-war years the multi-racial South African Coloured Cricket (Barnato) Board went into decline, a victim of a variety of factors including legislated urban segregation, Coloured conservatism and the temptations of white patrimony for African cricket. In England at the same time cricket was notorious for its feudal structure and relationships. In South Africa local government funds were consistently channelled into white private sports facilities (there are many Pietermaritzburg examples) while black recreation was spasmodically funded from the profits of the municipal beer monopoly. Black facilities were financed from the economics of inebriation and sport was seen primarily as a means of monitoring leisure time.

After the Second World War the Barnato Board was revived, mainly at the instigation of the Reverend B.L. Sigamoney of the South African Indian Cricket Union. During the 1950s it presided over an ethnic-based tournament (similar to the Indian Quadrangular) that edged gradually towards multi-racialism. White cricket during this period reflected an increasingly narrow and defiant nationalism that derided the attempts of the multi-racial South African Cricket Board of Control (SACBOC) to attain international recognition.

But on 7 December 1956 a non-racial South African team representative of four black communities took the field at Hartleyvale in Cape Town against the touring Kenya Asians. Its captain was Basil d’Oliveira. A soccer stadium with a mat laid on gravel had to be used because no white cricket ground was on offer. D’Oliveira captained South Africa to a second victory at Natalspruit, but was injured for the third, drawn match at Kingsmead. SACBOC’s request for a match against the touring MCC during the same season was predictably rejected. But in 1958 a SACBOC team, again under D’Oliveira, had a highly successful tour of East Africa. A number of the team’s members were subsequently to make a significant mark on English league cricket.

D’Oliveira described the team as the ‘proudest ever to leave the shores of South Africa’. It was more than that, the most representative team ever to tour in the country’s name. And it is not too far-fetched to argue that D’Oliveira was the first real South African cricket captain, representing as he did a tradition of inclusive non-racialism that challenged restrictive, discriminatory practice and law in spite of persecution and harassment.

The opposing, established tradition enjoyed favoured nation status through an old boy’s network based on imperialism. Its conservative social tendencies made it comfortable with the authoritarianism of the post-1948 National Party government and its racist legislation. The weaknesses of the law in relation to sport and the opportunities these offered were conveniently ignored. Mixed sport was against the law, said a white cricket establishment blinded by the rhetoric of government policy. Aurora Cricket Club proved otherwise in conclusive fashion in October 1973.

Which is the true origin of South African cricket as we know it today: a privileged, well-resourced, well-connected but racist tradition; or its antithesis, embracing all communities willing to join it? D’Oliveira belonged to the latter. To prove the extent to which his tradition was deliberately disadvantaged by the very nature of South African society, he had to emigrate to Britain. There he was able to fulfil his potential as a test cricketer and his dignity as a human being; and earn the respect of millions.

As the eminent cricket writer, Marxist philosopher and West Indian nationalist C.L.R. James pointed out, we must look not to statistics and technicalities, but beyond the boundary to construct the true history of the game. Given the political, social and cultural context, Basil d’Oliveira has as great a claim as anyone to be acknowledged as a captain of South Africa. The objectors at Newlands, blinded by a skewed history, have got it all wrong. 

This article was first published in The Witness on 20 December 2004 and entitled ‘Basil d’Oliveira was the first real SA cricket captain’.

Further reading: Basil d’Oliveira, The D’Oliveira Affair (London: Collins, 1969) and Time to Declare (Johannesburg: Macmillan, 1980); Bruce Murray and Christopher Merrett, Caught Behind: Race and Politics in Springbok Cricket (Johannesburg: Wits University Press and Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2004).