Stupid white men

Basil D'Oliveira: cricket and conspiracy - the untold story

Peter Oborne <em>Little, Brown, 274pp,

No writer of boys' own comic stories ever imagined anything so romantic. Unknown to the wider world, the humble printworker of mixed race, living in a Cape Town ghetto, is a cricketer of genius. All his life he has played on waste ground, which has first to be cleared of debris, weeds and animal excrement. He has glimpsed international cricket only from "the cage", an area of the Newlands ground in Cape Town set aside, behind a high wire fence, for non-whites. He has never had any proper coaching.

Then out of the blue comes a letter from a small-town club in Lancashire, inviting him to play in England, a country he has never visited. He cannot even afford the air fare but friends and neighbours, mostly poorer than he is, hold cricket matches and lotteries to raise the money. Leaving be-hind his pregnant wife, he flies off into the unknown. He goes on to play cricket for England and to make five Test centuries, including one against Australia at the Oval.

That, very roughly, is the story of Basil D'Oliveira, and that's only half of it. D'Oliveira had to falsify his age - lop- ping off three years - to get into English county or Test cricket at all. Though nobody knew it then, he was 34 when he first played for England, the age at which most players now think of retirement. He finally left the first-class game at 47, a prodigious age for a modern cricketer.

But what gave him a special place in cricket history - indeed, world history - was the so-called D'Oliveira affair, the main theme of this superb book. He became a British citizen and, therefore, eligible for England. Duly chosen, he was nevertheless dropped from the side on the eve of a tour to South Africa in 1968-69, when his inclusion would have embarrassed that country's apartheid regime. After furious public protest, he was reinstated when another player dropped out through injury. The South African government immediately cancelled the tour, thus beginning the country's long isolation from international sport, which played an important (though not decisive) role in the fall of apartheid.

Oborne does not quite get to the bottom of this curious business and perhaps nobody ever will. Why, if the English cricket authorities were so anxious to maintain sporting relations with South Africa, did they ever pick D'Oliveira for Test matches in the first place? In those days, they could easily have got away with some waffle about confining selection to players born in England or of English parentage, and they could certainly have asked more questions about his age. And why, after a summer in which he had been out of the side and out of form, did they bring him back for the final home Test against Australia at the Oval in 1968, thus giving him the opportunity to score a match-winning 158 and making his subsequent non-selection for the winter tour seem an act of pure political expediency?

Oborne rightly does not make much of how, when D'Oliveira was dropped, one of the people at the selection meeting was a pre-war member of the British Union of Fascists and another was a founder of the right-wing Freedom Association, which was at least partly financed from South Africa. Indeed, this book barely justifies its subtitle, given that "conspiracy" implies some intelligence and forethought on the part of all those involved. Yet though Oborne reveals how the South African government tried to mount a conspiracy to stop D'Oliveira being picked - which included an attempt to bribe him to make himself unavailable for the tour - the rulers of English cricket emerge just as very stupid people, whose political awareness would shame a gnat. We saw this stupidity again in 1970, when the authorities tried to go ahead with a South African tour to England despite the D'Oliveira affair less than two years earlier. Now we see it once more in their almost comical mishandling of relations with Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. They did not understand that D'Oliveira's appearance in Tests in South Africa would fatally undermine the propaganda of the apartheid regime which stated that non-whites were clumsy savages. Nor did they expect that his omission would cause public protest - perhaps understandably, given that, as the commentator John Arlott once told me, there were six non-Tory voters at most in the whole of professional cricket.

Nevertheless, to read Oborne's book is to feel deep anger. The ministers who then ruled South Africa had backed the Nazis in the Second World War (some were interned) and, immediately after it, had encouraged German immigrants. Yet international sporting authorities persistently refused to recognise the South African non-white sporting bodies, as they should have done on the grounds that the exclusively white associations for cricket, rugby and so on represented only a minority of the population. Those who connived in trying to keep alive cricket tours to South Africa, even at the cost of D'Oliveira's career, included Sir Alec Douglas-Home, a Tory ex-prime minister who must have known what he was doing, and, perhaps most disgracefully of all, Colin Cowdrey, then the England captain. Oborne's account makes it clear that the churchgoing Cowdrey, who ostentatiously dragged his conscience from bishop to bishop, was a two-faced hypocrite who fooled even D'Oliveira.

Oborne tells this remarkable story with the tautness of a thriller and the focus of a political tract. If you are at all interested in either cricket or humanity, I guarantee that you will read his book at one sitting.