Oborne on D’Oliveira

by Harry on July 17, 2005

I’m too young to remember the D’Oliveira affair in any detail, but old enough for it to have made a dent on my consciousness, and, of course, to have seen D’Oliveira in his later, post-test-playing years. I remember quite vividly the affection for him in my circles, an affection which, if I’m right, contained not a whiff of pride that England had treated him well, but an bemused pride that he had chosen England. I was aware, of course, that the South African government was composed of evil racists and that the English cricket establishment was suspected of collaboration. But what Peter Oborne’s book Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Controversy makes clear is the extent of that collaboration and also the extraordinary importance which the Vorster government attached to preventing D’Oliveira from being selected for the South Africa tour. The establishment (in the form of G.O. Allen, Doug Insole and Colin Cowdrey, but also many others) lied, dissembled, and tried to double cross D’Oliveira. The South African government, through its agents, simply tried to bribe him.

I should make a confession here.

Although I was an activist in the anti-apartheid movement, in particular supporting sanctions and divestment, I always worried a little bit that I was wrong; that perhaps the orthodox Marxists who argued against disinvestment and sanctions on the grounds that investment in South Africa would strengthen working class consciousness might have a point. But Oborne makes the most compelling case I’ve seen that sporting sanctions, at least, were a vital contribution to the struggle against apartheid. (It’s worth adding that, unless he was very eccentric, Oborne, a veteran conservative commentator, was probably opposed to sanctions at the time).

The book has villains: not just those mentioned, but others in the cricket establishment. But it has heroes too. The committee at Middleton Cricket Club, where D’Oliveira started, and the people of Middleton themselves, seem to have treated him and his wife with grace and kindness. John Arlott championed his cause, gave kindly advice, lent money, and was the all-round good chap that was John Arlott. Illingworth extracted a fase promise that he could take Dolly on tour, and then snookered the selectors into honouring the promise. Tom Graveney was brilliant. The late lamented David Sheppard led the crusade within the MCC against the selectors; perhaps more courageously Mike Brearley, still only in his 20’s, insisted on seconding Sheppard’s motion condemning the selectors for bowing to political pressure despite the risk to his career (this goes some way to explaining why, despite playing for Middlesex, he was overlooked by the selectors for so long). It is astonishing to find that so many of one’s childhood heroes were, well, heroes (I started expecting Kenneth Horne or Jon Pertwee to turn up). Oh, and, there’s also D’Oliveira, who comes across as human, flawed, but, when it really mattered, unflinchingly principled.

Oborne’s account of the politics is riveting. But he is also terrifically sensitive to the way that socially structured opportunities influence the flourishing of talent:

What Basil D’Oliveira could not do was progress. By his early twenties he had already reached the pinnacle of his achievement in non-White South African cricket. There was nowhere else that he could go, nothing else he could achieve. His only glimpse of the international arena where he belonged came when touring teams visited South Africa. Non-white spectators like D’Oliveira and his friends were discouraged from going, partly for their habit of supporting the visiting opposition…..the authorities would grudgingly set aside small viewing areas fro blacks. These were put in the worst positions for viewing and insulated from the rest of the crowd with high wire fences.

It is painful to think of this brilliant young cricketer, so much more gifted than most of the performers on the pitch, obliged to watch these games from a despised position in the stands. But this was the only way in which D’Oliveira and other young black cricketers in SA could increase their knowledge of the game…. They paid their shilling for a deadly serious reason. They had a crying thirst for instruction in how to play the game. No detail could be too small: how a fielder stood at slip or how a bowler marked his run would be noted and filed away. Not one of them had ever been coached. They had no training facilities of any kind.

He also makes a suprisingly compelling case the Dolly was one of the greatest players of all time:

Cricket writers often mourn the lost generation of white cricketers such as Graeme Pollock, Mike Proctor or Barry Richards. But at least they got to play some Tests and unrestricted first-class cricket. The penalty that Apartheid inflicted on Eric Petersen, Ben Malamba, Cec Abrahams, Basil D’Oliveira and numerous others was far more absolute. They were denied training, facilities, access to turf wickets and any chance to play for their country at all. Only D’Oliveira escaped to enjoy complete sporting fulfilment, and he got his chance only at the very end of his sporting career, by which time his reflexes had slowed and he was half the brilliant sportsman he had been as a young man in 1950’s South Africa…..It is likely that but for the barbarism of Apartheid D’Oliveira would now be remembered as one of the very greatest cricketers the world has ever seen. By rights he should have imposed his great and singular talent on the cricketing world of the 1950’s, matching himself against the great cricketers of that age: Len Hutton and Denis Compton of England, Everton Weekes, Frank Worrrell and Clive Walcott of the West Indies, Keith Miller and Neil Harvey of Australia.

I’ve read better books about cricket than Oborne’s. Two (you can guess the best, but the second best is here). This might just be the best book on cricket not written by a North American Marxist. I’m not sure I can think of higher praise than that.

Update: If you’ve read this far, you will have to see the Private Eye cover. (courtesy of kevin in the first comment below).

{ 1 comment }


Kevin Donoghue 07.17.05 at 3:21 pm

For me the most memorable aspect of the D’Oliveira affair was the Private Eye cover:


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