Lords loses out

R.W. Johnson

  • Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story by Peter Oborne
    Little, Brown, 274 pp, £16.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 316 72572 2
  • Reflections on a Life in Sport by Sam Ramsamy and Edward Griffiths
    Greenhouse, 168 pp, £7.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 620 32251 9

Growing up in Durban in the 1950s, I could see how keen Coloured and Indian cricketers were, how much everything was tilted against them and, at the same time, how good white South African cricket was. Take the schoolboy generation I saw rising around me. Playing against Hilton College, I came up against Hylton Ackerman and Mike Procter – the latter opening both the batting and bowling at the age of 13 – while at Durban High School the opening pair of Lee Irvine and Barry Richards had century or double-century partnerships every week; it was impossible to bowl to them. When in 1969-70 this lot, plus the young Pollock brothers, Peter and Graeme, slaughtered the Australians by four tests to nil, you felt that it had been waiting to happen. Years later, my Durban state school, Northlands, had two old boys on opposing sides in a test: Robin Smith for England, Shaun Pollock for South Africa.

The Coloured all-rounder Basil D’Oliveira came to prominence in 1958, when he led a ‘non-white’ tour to Kenya. Some of his achievements on that tour were staggering – 46 runs off one eight-ball over; 225 runs in an innings lasting 70 minutes; a bowling spell of nine wickets for two runs – but you didn’t know how good the opposition was. When he began to play for Middleton in the Lancashire League, I followed his performances and it was clear he was an exceptional player. The most revealing thing in his own account of his career in Time to Declare (1980) is the admission that he and the young Garfield Sobers (also then playing in the League) watched one another’s performances like hawks every week. In his first season, 1960, D’Oliveira headed Sobers in the batting averages and took 70 wickets; the next season Sobers had the better batting average but D’Oliveira outscored him – and Sobers was the best all-round cricketer there has ever been.

What is most touching, and awful, in Time to Declare – D’Oliveira tells it unwincingly – is the way in which both he and his wife, on arriving in England, kept asking where the non-white carriage was, where the non-white entrance was. When it dawned on them that they were welcome as equals, gratitude towards their adopted country knew no bounds. The fairytale was complete when D’Oliveira went on to play not only for Worcestershire but for England, for whom he scored centuries, took wickets, won matches; he got an OBE and met the Queen. He ends his book by saying: ‘I shall always offer Britain as my model example of the decent, multiracial society any country should be proud to copy,’ while also wondering whether he wouldn’t one day be ‘back for good in my own country’. In fact, the D’Oliveiras, despite many return trips to South Africa, still live in the shadow of Worcester cathedral. Both D’Oliveira himself and Peter Oborne comment repeatedly on the spontaneous goodwill the British public showed him. That came in no small part because, modest and unpolitical man that he was, he never went in for displays of assertiveness or posturing, and this never spoiled the story of what racial equality and simple fair play could achieve.

It was because that story was so well received that the D’Oliveira affair – he was dropped from the England team then re-selected for the 1968-69 tour to South Africa, leading to the tour’s cancellation by a furious John Vorster – aroused such strong emotions. There was never any doubt that Vorster’s government had acted abominably, but what hurt just as much was the suspicion – always ringingly denied by the English cricket establishment – that they had deliberately sought a reason to drop D’Oliveira in order not to provoke Vorster into cancelling the tour. D’Oliveira himself tells how a South African businessman, Tienie Oosthuizen, insisting that he was acting independently, tried to get him to sign a lucrative contract that would have made him unavailable for the tour. D’Oliveira, though tempted, was unwilling to do anything that might prejudice his chances of going on it.

Peter Oborne has little difficulty in showing that Oosthuizen was acting under orders from Anton Rupert, the Nationalists’ biggest supporter, and that Vorster had a sophisticated strategy worked out for pre-empting the possibility of D’Oliveira being chosen for the tour. Oborne has somehow prevailed on Bruce Murray of Wits University, who has spent years going through the archives to piece together what really happened, to make his research available to him – a remarkable act of generosity, for this should really have been Murray’s book. In some ways it’s a pity it isn’t, because Oborne doesn’t know the South African background well enough and can’t resist the temptation to overdramatise his case. He writes, for example, of ‘Malan’s Nationalists, who had openly allied themselves with the Nazis during the Second World War’. In fact, Malan kicked the pro-Nazis out of the party, declaring ‘there was nothing Afrikaner about National Socialism.’ He used the term to stigmatise those he wanted to get rid of. True, some young Turks (like Vorster) were pro-Nazi and there was a clear vein of anti-semitism in the party, but that was as far as it went. D’Oliveira himself had a clearer understanding of the Nats, and always insisted that the party could be reformed from within – which was what ultimately happened.

In the first test match against Australia in the summer of 1968, D’Oliveira made 87 not out, on a tricky wicket, and took two for 45. On the eve of the second test, Billy Griffith, the MCC secretary, put it to him that the only way to save the forthcoming winter tour was for him to declare himself ready to play for South Africa, not England, a suggestion D’Oliveira, immensely proud of his recognition by England, indignantly rejected. E.W. Swanton, the Telegraph cricket correspondent, and one of the most influential figures in the game, tried the same gambit and met the same response. The next day D’Oliveira was, most surprisingly, omitted from the England team by the selectors.

Oborne is able to show convincingly that even at that stage there had been a great deal of toing and froing behind the scenes between South Africa and the Tory old-boy network running English cricket, which was passionately keen to retain sporting links with South Africa. While these men claimed heatedly that cricket was the only thing they cared about, and reminisced about the many South Africans who had fought so bravely on the British side in two world wars, their own position was also at stake. England, South Africa and Australia had been the founding members of the Imperial (now International) Cricket Conference, and until 1958 had had double voting powers, giving them absolute control of the game. When South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961, these three countries, plus New Zealand, simply ignored the protestations of India, Pakistan and the West Indies that official tests could no longer be played against South Africa. In those still white-dominated days, men like Swanton, the MCC treasurer Gubby Allen, Griffith and the retiring MCC president, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, exercised an inordinate influence throughout the cricket world. The D’Oliveira affair marked a key defeat for this Lords-centred elite, which was on intimate terms with its counterparts in the old white Commonwealth. They had nothing against D’Oliveira in principle, but once he got in the way all notions of fair play were jettisoned.

D’Oliveira was too good a player, however, too determined to play and too discreet to make any public statements. This threw the decision back on the last line of defence, the England selectors. Having dropped him, they now came under huge public pressure to recall him and did so for the last test against Australia. He then made their lives impossibly difficult by scoring 158. Whereupon they dropped him for the South African tour, faced a public revolt then re-selected him when a seam bowler, Tom Cartwright, dropped out. Vorster immediately cancelled the tour. D’Oliveira was left wondering: when picking Cartwright, the selectors had made much of the need to take an extra bowler rather than an extra batsman, but when Cartwright dropped out they picked D’Oliveira, essentially a batsman. It didn’t make sense.

The affair involved two of England’s greatest postwar batsmen, the late Colin Cowdrey and Tom Graveney. D’Oliveira saw Cowdrey, his captain in the Australian tests, as the perfect English gentleman, and describes staying in his house after the tour was called off. He was sure Cowdrey had fought for his selection. Oborne gives a different picture, of a nice guy who found it hard to tell uncomfortable truths and tended not to deliver on his promises. Cowdrey’s main wish seems to have been that the tour should go ahead, and according to Doug Insole, another selector, he made it ‘clear that on balance he wanted Basil out of it’, a view endorsed by another selector, Donald Carr. D’Oliveira trusted Cowdrey to the point of asking him to write the foreword to his book. Oborne implies that Cowdrey let him down. When the MCC’s handling of the affair provoked a members’ revolt, led by David Sheppard and Mike Brearley, this, Oborne claims, ‘put the wind up’ Cowdrey, who clearly wanted to placate everybody. In the end, oddly, Cowdrey took D’Oliveira to Alec Douglas-Home’s London flat, where Home told him to stick to cricket and let ‘other forces’ determine events off-field, a sophistical argument given Home’s own dubious dealings with Vorster over the tour.

Graveney, on the other hand, was unequivocal in his support for D’Oliveira. He had been the one who kept telling D’Oliveira that he was good enough to succeed in county cricket, and he took him under his wing at Worcestershire. The two men loved batting – and drinking – together. Graveney was outraged at racial discrimination of any kind and had a real sympathy with D’Oliveira from the start. When D’Oliveira told Graveney that he aimed to equal him as a batsman, Graveney answered: ‘Forget it, Bas, you’ll never be as good as me for all sorts of reasons that aren’t your fault.’ (Graveney himself had left his first county, Gloucestershire, after a bitter dispute in which, to general anger on the county circuit, he lost the captaincy to a young public schoolboy, Tom Pugh. A bouncer nearly took Pugh’s head off not long afterwards, summarily ending his career.) When D’Oliveira was first selected for England in 1966 he was chaired off the field by his team-mates, but Graveney was not among them for, once again, he had been left out.

Had D’Oliveira gone on that South African tour, he would have aroused the ire of the sports boycott movement, with which he often failed to see eye to eye. He accepted that the boycott was a powerful weapon against apartheid, but he also knew that apartheid had robbed him of his best cricketing years and that for him to arrive back in Cape Town as part of an England XI would be seen as an enormous victory by the Cape Coloured community. There was no room for emotions such as these among the zealots of the boycott movement, who had necessarily to lay down general rules which then acquired almost divine force.

The boycott organisers insisted self-righteously that they were not using the boycott for party-political ends: they wanted sporting merit, not race, to count. ‘When people branded me as a Communist puppet, I stayed focused on apartheid in sport,’ Sam Ramsamy, boss of the National Olympic Committee of South Africa, proudly writes. He lived in Leipzig for many years and greatly admired East German sporting methods, claiming that the only difference between the East German use of drugs and what happens in the West is that in East Germany officials handed them to the athletes whereas in the West the athletes got them from unscrupulous private dealers. As head of NOCSA, Ramsamy has been involved in endless bitter disputes, in which his opponents claim he is dictatorial and that his desire to control everything wrecked Cape Town’s 2004 Olympic bid. He has also made it clear that race is a key criterion for Olympic selection. He tried to refuse South Africa’s invitation to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics on the grounds that the team would not be black enough, and eventually added a ‘development squad’ of black athletes who had failed to achieve the qualifying standards. In 2000, he refused to take the South African men’s hockey team to the Sydney Olympics, where they had a chance of a bronze medal, because all the players were white. Instead, he insisted on taking a black baseball team, which got beaten by record margins. Again, in 2004, he described NOCSA’s team for Athens as ‘too white’. This was inevitably resented by the athletes themselves, and during one victory ceremony in Athens, Ramsamy was booed by the South African winner’s family. Relations between the top athletes and NOCSA officialdom are frequently lamentable. The white swimmer Roland Schoeman, who won gold, silver and bronze medals in Athens, was publicly rebuked in the week following his success for commenting that South Africa wasn’t doing enough to support its athletes; he was told that no one would object if he wanted to emigrate.

The International Olympic Committee takes the lofty view that racism in sport ended with apartheid and that the Olympic ideal now reigns supreme. This is untrue. The IOC (on which Ramsamy sits) shows little appetite for inquiry into whether racial minorities in other countries get a fair crack of the whip, while the almost complete absence of women athletes from most Muslim countries is passed over in silence. We have come a long way since the D’Oliveira affair, but it’s still too soon to say that fair play has won.