Almanac Cricket – Basil D’Oliveira: 50 years ago


Fifty years ago on August 27 1968, in the gloomy and wet conditions of London’s Oval, Derek Underwood trapped John Inverarity plumb LBW. Inverarity who’d opened the batting was the last man dismissed, making 56 as Australia was bowled out for 125 chasing a target of 352. England’s victory had seen the five test series drawn, allowing Australia to retain the Ashes. Underwood’s last day haul of 7-50, bowled England to a thrilling victory. As important as Underwood’s heroics with the ball, teammate Basil D’Oliveira’s 158 in England first innings was pivotal.


D’Oliveira had enjoyed a seemingly productive series, leading the batting averages. He’d played two of the five tests scoring 263 runs @ 87.66; his 158 at the Oval being his highest score of the series, with an undefeated 87 in the opening test at Manchester also to his credit. During his two tests he took a catch, also claiming 3 wickets at 16-33 to complete, what seemed an impressive enough series.


After this emphatic victory England were selecting a side to tour South Africa for a five test series. This was of special importance to D’Oliveira who’d been born in South Africa on October 4 1931. D’Oliveira though born in South Africa was unable to play cricket in the land of his birth, as being of Indian-Portuguese heritage he was deemed as ‘cape coloured’, thus under the apartheid system could not be considered for selection.


In his youth he was a fine cricketer in the land of his birth, but due to the politics of his homeland was destined to seek a career elsewhere. Playing cricket in South Africa, D’Oliveira became a stand out in the ‘non-white’ leagues, (what a horrible term), including a match where once he scored 225 out of a team total of 236. But because of the segregation of sport as required by the barbaric apartheid system he could not play against white opposition, let alone represent the country of his birth.


After conversations with a number of influential English cricketing people, including John Arlott, the doyen of cricket writers, he moved to England, finding a society so different to the land of his birth. He socialised with white people, was not required to use ‘black only’ facilities due to his skin colour, as his cricket flourished in these new surroundings. He made his test debut against the West Indies in 1966. Within twelve months he became one of those esteemed few named as one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year. He consolidated his spot in the English test team, before being dropped after their 159 run defeat in the opening test of the 1968 Ashes at Manchester, this despite top scoring in the second innings with 87 not out. D’Oliveira’s omission apparently coincided with a senior English cricket official suggesting to him to be unavailable for the looming tour of South Africa.


Allegations persist of communication between members of the South African Government and officials of the Marylebone Cricket Club, (MCC) to guarantee he would not tour South Africa. The mysterious omission was further compounded by his sterling performance in the final test. Recalled, he scored that marvellous 158. Surely he’d be in the touring squad.


But all was not what it should have been. His omission after the opening test had people wondering if this was a way of keeping him out of the touring squad with all the political risks involved. Now a century in a winning side should have guaranteed him a spot in the touring squad. However when the  fifteen man squad was announced his name was not amongst those selected.


The selection meeting was chaired by Doug Insole. It appears the four selectors were present, with possibly six others also there. Those named as attending included England captain Colin Cowdrey, as well as former captains Peter May and Arthur Gilligan. The selectors subsequently over looked D’Oliveira for selection. The president of the MCC Sir Alec Douglas –Home, a former Tory Prime Minister, apparently urged the selectors not to select D’Oliveira, as it would make life difficult for the South African government. This sits with the allegations members of the South African government had lobbied the MCC in case D’Oliveira was selected to tour.


Arthur Gilligan was an interesting character. Not just a former English captain and active in their cricketing hierarchy, being the MCC president at this time, he’d also been an active member of the British Fascists between the two World Wars.


D’Oliveira received thousands of letters supporting him. Many people were shocked that despite a century helping his side to victory he was overlooked for the tour of South Africa. There was talk of D’Oliveira going to South Africa in a media role, covering the tour. Yet more shocks were on the way.


On September 16 1968 Tom Cartwright withdrew from the touring squad. D’Oliveira replaced him, with all hell breaking loose. South African President John Vorster condemned the team, describing it as the anti-apartheid team. Within three days of D’Oliveira replacing Cartwright, South Africa cancelled the tour. There was no way D’Oliverira would be allowed to play in his country of birth.


Following this, secret meetings were conducted seeking an unlikely compromise allowing D’Oliveira to play, but any chance of success was fanciful. Stories abound re: a wealthy South African industrialist offering D’Oliveira money not to tour, also that a South African domestic team offered him a coaching role, all so as he was not selected for England. It was felt this would allow the tour to go ahead.  Other rumours allege the selectors intimated he should play for South Africa. In this period of apartheid how could he expect to play in his country of birth, let alone for his country of birth? Allegedly the South African secret police kept a file on D’Oliveira.


Within the MCC former test cricketer, and Anglican Reverend, David Shepherd lead a revolt calling on the MCC to come out condemning apartheid, also to cease playing against South Africa until team selection was not racially based. Amongst his supporters was future England captain Mike Brearley. A special general meeting of the MCC was called to debate and vote on this, but the membership of the MCC were not prepared to countenance this approach, arguing the MCC was not political, that retaining cricketing ties with South Africa was important.


From this point on South Africa became a sporting pariah. Over the next few years planned South African cricketing tours of both England and Australia were cancelled due to mass opposition. Throughout the 1970’s & 1980’s South Africa was not welcome in the international cricket community.


South Africa returned to the international cricketing fold two decades later in 1991. They now select their sporting teams in a far different manner than in the times of apartheid. It’s worth noting that since 2004-05, South Africa V England Test series are played for the Basil D’Oliveira trophy.


Nigh on five decades later we are none the wiser of the specifics of the selectors conversations. All of those who sat in on the selection process, also the various government officials involved from both nations are long dead, their lips closed and silent. We can safely surmise it was too politically dangerous to select him to tour the country of his birth, a country he’d been forced to leave because of their racist regime.


D’Oliveira himself died in November 2011. His test carer saw him appear 44 times for England, who he also represented 4 times in one day internationals. His test batting average was 40.06, with 5 centuries and 15 half centuries to his credit. With the ball he picked up 47 wickets, also snaffling 29 catches in the field. D’Oliveira’s was a fine effort for a man who did not get a chance on the international arena until he was well into his 30’s.


For other articles on the issue of apartheid impacting on cricket/sport per se, you can peruse:


Remember May 22

Victoria v Springboks, July 3 1971


We will probably never know all the sordid details of Basil D’Oliveira being overlooked for the tour of his homeland. As Oscar Wilde so eloquently put it; the truth is never pure and rarely simple.


What we do know is that the D’Oliveira episode helped mobilise international pressure and support for the South African people in their long struggle to over throw the apartheid regime.






  1. A great read, thanks so much Glen!

    This, by Matthew Engel, is worth a look also:

  2. Grand piece of history Glen! D’Oliveira was a fine wristy batsman in the Indian tradition, reflecting his heritage. Great reflexes in the slips and his dibbly dobbly swing bowling trapped many opponents. He was a real gent in the best sense of the word, and his stoic determination played a pivotal role in changing his country of birth forever and for better.
    Smokie – the Engel article seemed a gratuitous rewriting of history to me. Excusing the immoral complicity of the MCC on the grounds of alleged personal vulnerabilities. Australia wouldn’t have had a cricket team in the 60’s and 70’s if they disqualified boozers and punt drunks. Walters, Grout, Jenner etc etc…….

  3. Warwick Nolan says

    Two other interesting components to that story:

    Up until this innings, the ageing D’Oliveira had enjoyed basically a modest career and England had preferred other all rounders in the three Tests prior. Crucially, wicketkeeper Barry Jarman dropped a pretty straight forward catch on the second morning, which allowed Dolly to continue his innings beyond the 30s. Had the catch been taken, Dolly’s innings (and probably) career would have reached a comfortable conclusion. His subsequent failure to make the touring team to South Africa would probably not have been anywhere near as controversial.

    Also, It should be pointed out that D’Oliveira was not actually selected in the original eleven for that final Test. He came in as a late replacement for (I think) Roger Prideaux .

    Destiny perhaps?
    A dropped catch that changed the world!

  4. Ta for the comments chaps.

    Warwick i also recall reading about D’Oliveira replacing Roger Prideaux.


  5. Terrific work Glen.

    I was surprised that D’Oliveira had a test average in excess of 40. Good ol’ Dolly!

    A question – the 71/72 tour of Australia was cancelled, but when did Australia “officially” cease sporting ties with SA? Did it change under the Whitlam/Barnard duumvirate in late 1972 or was it under McMahon?


  6. Luke Reynolds says

    Superb article Glen. Always find apartheid era South Africa stories fascinating.
    I was 12 when they returned to International cricket in the 1992 World Cup. Was so exciting to see a strong nation suddenly appear.
    D’Oliveira is such a pivotal character for the events of the 60’s and 70’s. Such a shame, in a sporting sense, South Africa didn’t play Test cricket in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

  7. G’day Mic.

    Whitlam/Barnard implemented the no official sporting links with South Africa in December 1972. The following Federal Governments under Fraser and Hawke remained committed to this until to the end of apartheid.

    You’d of course recall the ‘Scab’ tours led by Kim Hughes. There were also individual cricketers who toured with private teams such as the Derek Robins XI’s, also other sportsperson from rugby, horse racing, tennis , etc who appeared in South Africa. Overall Australia, Australian sporting figures were very staunch in by passing apartheid era South Africa for the best part of two decades.


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