Basil D’Oliveira: Cricketer non grata

Greatest team we never saw

The controversial South African cricket tour of 1970

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In 1970 South Africa had the finest cricket team in the world, and one of the best any country has ever fielded. The previous winter they had walloped the Australians 4-0 by margins as wide and forbidding as the High Veldt. Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock were great batsmen, Mike Procter a superb all-rounder, and the other eight were pretty good. What a summer it would have been.

It wasn’t, of course. As Colin Shindler reveals in a book which unpicks the threads of recent history, on and off the field, the tour was scuttled by widespread protests which split the game, leaving wounds that in some cases never healed. Peter May and David Sheppard, England team-mates in the Fifties, never spoke again after the great schism. South Africa, banished from the fraternity of Test-playing nations, had to wait until 1994 for readmission.

Barbed Wire and Cucumber Sandwiches
By Colin Shindler
Pitch, £19.99

The story really begins in 1968, that disturbing year of Hair, Dubcek’s deposition, Les Événements, the Black Power Olympics, and the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, followed by the election of Richard Nixon. In England there were riots outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, swelled by well-heeled radicals who went on to enjoy successful careers in law, politics and the City.

In September 1968 England’s proposed cricket tour of South Africa that winter was called off after John Vorster, the South African prime minister, refused to accept the selection of Basil D’Oliveira. “Dolly”, a Cape Coloured all-rounder, had come to England in 1960 to play for Middleton in the Central Lancashire League, and had then played county cricket for Worcestershire. In 1966 he was chosen to represent his adopted country in Test cricket, and had ended the summer of 1968 with a century at the Oval against Australia.

Nevertheless, having had a poor tour of the West Indies the previous winter, he was not selected in the original party for South Africa. He was drafted in when Tom Cartwright pulled out with injury. Vorster was having none of it and when Marylebone Cricket Club, which selected England touring teams in those days, refused to budge, the tour was off. Two years later, when Peter Hain, a 19-year-old Liberal, organised Stop The Seventy Tour, the protests proved successful.

It was a sad affair, pitching friend against friend. Sheppard, who had taken Holy Orders during his cricketing career, was now the Bishop of Woolwich, and found an ally in Mike Brearley, a fellow Cantabrigian who went on to captain England a decade later. But the Professional Cricketers Association, the players’ trade union, voted overwhelmingly in favour of retaining links with South Africa in a vote that pained their president, John Arlott.

The unwritten tale will always be one of sport’s great might-have-beens

At that time Arlott was the voice of summer. A matchless commentator on Test Match Special, he was also the cricket correspondent of the Guardian. In 1949 he returned from a tour of South Africa appalled by apartheid, vowing never to set foot in the land again; and he never did. So the debate was fierce, and not always tolerant. There were strong voices on both sides, and the threat of violence, which had disfigured the South African rugby tour of Britain the previous winter, eventually put paid to any hopes the cricketers had of playing five Tests and matches against all 17 first-class counties.

Wilf Wooller, a belligerent Welshman, led the charge for the “tour must go on” lobby. He was the kind of right-winger the class of ’68 loved to bait, and he did not disappoint them. But not all members of cricket’s establishment were so tone deaf. Many were decent men, torn between the conflicting pull of duty, as they perceived it, and feeling. Nor does Peter Hain, born in South Africa and who clearly had a dog in the fight, come across as the purest of souls. If anything, you would prefer to have a drink with Wooller.

In the end England played five Tests against a Rest of the World team, which included four South Africans: Richards, Pollock, Procter and Eddie Barlow. The Rest beat England 4-1, as South Africa might have done if the best team they have ever fielded had been allowed to pull on their boots. Their unwritten tale will always be one of sport’s great might-have-beens.

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