Wednesday, July 27, 2005

How Dolly Mixed Up Apartheid

For the second Monday night in a row BBC 2 screened a fascinating heavyweight documentary at an ungodly hour, following last week’s examination of Belgium’s hideous conquest of the Congo with Not Cricket: The Basil D’Oliveira Conspiracy.

For those unfamiliar D’Oliveira was a ‘coloured’ South African cricketer who came to maturity just as the apartheid policy was being implemented in the 1950s. Brilliant with the bat and a fine bowler too, “Dolly”’s many achievements on the field included scoring two hundred runs in two hours and captaining his country- captaining, that is, his country’s coloured players on a tour of East Africa, for his skin colour meant he could never play first class cricket (i.e. alongside whites) in South Africa, nor represent South Africa internationally in a test match.

His feats in the coloured cricket leagues were outstanding, but his bearing on the field drew as much comment from those interviewed in the documentary, referring as they did to how he would take control of games, how his presence guaranteed runs, lifted his team.

It was fitting then that when D’Oliveira moved to England to play in 1960 (a move engineered by the English cricket commentator John Arlott, who regarded it as the greatest achievement of his life in cricket), he was seen by those in his oppressed community as a potential beacon. If successful he would strike a much needed blow, on behalf of the non-whites of South Africa, across the bow of apartheid.

He was successful. He played county cricket for Worcestershire, naturalised as a British citizen, and was selected for England in 1966. He publicised his age as thirty-one. He was in fact thirty-four, yet was still an elite player.

The controversy which would etch his name in history arose in 1968. In the final Ashes test at the Oval he scored a magnificent 158 runs, an innings hallmarked by his graceful, economical style, and took a crucial wicket as England won the test in improbable circumstances to draw the series. It seemed that he was a certainty to be picked for the travelling party for England’s winter tour- to South Africa.

This was to be the fulfilment of Dolly’s life’s dream: to play in his home Cape Town ground at Newlands, on the crease on which he and his kin had been prohibited from setting foot. It would be an almighty poke in the eye for the National Party regime.

It was an embarrassment they could not conceive of allowing to happen.

The conspiracy referred to in the title of the documentary began in early 1968, with correspondence between the South African cricket board and the secretary of the M.C.C. Lords was left under no doubt of the fact that, if D’Oliveira were to be selected for the tour, the test series would not be allowed to take place.

The selection committee that convened following the Ashes tests returned a verdict which shocked the English cricketing public- D’Oliveira would not travel, the decision explained on the preposterous grounds that his style would not be suited to the ground in South Africa, the country in which he learned his craft.

The fudge had been that it was better to condone fascism than to jeopardise good relations in the cricketing world and hove the dark shadow of the real world over the leafy environs of Lords.

The shamefulness of this decision hangs over those on the selection committee, including then captain Colin Cowdrey, to this day, but events allowed the M.C.C. to achieve redress. Warwickshire's Tom Cartwright, who had been selected in D’Oliveira’s stead was injured, and the M.C.C., stung by the outcry to D’Oliveira’s initial omission, now selected him.

The South African regime were as good as their word. Prime Minster Voerster stated in no uncertain terms that this team would not be allowed to play in South Africa as now constituted. The M.C.C., to their credit, rather than dropping D’Oliveira again, cancelled the tour.

The repercussions of this controversy and the public reaction it elicited, publicising as it did the vileness of the apartheid regime, soon precipitated the international sporting boycott of South Africa, an ostracization which helped in no small part crystallise international opposition to the policy.


The Basil D’Oliveira controversy refutes for once and for all (appropriately in light of the issue of Zimbabwe which arose at the last cricket World Cup) the fallacy that “sport and politics don’t mix”, and for many reasons. For the way in which success at cricket was affirmation for those oppressed and disenfranchised. For the way in which the oppressors used, or misused, sport as an agent for their fascism. For the way in which the outrage which seeped from the sporting arena into the broader world of political activism helped bring down the regime. For the way that sport simply could not be distilled away from its societal context, because, fundamentally, it was as much of that society as the people who played it, and who lived for it.

After the D’Oliveira controversy it was clear to all, to deploy possibly the greatest understatement ever, that apartheid was simply “not cricket”.


Blogger ian rush's moustache said...

Finally a proper sport covered on TSA. Keep the GAA talk for the regional funny pages, with their country fairs and guess the weight of the cake competitions.

2:33 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

Sure cricket is only hurling with manners.....

3:31 p.m.  
Blogger DrCelt said...

you know that in the Congo, the Belgians used to cut off the natives hands, that would have stopped them playing cricket once and for all

3:40 p.m.  
Blogger ian rush's moustache said...

Would that be before or after the sucupuss got to them?

4:10 p.m.  
Blogger DrCelt said...

presumably if she caught them playing cricket

4:20 p.m.  
Blogger ian rush's moustache said...

She wouldn't be arsed watch them play anything else...

4:22 p.m.  

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