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Basil D'Oliveira: Cricket and Controversy by Peter Oborne

Cover image © Time Warner Books
It is sometimes difficult for someone who was only seven years old at the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island to understand the magnitude of Apartheid in South Africa. I remember watching an old looking black man on the TV in 1990, walking along a dusty street, waving at loads of people and that was it. When you’re seven, you don’t always understand that history can actually happen – you think it is something from the past.

Basil D’Oliveira, or Dolly as he became known, was born in Cape Town in 1931. Being of mixed Indian and Portuguese heritage he was officially classified by the Apartheid regime as ‘coloured’ – what in the UK we would now term mixed race. This immediately barred him from many things in South Africa, the most notable of which was the right to ever be able to play his beloved cricket for the country of his birth, despite his talent.

This excellently well-researched and heavily referenced book by Peter Oborne tells the story of D’Oliveira from his days as a youth in Ba-Kaap area of Cape Town, talking about how he practiced on the cobbled streets of the old Malay Quarter of Cape Town and would play cricket under the shadow of Table Mountain on awful pitches.

Oborne tells of his early years in England where he was at first confused by the lack of separate doors for ‘coloureds’ when he went to the pub. The story continues, explaining how he was eventually selected to play for the English national side after a good spell at Middleton CC and Worcestershire.

It is not surprising then that a large portion of this book is given over to examining a series of shameful events that are now known as ‘The D’Oliveira Affair’ that saw D’Oliveira left out of the England team due to tour South Africa. Oborne looks closely at the sinister dealings of the Apartheid government, the weakness of the UK Government and the pandering to Apartheid of the MCC – the governing body of cricket in the UK at the time conspired against D’Oliveira.

Eventually, following a media storm, he was reinstated to the team only for the South African Prime Minister, Balthazar Johannes Vorster, to take exception to this ‘insult’ and cancel the tour.

It is a testament to the author that he manages to weave such a disparate amount of detail together into a clear narrative. He is also very quick not to just lay the blame at the doorstep of the regime in South Africa, but to expose how equally complicit some members of the MCC were and how weak the UK Government’s line on Apartheid was.

This could easily be seen as just a book about cricket, but in reality it is so much more. It tells the heart-warming story of quiet man who saw himself as ‘just a cricketer, and not a politician’ surviving the political quagmires of both Apartheid and the English establishment.

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