The mind is a little confused. Sort of heavy. It just got a dose of a brilliant cricket career, a story of a small town boy making history, cricket politics, racism, major social change and many such other things - all at the same time. Story of Basil D’Oliveira could do that to anyone. Thanks to Peter Oborne whose writing brilliantly presented cricket’s one of the most significant chapters in a manner that remains sober yet affects your brain at the right places.
Apartheid in South Africa:
In the general elections of 1948, South African legislation officially accepted apartheid as a policy. Following which four sections were created which included whites, blacks, coloured and Indians. This ensured that the racial discrimination happened when it came to utility of public amenities.
The immediate effect of acceptance of apartheid was that the nation was now represented in all international sporting events only by the white sportsmen. Obvious outcome was steady isolation of South Africa from the world on all fronts, specifically cricket.
Basil was to become the trigger for isolation of South Africa from international cricket for 22 years in 1970.
Basil D’Oliveira, the person himself:
Although most of us are aware of the legend Basil D’Oliveira, let me reframe it in the least words possible.
Basil, ‘coloured’ South African cricketer, was born in Cape Town in 1931 and his key cricketing period clashed with apartheid in South Africa. Having realized (painfully) that coloured people would never be allowed to play first class cricket in his very own country, Basil found courage and support from his fellow civilians to immigrate to England in 1960. Six years of domestic cricket with Middleton and Worcestershire with wonderful performances to show, Basil was selected for England’s International team in 1966 (at the age of 35, which he officially hid to get a chance in the international team).
If cricket was played only on the pitch:
However, the South African government kept a keen eye on Basil and him representing the English team. For England would visit South Africa soon and they would have to allow a ‘coloured’ player to play on their soil. What followed was deep rounds of political influence (England enjoyed a heavy influence over Imperial Cricket Council, now ICC), pressure on England’s selectors and key administrators and whole media’s attention along with divided opinions of various cricket fanatics.
This exact phase marked several emotions. How administrators from South Africa (headed by Mr. Vorster) threatened English administrators to ensure his omission thereby putting the South African itinerary in a jeopardy, how a couple of English selectors hid the clear threat from South African administrators by hoping for default exclusion of Basil, how a few influential people including the English Captain played the illusion around Basil; all has been a revelation of how human community thought and behaved then. The division of understanding of how racism in cricket should be dealt with was at its diverse worst. While some believed that apartheid could not be fought by isolating South Africa from the world of cricket, others completely believed in thorough exclusion of South Africa.
How it played on Oliveira’s mind:
Basil went through all the politics around him like a patient in coma. His concentration was always on his on-field performance which he kept excelling at. From being denied the opportunities to prove his mettle for England to being bribed to not be available for the selection to being offered a chance to return to South Africa as an official coach for blacks in South Africa, Basil saw hundred possibilities of his life pitched against his long nurtured dream and aim to play on South African soil. However, he made sure that his head was on his shoulders all throughout. Patience, as a term, was reduced to a mere synonym of his name. And while at it, he ridiculed pressure as a term.
So sure was the world and he himself, after the startling 158 in the first innings against Australia at the Oval, to have himself on the list which would depart for South Africa that none could take the selector’s cricketing reasons for his omission seriously. Perhaps, for once entire cricket fraternity would have smirked simultaneously. His subsequent inclusion and therefore cancellation of the tour was more like a predicted end to the entire episode.
As Oborne observes in his book, his effort to stay away from politics was one of the main reasons he was taken seriously and had an impact even amongst Brits.
A sport and a sportsperson can do so much for society, really.