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Cricketer, apartheid foe Basil D'Oliveira dies

FILE - In this April 22, 1966 file photo, South Africa-born England allrounder Basil D'Oliveira is seen in London. D'Oliveira, the cricketer who was at the center of a famous controversy that marked the beginning of his native country's 23-year cricketing isolation, has died after a long illness, Cricket South Africa said Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011. He was 80. FILE - In this April 22, 1966 file photo, South Africa-born England allrounder Basil D'Oliveira is seen in London. D'Oliveira, the cricketer who was at the center of a famous controversy that marked the beginning of his native country's 23-year cricketing isolation, has died after a long illness, Cricket South Africa said Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011. He was 80. (AP Photo/PA, file)
By Gerald Imray
AP Sports Writer / November 19, 2011

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JOHANNESBURG—Basil D'Oliveira, the South African-born England cricketer who became a pivotal figure in the sport's battle against apartheid, died Saturday after a long illness. He was 80.

His death in England was announced by Cricket South Africa.

D'Oliveira played 44 tests and four one-day internationals for England, his adopted nation. He was prevented from playing top-level cricket in South Africa in the 1950s because he wasn't white.

He was the central figure in cricket's decision to finally turn its back on South Africa during its apartheid era. In one of the game's great controversies, D'Oliveira was on the England team that was to tour South Africa in 1968. South Africa deemed that unacceptable and the tour was called off, leading to more than 20 years of cricket isolation.

After the "D'Oliveira Affair," South Africa did not play another match outside the country for 23 years and did not play any international cricket between 1970 and 1991. Only when apartheid was dismantled following Nelson Mandela's release from prison was the country readmitted to cricket community.

Other sports also banned ties with South Africa as a result, and the country's soccer team did not return to the international stage until 1992.

"Throughout this shameful period in South Africa's sporting history, Basil displayed a human dignity that earned him worldwide respect and admiration," Cricket South Africa chief executive Gerald Majola said Saturday.

Haroon Lorgat, the International Cricket Council CEO, said when he grew up in South Africa, D'Oliveira was revered among nonwhites.

"At the time, his influence and his legacy in a divided South Africa stretched way beyond the cricket field," Lorgat said. "While he never regarded himself as such, he was a hero to a generation of disenfranchised South Africans."

In many ways, D'Oliveira's role in changing views toward apartheid overshadowed -- and distracted from -- his immense talent as a cricketer.

He scored 2,484 test runs, averaging 40.06, hit five centuries and took 47 wickets with his probing away-swingers. He also scored more than 19,000 first-class runs and took 551 wickets in his 16-year career with England and county side Worcestershire.

"He was a very good allrounder," Tom Graveney, D'Oliveira's close friend and a teammate with England and Worcestershire, said Saturday. "But his batting was the thing. He was tremendously strong."

His statistics were all the more impressive given that he probably missed his best cricket years because of the discrimination in his home country. He did not make his test debut until he was 34.

"One can only imagine what he might have achieved had he made his debut as he should have done at the age of 20 on South Africa's tour of England in 1951," Majola said.

D'Oliveira was born in Cape Town in 1931 and showed great skill as a batsman and accurate medium pace bowler. But because he was classified as colored and nonwhite in South Africa, he wasn't allowed to play first-class games.

He was persuaded to move to England by the cricket broadcaster and journalist John Arlott, who found D'Oliveira a place as a professional player in the Lancashire leagues in northern England.

D'Oliveira's ability was soon recognized. But in 1968, in the Ashes series, he suddenly became headline news for other reasons. He was placed on the England squad to go to South Africa later that year as a replacement for an injured player.

South Africa's ruling National Party had made it clear that it would not accept D'Oliveira. But his selection to the team underlined a shift in sports -- cricket would no longer ignore apartheid. Having sparked friction between the two governments, the tour was canceled. South Africa's sports isolation soon began.

"The circumstances surrounding him being prevented from touring the country of his birth with England in 1968 led directly to the intensification of opposition to apartheid around the world and contributed materially to the sports boycott that turned out to be an Achilles' heel of the apartheid government," Majola said.

In 2005, D'Oliveira was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in Queen Elizabeth II's birthday honors' list.

His significance to the game -- and to England and South Africa -- is recognized by the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy, which the countries now compete for whenever they play a test series against each other.

On Saturday, on the third day of the second test between South Africa and Australia in Johannesburg, South African players wore black arm bands to honor D'Oliveira.

The Wanderers stadium also observed a minute's silence for a man who was never allowed to play a first-class game in South Africa and yet became one of the most important players in his country's cricket history.

"Dolly ... was a true legend and a son of whom all South Africans can be extremely proud," Majola said.

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AP Sports Writer Steve Douglas in London contributed to this report.