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Anti Apartheid Icon Basil D'Oliveira Dies

Basil D’Oliveira, the England cricketer and symbol of the fight against apartheid, died today at the age of 80.
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Basil D'Oliveira played cricket for England between 1966 and 1972. He will not, however, be remembered for his five test centuries or impressive average of 40.06 but his role in beginning apartheid South Africa's sporting isolation.

D'Oliveira was born in Cape Town in 1931, and, from the age of 17, lived under the separatist rule of the newly elected National Party. As a mixed race South African during apartheid, he was prevented from playing top-level cricket and was not even allowed to train with white players.

With his opportunities to play evidently restricted, D'Oliveira moved to England in 1960 aged 25, where he played cricket in the Lancashire League for Middleton CC.

By the age of 33 he was playing first class cricket for Worcestershire and earned a call up for England in 1966.

The controversy that defined his career began at the end of the 1968 summer, in the final ashes test match at the Oval. D'Oliveira scored a magnificent 158. This placed the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), who controlled the England team, in what they viewed as a difficult position.

England had been scheduled to tour South Africa in the winter of 1968-9, and the increasingly extremist apartheid government had demanded that the England team be all white. D'Oliveira would not be welcome playing a white man's game in the country of his birth.

The MCC committee was split on the issue, with many asserting that D'Oliveira should not be selected because sport should not be politicised. Despite the obvious reality that a decision either way would be inherently political, many were determined to keep their beloved sport free of what they viewed as transient policy. Others believed that a team should be picked solely on merit and that D'Oliveira's 158 should have made him an automatic pick.

Following consultations with government figures, D'Oliveira was not selected for the tour, sparking outrage in the press and drawing express approval from South African prime minister B. J. Vorster. The MCC alleged that the omission to pick D'Oliveira was based on form, prompting the Guardian to claim 'anyone who would swallow that would believe the moon was a current bun'.

Weeks later, when seam bowler Tom Cartwright was forced to pull out of the tour through injury, the MCC reversed their position and selected D'Oliviera. This change in policy was sparked by a realisation of the inherent significance of the original decision to omit him.

Shortly after, the MCC received a threat to blow up the plane carrying the squad to South Africa. B.J. Vorster then took what he described as a 'decision for all South Africa' and banned D'Oliveira from entering the country. As a result, the entire tour was cancelled.

Through what seems, in hindsight, a series of odd events and mistakes, the MCC had in effect cancelled a sports tour in protest against apartheid. They had, in the end, stood up for D'Oliveira at the cost of a cricket tour. This was greatly significant, as it set an important precedent for the upcoming sports boycott of apartheid South Africa.

It has been argued that the full sports boycott, which began in 1970, had a defining effect on the bravado and arrogance that defined the fetish-like policy of apartheid. The boycott was described as the 'achilles heel' of a proud, sports obsessed apartheid regime.

Consequently, after the events of 1968, D'Oliveira became a somewhat reluctant symbol for the fight against apartheid. He was a reserved, dignified man, happiest when out the political limelight and focussing on his game, in which he was a famously fierce competitor. The night following England’s 2-0 series win over Australia in 1970-71 he took to jabbing his forefinger of every Australian he met, saying: “We stuffed you.”

Tributes to D'Oliveira were immediately forthcoming from those closely involved in the apartheid sports boycott.

Ali Bacher, the dominant administrative figure in post apartheid South African cricket, told the BBC that 'he will always remain a giant in the transformation of South African sport'. 'He showed conclusively that blacks in South Africa, should be given the same opportunity as whites'.

British politician and former anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain said that 'in his own quiet, modest and unassuming way, [D'Oliveira] became the symbol of what was wrong with apartheid South Africa.'

Basil D'Oliveira died on the 19th of November 2011 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 80 and is survived by his wife and their two sons. His grandson, Brett D'Oliveira, has just signed a playing contract with Worcestershire County Cricket Club.

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