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The death of Basil Lewis “Dolly” D’Oliveira on Saturday was a poignant moment for all who love the game of cricket around the world. South Africans will have felt a particularly deep sense of sadness.
D’Oliveira was unquestionably one of the best cricketers South Africa has produced, yet he was not given the chance to wear the green cap of his country, simply because he was not white. Apartheid drove D’Oliveira to move to England, and after becoming the first South African of colour to play county cricket, he was picked for the England team in 1966 at the age of 34, two years after becoming a British citizen.
But it was “The D’Oliveira Affair” of 1968 with which his name will always be associated. He was selected for the England team to tour South Africa, but John Vorster’s government refused to allow him to play, and the tour was called off. Shortly afterwards, South Africa was exiled from international cricket, and although it took many years for apartheid finally to collapse, The D’Oliveira Affair was a tremendously important catalyst for the dismantling of segregation in sport.
The mere fact that D’Oliveira was able to play for England without having had access to the schooling, facilities and privileges that his white countrymen enjoyed, marks him out as a man of very special cricketing talents. Despite his being past his prime, he had a Test career batting average of 40 in 44 Tests and an economy rate of less than 2 with the ball on his way to 47 wickets. What would he not have been able to achieve had he been able to play for his country from a young age?
But besides being a hero to all disenfranchised South Africans, he won huge respect and admiration across all sectors for the dignified way he dealt with an extremely painful situation. He retained that dignity until his death. It is fitting that in 2000 he was nominated as one of the 10 South African cricketers of the century, and this memory will live on through the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy for which South Africa and England compete in a Test series.
The passing of “Dolly” is not merely a reminder of our painful past. As we salute and pay tribute to one of our great cricketing sons, it is also a lesson for us always to make sure that all our children may play happily on every sports field in our country.