Thursday, August 23, 2018

Matthew Engel revisits the d'Oliveira Affair

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The story of how Basil d'Oliveira was omitted from the England party to tour South Africa in 1967/8 after scoring 158 in the last test of the summer, apparently because the Apartheid government would object to his selection, has been told many times.

As Matthew Engel writes for the Guardian Sportsblog today:
It is impossible to know what happened in that selection meeting; everyone in the room is now dead. Was the chairman, Doug Insole, being honest when he said tortuously: "I think we have got better players"? Some cricket writers thought so. 
But Arlott, by now the Guardian correspondent, snorted: "No one of open mind will believe that he was left out for valid cricket reasons."
Engel revisits this 50-year-old controversy because he has a new theory to share:
No, there is another explanation, rarely spoken out loud. The clue lay in another omission from that squad: the rumbustious opening bat, Colin "Ollie" Milburn. In the fallout that followed D’Oliveira’s omission, hardly anyone noticed that Milburn had been displaced by the far less gifted [Roger] Prideaux. 
Only a few months earlier, England had been in West Indies, another alcoholic tour. Ollie was master of the revels. Dolly – a teetotaller until he came to England – was a regular accomplice. This was noted in managerial reports. Perhaps the selectors feared him being sloshed in South Africa, where government agents would have lurked, offering not honey-traps but beer-traps. A drunken Dolly in the cells would have made Vorster’s year. 
I am confident events in the Caribbean were at the heart of the secret. One selector confirmed this to me many years later. He may have been lying, to cover up something worse, but I don’t think so.
His theory certainly could be true. I have blogged myself about English cricket's relationship with drink, and you can imagine the English cricket authorities having a fit of morality and acting like a new housemaster determined to stamp out beastliness in the senior dorm.

But I suspect the reason for d'Oliveira's omission was a fear of how South Africa would react if he were selected. He was left out to save the tour.

This need not have been the result of a deep conspiracy, as Engel suggests. It could have just arisen from decent but unimaginative men trying to protect the game that had been their lives.

And the fact that all theories, including Engel's struggle to account for, is that when Tom Cartwright, a seam bowler, withdrew through injury, it was d'Oliveira (very much a batsman who bowled) who was called up in his place, leading the the cancellation of the tour.

1 comment:

Frank Little said...

Cartwright, who could bat well enough to be called an all-rounder, was a decent man and I have always wondered how serious his injury was. He ended his career as a coach for Glamorgan and died in 2007 in Neath. This fact sticks in the mind because it occurred in the run-up to the Welsh general election of that year and news came through too late to amend a Lib Dem mailing list.

I take it that you have read Oborne's biography of d'Oliveira? It might surprise a few people who know the author only as a standard-bearer of the libertarian right.