How Basil D'Oliveira Fanned My Hatred Of Racism

Four months after the Enoch Powell's hideous 'Rivers of Blood' speech had awakened something inside of my 13-year-old self, the D'Oliveira Affair fanned the flames into a raging inferno...
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I’m delighted by the furore created by the alleged racist comments of Terry and Suarez. The near universal condemnation of the very idea of that type of behaviour, along with the ridicule heaped upon its crass apologists, brings a smile to my face. That smile may be a little wryer when I read the reminiscences of some of the black players from the 70’s, recognising that their experiences serve to highlight the contrast between the indifferent attitude of both the public and the media at the time and the moral outrage that would be displayed if such things happened today.

Moral outrage can be a wonderful thing. Forget ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ and focus instead on an 13 year old boy experiencing, for the first time, that overwhelming feeling of anger and righteousness, the fire in the belly, that comes when you recognise that something is wrong, so wrong that it offends you to the core.

For me the spark that lit my fire was Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. The D’Oliveira Affair, four months later, fanned that flame into a raging inferno.

I just don’t get racism, never have and never will. If the thought of one player racially abusing another appals me and thousands in a stadium venting their bigoted spleens makes my blood boil, then imagine how I felt when a sovereign government and cricket’s governing body ganged up on one man solely because of the colour of his skin.

For months prior to the final selection meeting D’Oliveira had been put under a tremendous amount of pressure to declare himself unavailable for the tour. A lot of that pressure emanated from South Africa; in addition to the official protestations from Vorster’s regime, D’Oliveira was offered some serious financial inducements by several of the country’s businesses to lay low - no doubt sanctioned by Cricket South Africa and their National Party puppet masters. Predictable enough perhaps, and he would have expected that. What he may not have expected was the pressure from the MCC, terrified of losing the tour.

He withstood all of that and the tour party was announced. Dolly was devastated.

Gatting can’t escape from the fact that his obituary, whilst highlighting ‘that ball’, will also centre on his involvement in the infamous ‘Rebel Tours’. A fate that awaits all of the players who took the apartheid shilling.

There had been some criticism of the MCC from within cricket, notably from David Sheppard and Mike Brearley, but most players kept their heads down. However, the groundswell of support that had been building in the press and amongst the public erupted into a holy row. The old buffers in the egg and bacon ties had comprehensively misjudged the situation as surely as Gatting subsequently did when facing Warne’s ‘Ball of the Century’.

There is no doubt that for me, and many others, that the central issue was apartheid and our abhorrence of racism. I doubt that that was the main issue for the majority of people. You have to remember that racism, in all its forms, was the status quo in the late 60’s. This was the era of Kit-E-Kat ‘jokes’ and Paki Bashing, where verbal abuse was rife and mothers would proudly boast   that they “wouldn’t let one of my kids marry one.” Enoch Powell was a hero to an awful lot of people and bananas and monkey chants at football grounds were still a couple of years away.

What appeared to drive most people in their support for a respected and talented cricketer was the good old British sense of fair play. A sense that should be applauded and, as the MCC soon found out, never underestimated. He was shamefacedly reinstated and the rest is history.

I only ever saw D’Oliveira play on television but was lucky to meet him about 30 years ago at a Worcester Seconds game. To listen to him dissecting Ricardo Ellcock’s action was a treat indeed. He came across as both a gentleman and a gentle man.

The growth of the anti-apartheid movement in this country and the ostracism of South Africa are well documented.  Although racism is far from being eradicated, the sea change engendered by D’Oliveira’s stance and dignity caused many to examine their attitudes and not a few to actively challenge, whether politically or personally, all forms of discrimination.

He leaves a legacy to be proud of and no doubt all the obituaries will reflect that. Gatting can’t escape from the fact that his obituary, whilst highlighting ‘that ball’, will also centre on his involvement in the infamous ‘Rebel Tours’. A fate that awaits all of the players who took the apartheid shilling.

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