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Dropping Dolly: The D’Oliveira affair 50 years on

Rich Evans by Rich Evans
@Rich_Wisden 15 minute read

Basil D’Oliviera affair at 50: Rich Evans talks to Donald Carr and Doug Insole, who, at the time, were the only two surviving members of the most controversial selection meeting in sporting history.

First published in The Nightwatchman in 2014

At 8pm on August 27 1968, the England selection committee assembled at Lord’s, where it was decided that Basil D’Oliveira – a Cape Coloured South African immigrant who had qualified to play for England – was undeserving of a place in MCC’s tour party to South Africa. Five months earlier, South African Prime Minister Balthazar Johannes “John” Vorster had tipped off England’s senior Viscount Lord Cobham that the tour would be scratched if D’Oliveira were selected.

His omission sparked public outcry, and his eventual call-up prompted Vorster to denounce the side as “the team of the anti-apartheid movement”, which inclined MCC to cancel the tour. While MCC were adamant that politics hadn’t contaminated either selection process, its committee members were cast as politically naive buffoons for letting the nation down and South Africa off the hook. The D’Oliveira affair was a catalyst that precipitated South Africa’s omission from international cricket, which effectively ostracised South African sport and created a pressure point that would be an Achilles’ heel of the South African government.

The Swinging Sixties weren’t all about peace movements and pick-me-ups. In 1968 came a whirlwind of social upheaval and violent protest: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the My Lai massacre, the Prague Spring and the student-worker uprisings in Paris. Civil rights, gay rights, anti-war protests and second-wave feminism fuelled activists; the anti-apartheid movement was fitting with the age. In October, American sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos would unleash their Black Power salute on the Olympic podium in Mexico City. Man would soon walk on the moon, yet it would be 26 years before the formation of a democratic government in South Africa.

As the world turned its back on apartheid South Africa, MCC’s willing engagement was the last-man stand of the belief in cricket as the glue of imperial harmony. Befuddled by the decay of social order, MCC echoed the identity crisis of post-imperial Britain. The Tory-tailing private club had become an archaic ruling body, with the imminent birth of a new umbrella governing body for English cricket, the Cricket Council, soon to incite a gradual relinquishment of power and responsibility.

A portrait of Basil D’Oliveira,1969.

Australia, England – then known as MCC on away tours – and South Africa had been fellow founders of the Imperial Cricket Conference (the International Cricket Council’s predecessor). When South Africa became a Republic in 1961, they automatically forfeited their ICC Test-playing status, but it would not deter the cosy ICC club, including New Zealand, from competing against the Republic’s all-white XI. FIFA dumped them that year, the International Olympic Committee followed suit in 1964, and New Zealand’s 1966 rugby tour had to be scrapped as the hosts refused to accept Maori players. In 172 Tests between 1888 and 1970, South Africa only played white countries, tipping its hat to the politics of colonialism and apartheid, but ridiculing cricket’s so-called civilising function. Bridge-building was MCC’s preferred method of confronting apartheid.

By 1968, John Vorster was struggling to assert his authority, as he attempted to modernise the laws of apartheid. Although he strived to perk up South Africa’s crumbling global reputation, admitting D’Oliveira as part of an MCC team would simply galvanise extreme Conservatives within his National Party who strongly opposed any reform. While the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 exhibited the cold-bloodedness of apartheid, the greatest non-white South African cricketer of the time could only dream of competing on the international showground. He pursued that dream – 6,000 miles away.

D’Oliveira was barred from first-class cricket in South Africa and had no legal right to share facilities with whites. People tagged Cape Coloured were a concoction of Indian and white, or African and white. In 1960, with assistance from the Guardian cricket correspondent John Arlott, D’Oliveira – known affectionately as ‘Dolly’ – joined Middleton Cricket Club. From hereon, he was a ticking time bomb. D’Oliveira made his Worcestershire debut in 1965, having completed a five-year qualification period, and his Test bow for England in June 1966 at Lord’s against West Indies. D’Oliveira was believed to be 31-years-old when he entered the international arena, but was in fact 34 – the age at which Garry Sobers retired – although this is still contested. Treated like a second-class citizen for most of his life, D’Oliveira wouldn’t allow age to be another discriminating factor.

In January 1967, Peter Le Roux, South Africa’s Minister of the Interior, stated: “Our policy is clear. We will not allow mixed teams to play against our white teams here.” Britain’s Minister of Sport Denis Howell informed the House of Commons that MCC secretary Billy Griffith had confirmed the tour party would be “chosen on merit”, and that “any preconditions the host country lays down will be totally disregarded”. Vorster appeared to reverse Le Roux’s stance in the House of Assembly three months later when he insinuated that Coloured players would be welcomed in teams South Africa traditionally held sporting ties with.

The victorious England after winning the fifth Test against West Indies, 1966

Vorster took guard and went about his business discreetly. On January 5 1968, MCC sought assurance from the South African Cricket Association (SACA) and received a non-committal reply on March 1, delivered directly to Lord’s by SACA vice-president Jack Cheetham, before his colleague Arthur Coy handed Vorster a copy five days later. On March 21, Griffith told the MCC committee “no definite reply had been received” as he, MCC president Arthur Gilligan and treasurer Gubby Allen began to filter the stream of sensitive information. Allen feared the letter “would be twisted and leaked”.

On February 22, Alec Douglas-Home, MCC’s consultant-in-chief throughout the affair and the only British Prime Minister (1963–64) to have played first-class cricket, visited the Republic as shadow Foreign Secretary. He returned with the belief that the South African government would not interfere with MCC’s selection as long as they did not deem it politically motivated. On March 12, Lord Cobham, a former Governor of New Zealand, Worcestershire captain and president of MCC (1954), met with Vorster, who advised him to give MCC officials a discreet nudge: If Dolly is picked, the tour is off. Cobham’s letter was marked “Private and Confidential” and delivered to Griffith, who confided in his circle of trust.

After D’Oliveira’s dip in form in the Caribbean between January and April 1968, South African Sports Minister Frank Waring opined to Vorster: “Should his form not improve, it would seem unlikely that the MCC could choose him on merit.” For Cheetham, the question of merit was not his only concern. After MCC’s interface with the Labour Government through their communiqué read in the House of Commons the previous year, he believed “no Selection Committee, which has a majority of MCC Members, would dare not select the person concerned, despite loss of form.” The batsman’s inclusion in the first Ashes Test of the English summer only exacerbated his Dollywobbles.

On March 4, Coy told Cheetham, who was canoodling with MCC pals in London, that Cobham, who had considerable business interests in South Africa, would “do almost anything to see that the tour is on” and would “talk to O [code for D’Oliveira] with ideas that would suit us”. Coy thought “BG [Billy Griffith] is very much for us – is influential outside the meeting but hamstrung inside.” Cheetham believed MCC wouldn’t have the bottle to omit D’Oliveira, prompting Coy to advise Vorster: “In view of this the ‘non-availability’ of this person seems more important than ever.” Thereafter, matters in South Africa were so cloak-and-dagger that almost nothing was written down. In mid-May, Coy flew to England as Vorster’s secret surrogate to carry out their “plans, possible solution and alternatives”, attempting to deliver D’Oliveira’s non-availability or non-selection.

Back to the cricket. The England selectors exercised complete indecision ahead of the first Ashes Test of the summer, picking 14 players for Old Trafford when 12 usually sufficed. An unbeaten 87 by D’Oliveira could not save England from defeat. No other England player reached 50 but he was subsequently dropped for the Lord’s Test. With speculation about Dolly and South Africa rife, conspiracy theorists would scribble a big circle on the timeline. Despite his useful Old Trafford performance, Wisden argued that “England needed him as an all-rounder and he had failed as a first-change bowler”, a role he was not accustomed to. D’Oliveira was axed for the next three Tests.

On July 26 a meeting approved a 30-man preliminary squad for the South Africa tour, which excluded D’Oliveira. Excluding him from a 16-man tour party could possibly have been justified, but to dismiss an England regular from such a large pool was dubious, despite modest form. “Just look at the averages,” asserts a passionate Doug Insole. From early June to mid-August, D’Oliveira made 205 runs at just 12.81. Naturally, as England’s chairman of selectors in 1968, Insole admits he was heavily involved in the squad’s construction.

Dolly was put on standby for the final Test at The Oval due to the ill-health of Tom Cartwright and Barry Knight, before Roger Prideaux pulled out. Called into the line-up, D’Oliveira struck 158 – an innings reckoned by the Daily Mail’s Ian Wooldridge to be “probably the most significant played in modern Test match history”. If Dolly failed, no one could dispute his non-selection for the South Africa tour. Insole recalls: “The ‘potential problem’ had always been there ever since [D’Oliveira] came [to England]. It didn’t become an overt, obvious problem until he scored the runs in the last Test match.” Every run delivered a lethal blow to apartheid. Under unimaginable duress, the dignified underdog saw off an attack comprising the fearsome force of apartheid and the guile of the South African Prime Minister, with seemingly little help from his weary partner – MCC.

Let us rewind. On June 19, the eve of the second Test at Lord’s, Billy Griffith informed D’Oliveira that the only way the subsequent tour could commence was if the batsman announced himself unavailable for England but willing to represent South Africa. MCC’s secretary became the opposition’s recruitment agent, perhaps the greatest indication that the private club’s elite would push for D’Oliveira’s non-selection to ensure the tour ensued. D’Oliveira responded: “Either you respect me as an England player or you don’t.” Respected writer EW Swanton, long-time ally of Allen and England captain Colin Cowdrey, quietly extended the same proposal to D’Oliveira the next day. He would soon label the D’Oliveira affair a “tragedy”.

Arthur Coy, regaled by Lord Cobham in a private box at Lord’s, would have shaken hands with MCC officials, but exactly who he spoke to remains a mystery. D’Oliveira was relegated to 12th man and supplanted by Knight – a more penetrating bowler. Doug Insole introduced SACA backroom boy Wilfred Isaacs to D’Oliveira in the dressing-room, where the batsman accepted Isaacs’s offer of hospitality if he were to tour. A few weeks later, Isaacs enlightened the South African press that D’Oliveira would not be selected, but later denied discussing his selection with MCC officials. Toxic whisperings resonated around Lord’s: had the decision to omit Dolly for South Africa already been made?

On August 10, Tiene Oosthuizen, an official for Rothmans, offered D’Oliveira a crookedly lucrative ten-year contract to coach in his native land. The catch? D’Oliveira had to declare himself unavailable for the South Africa tour before the fifth Ashes Test. He declined, because he did not want to prejudice his chances of touring, to which Oosthuizen responded: “If you knew you would not be accepted in South Africa as a member of that tour, would you then take the job?” The following Sunday, Oosthuizen confirmed he’d heard “from the highest possible source” that if D’Oliveira were selected, it would be an “embarrassment to the government and to Mr Vorster”.

When D’Oliveira replaced Prideaux on August 21, Oosthuizen cancelled his scheduled call and was never seen or heard by D’Oliveira again. Two days later, after D’Oliveira’s ton, Surrey secretary Geoffrey Howard received a call from Oosthuizen.

England seal victory in the fifth and final Test at the Oval versus Australia (Dolly top right) 

In failing to contact Billy Griffith, Oosthuizen proclaimed: “Tell [the selectors] that if today’s centurion is picked the tour is off.” Howard maintained he conveyed this to Insole. “I don’t remember – there were so many messages,” Insole says. Howard’s message “would have got overlooked” and “was not outstandingly significant amongst all the others flying around – from here and South Africa”. Insole cannot recall whether the warning was circulated at the meeting, but “it wasn’t a particularly significant name, just another name from somebody in South Africa”. With Cheetham, Coy, Isaacs, and Cobham already in MCC’s ear, it was old news.

The general consensus was that D’Oliveira’s performance at The Oval had earned him a seat on the plane. Cowdrey asked D’Oliveira after play’s end: “Can we get away with it without getting too involved in politics?” According to D’Oliveira, Cowdrey then asserted: “I want you in South Africa. If anyone at the tour selection meeting asks me if I am prepared to accept responsibility for anything that might happen on tour should you be selected, I shall say I am prepared to do so.” Cowdrey’s nose may have grown a few inches during this exchange.

Prior to the selection meeting, Cowdrey told MCC’s media officer Jack Bailey: “It looks as though we shall have problems with South Africa … They can’t leave Basil out of the team now.” Bailey readied himself overnight for the South African backlash, but the next morning found Griffith and Donald Carr “clearly not quite themselves” with “a nervous uncertain air about the place”. Dolly had not made the cut. Radio commentator Brian Johnston delivered the sour news to the Worcestershire dressing-room, after D’Oliveira had notched another century. Tom Graveney recalled: “Basil just fell apart. He put his head in his hands and wept.”

Confidence in the national selectors was low. They dumped Geoffrey Boycott in 1967 for slow run-scoring after a Test-best 246 not out from 555 balls – a move The Times believed to be actuated by “unworthy and discreditable motives”. Ken Barrington was also dropped for his “tedious exhibition”, as Wisden put it, three years earlier. Brian Close, a champion of the north who epitomised the professional approach, was discharged as England captain in 1967 for deploying time-wasting tactics in a county match, before the establishment-friendly Colin Cowdrey was installed – also no stranger to a sluggish over-rate. For many, Close’s dismissal reflected the game’s innate snobbery rather than MCC’s desire to sex up cricket.

MCC insisted that continued sporting interaction, not alienation, could challenge apartheid. “Undoubtedly, yes,” affirms Doug Insole, MCC committee member for over 20 years from 1955. “There had been close ties with South Africa over the years and we knew their cricket administrators very well. MCC knew that supporting them might cause problems but they were determined to do it.” After all, the fostering of cricket in every part of the world was the private club’s primary function, which meant brushing “the South African problem” under the carpet.

There were ten people present at the selection meeting – the last to be held under the auspices of MCC. Government archives have pieced together much of the interplay, but the final segments elude us. The minutes have either been destroyed, remain under lock and key, or were never etched at all, but can we make sensible conclusions without possessing a smoking gun? The four Test selectors – Doug Insole (chairman), Alec Bedser, Don Kenyon and Peter May – were joined by tour manager Les Ames, skipper Colin Cowdrey, MCC president Arthur Gilligan, treasurer Gubby Allen, secretary Billy Griffith and assistant secretary Donald Carr. The only surviving attendees are Insole and Carr (at time of writing in 2014), 88 and 87 respectively, whom I’ve spoken to on numerous occasions. Insole stresses that no one else, not even Douglas-Home and future president (1969–70) Maurice Allom, was present.

Among the most prominent figures in MCC history, Allen was virtually all-powerful when the D’Oliveira affair was gathering momentum. Douglas-Home, in a foreword to Swanton’s biography Gubby Allen, wrote that Allen “with his strong and abrasive opinions, so regularly got his own way”. It is highly plausible that Allen’s blinkered get-the-tour-on approach clouded his personal judgement – he was adamant that D’Oliveira should not be selected for cricketing reasons.

Former England captain Arthur Gilligan, who steered his nation to victory over South Africa in 1924, was known for his distaste of conflict. MCC presidents were appointed for only a year and had little time to impose themselves on the perpetual pillars of Allen and Griffith. However, Gilligan was once a member of the British Fascists and clearly felt cricket and fascism were interrelated. His brother Harold Gilligan, also a former England skipper, had strong business interests in South Africa and was South Africa’s ICC representative.

Griffith was desperate for the tour to go ahead. Coy believed “BG is very much for us”, while the secretary smothered vital intelligence and scandalously tried to persuade D’Oliveira to make himself unavailable for England. Griffith toured South Africa in 1948-49, and after ten years as MCC assistant secretary from 1952, succeeded Ronald Aird as secretary. Carr was a former Derbyshire captain, led his country in India in his second and final Test in 1952, and was later secretary of the TCCB for a decade. He also managed the 1964-65 MCC tour of South Africa. The function of Griffith and Carr in selection meetings was purely administrative.

During May’s stint as England captain (1955–61), he and Allen – then chairman of selectors – formed a close-knit partnership. May married Arthur Gilligan’s niece and was Cowdrey’s closest friend, best man and godfather to his eldest son. May and Bedser were previously Surrey teammates, and May would succeed Bedser as chairman of selectors in 1982. Bedser possessed acerbic Conservative beliefs and was later a founder member of the Freedom Association – a right-wing pressure group partly funded by South African rand. Recently retired Don Kenyon, formerly D’Oliveira’s county captain, was MCC’s eyes and ears of the domestic game. He wanted his buddy Dolly on the plane.

D’Oliveira and Cowdrey share a joke later in their career, 1973

Insole, chairman of selectors since 1965, was to bear the brunt of criticism. MCC commanders like Allen and Insole were handpicked early, and the two shared a strong relationship. Of the selectors, Insole is the most likely to have been privy to Cobham’s warning. He remains angry about the media portrayal of the selectors in 1968: “People kept talking about public school toffs and all that jazz. Well, Peter May went to a public school, no one else did. Any aspect of the whole thing that might appear to point to political bias was dragged up whether accurate or not.”

One of the last great amateurs, captain Cowdrey was largely loved, but Ray Illingworth wrote: “He’d say things to you that he was going to do, and those things didn’t happen.” Cowdrey later wrote on D’Oliveira’s omission: “I knew every move that had gone on in reaching this decision,” but evaded Cobham’s letter in his retelling of the affair, after it had entered public consciousness. Despite his antipathy for the regime, Cowdrey would write: “Whatever we might think about apartheid, at least it seems to work in their country; it is none of our business.” Ames was one of England’s greatest ever wicket-keeper-batsmen and, like Cowdrey, was a Kent man. He slammed D’Oliveira for his poor behaviour in the Caribbean.

D’Oliveira sustained the belief that Cowdrey had his back, despite his skipper implying the opposite in his autobiography: “D’Oliveira himself, I feel sure, believed he had done enough to justify his selection … On purely cricketing grounds I was not so sure.” D’Oliveira’s immediate inferences, however, were of racism and political ping-pong: “I remember thinking, ‘You just can’t beat the white South Africans.’” Did Cowdrey lie to D’Oliveira or was he burdened with extra intelligence at the eleventh hour?

Cowdrey categorically did not deliver on his promise. “He didn’t say ‘I must have Dolly – he’s key to my side,’” affirms Insole. The skipper and team manager “certainly didn’t push for him. They were hesitant and didn’t back him on that score at all”. Speaking from his Essex home, foregrounded by cricket books and a framed picture of his introduction to the Queen, Insole insists that Cowdrey could have swayed any close call: “If you’ve got a lot of people in contention who are of roughly comparable talents, then whoever the captain wants has a big say in the matter.”

So, who were the selectors deliberating over? Alan Jones (Glamorgan) and David Green (Gloucestershire) competed with Roger Prideaux (Northamptonshire) for an emergent Test opener to cover Geoffrey Boycott (Yorkshire) and John Edrich (Surrey). Cowdrey (Kent) and Tom Graveney (Worcestershire), captain and vice-captain, automatically occupied two of the remaining four batting spots. Ken Barrington (Surrey), Keith Fletcher (Essex), Colin Milburn (Northamptonshire) and D’Oliveira (Worcestershire) were the strongest remaining candidates.

Barrington was one of the post-war batting greats, with a Test average of 58.67. Once he booked his seat, D’Oliveira’s age (supposedly 33 – three years younger than what is now considered his real age) would have become a factor. The middle order comprising Barrington (37), Cowdrey (35) and Graveney (41) was already weathered: choosing 24-year-old Fletcher, who later captained England, could be considered a positive selection. However, on Test debut a month earlier, Fletcher floored three chances at first slip and was out for a duck before being discarded for the final Test. D’Oliveira also spilled four catches in West Indies and could not throw for toffee, owing to a car accident in the Caribbean in 1965.

Despite procuring 55 wickets at 14.87 during the summer, D’Oliveira was not a front-line bowler or genuine Test all-rounder, but he could have nudged ahead of Tom Cartwright – an injury-plagued medium-pacer who could bat a bit – for the all-rounder berth. D’Oliveira’s Test batting average at the time, 48.60 (972 runs from 16 Tests), was first-rate, better than any other England cricketer who played in the final Ashes Test of ’68. Adding to his Oval century, D’Oliveira topped England’s summer batting averages and was second in the bowling. Between his Test debut on June 16 1966 and the August 27 1968 selection meeting, the batsmen with the most Test appearances indicated England’s strongest top six: Edrich (13 Tests), Boycott (15), Cowdrey (14), Barrington (15), Graveney (20) and D’Oliveira (16).

During this period, Cartwright failed to make a single Test appearance and Barry Knight played just three, with limited success. Yet Insole recalls Knight as “the best all-rounder around” and the “outstanding” Cartwright as “the best medium-pace bowler in England, and probably the world”. D’Oliveira and Carr agreed. But the last of Cartwright’s modest five Tests was three years before the selection meeting. Furthermore, Fletcher’s forward-thinking inclusion pungently challenges Insole’s view that “we needed our best side out there and that’s what we chose”. Carr recollects: “Dolly wasn’t anything like as good a bowler [as Cartwright] but a miles better batsmen.” Yet D’Oliveira ended the county championship season with 58 wickets and a bowling average (15.74) almost identical to Cartwright’s. Carr admits he thought D’Oliveira “deserved his place in the side”. What about Insole? “Can’t tell you. Too long ago,” he says.

Insole argued that on an overseas tour D’Oliveira had to justify his place as a batsman once Cartwright had been selected. Cartwright was not a genuine all-rounder either: he ended up averaging 5.20 with the bat in Tests. But, if not to replace Cartwright, the inclusion of D’Oliveira ahead of Fletcher as both a proven batsman and medium-paced bowling cover for the injury-ravaged Cartwright appears logical – especially because, as Insole recalls, “It wasn’t easy to get someone at short notice if something went crooked, so you try to cover the eventualities.”

Elevated from cricketer to political figure, and his fondness for alcoholic consolation well known, did the selectors feel this intense duress and publicity would impinge on D’Oliveira’s cricketing performance? Insole says: “That might have been in the back of people’s minds, but it was never raised.” Cowdrey was concerned enough to talk to D’Oliveira after his Oval century about “the inevitable pressures, to which he would be subjected if he were picked”. Surely the selectors did not have a moral responsibility, except to ensure the best cricket team was picked? “We had a cricketing obligation,” says Insole. “It wasn’t our business to get involved in the political side and I was hoping very much that politics wouldn’t intervene.”

Jack Bailey, who would succeed Billy Griffith as MCC Secretary in 1974, wrote: “[D’Oliveira’s] batting and bowling performances were assessed, and then his selection and non-selection rationalised by those responsible, to a degree which argued either great conscientiousness or self-deception.” Bailey himself described the decision as “almost inexplicable”, yet “There was a logic about it all.” In 2007, Carr added weight to the self-deception theory: “I would say the original decision was made on the basis of cricketing ability. I think I believed, or was talked into believing, that it was all on cricketing grounds. There were people high up in the cricketing hierarchy in England who were talking a lot about it.” Yet Carr, who concedes his memory is sometimes foggy, also says: “I think the MCC committee decided we should take this line, to leave out Dolly as a political challenge to South Africa,” for which the only sensible interpretation is that D’Oliveira’s exclusion was made to placate their hosts.

“Was the decision based on cricketing reasons? I think so,” says Carr, during a more recent interview. “The ‘Dolly’ business was particularly difficult, probably wrong. I’m pretty sure [it] was a genuine decision, no messing around.” A strong sense of doubt still festers. “There might have been a lot of talk outside that meeting. I think only two, three or four major people within MCC dealt with the political side of things. There was Billy Griffith, Gubby Allen, Doug Insole and possibly Sir Alec Douglas-Home who would have probably been involved.” Insole’s name sparks interest, but the former Essex captain categorically denies such involvement outside of the selection room.

When asked whether political elements were aired, Carr importantly replies: “I think they were. There was the odd person who brought up those sorts of things but I don’t think the political aspects were the ultimate reason why the decision was made.” Yet he immediately follows on with “[former PM] Douglas-Home was very much involved”. The elephant in the room had a voice. He concedes: “People were aware of what might happen [politically]. It’s a very difficult thing to say that it’s purely on cricketing grounds when you’re aware of what might be the final outcome.”

Politics must have been a heavyweight in the selection process, I politely probe. “It might have, yeah,” Carr concedes. “It was a very mixed-up situation. One is bound to be aware of the other aspects of things.” Contrary to previous assertions, Carr says that the Dolly debate took up a large proportion of the confabulations: “I’m pretty sure it did. Some meetings went on [for] a long, long time but that was to be an unusual end time [around 2am].” Insole “was very anxious to make sure [politics] didn’t become a consideration, but you can’t just clear it out of people’s minds.” He still tried: “[Political considerations] were mentioned because they were there. And that’s when I said, ‘Let’s forget about the bloody politics, let’s forget about South Africa and let’s pick a team for Australia [where conditions were similar]. We’ve had all this argy-bargy and advice, let’s forget it all and get down to picking a cricket team.’ As far as I’m concerned that’s what we did.” The sternest custodians of the belief that cricket is more than a game played a switch hit by arguing, in public at least, that the world and its bloody politics should stop meddling.

Carr believes: “Some people put a lot of onus on Dolly’s poor-ish tour of the Caribbean – maybe unfairly.” D’Oliveira’s futile displays triggered disparaging letters from the Cape, accusing him of not trying because he “had been got at”. Les Ames labelled D’Oliveira a “bad tourist”, while Cowdrey was “not best pleased with the hours he keeps”. Carr, who remained good friends with D’Oliveira, describes him as “a very thirsty individual” with “a reputation for going wild”. Keith Fletcher later wrote that D’Oliveira would “trash furniture after too much drink”.

Both Insole and Carr paint a noticeable divide between selectors and senior MCC officials. Insole recalls that in selection meetings “MCC had their own representation. They were the guardians”. Carr recollects: “The people involved in selection were mostly duly aligned to the concerns of cricketing ability, certainly those who were particularly responsible – the four selectors were interested in cricket. The other three or so were particularly aware, dare I say, of reactions from South Africa.” From which one can deduce that Carr believes Allen, Griffith and Gilligan did not want D’Oliveira to tour, irrespective of form or ability. Was there a spy in the room, deflecting information into the hands of Vorster via SACA? Carr and Insole reject this idea, though Insole moans: “I’ve never been on a committee that doesn’t leak.” When D’Oliveira was left out, Vorster contacted Coy to praise him on the resolution of “our respective problems”. Coy replied: “The inside story of the two final meetings held by MCC I hope to have the privilege of telling you when the opportunity presents itself.”

Were MCC desperate for the tour to go ahead? “Yes and no”, says Carr. “In general terms, we were always keen. It wasn’t a case, I don’t think, that the MCC would prefer to leave him out for the sake of being able to play the cricket, but they wanted the best thing for an England player.” Wouldn’t that be travelling to a beautiful country, collecting a handsome tour fee and parading their talent on the international stage?

Family man: Dolly at home with his children during the 1968 winter

Insole shrinks proceedings down to one deliberation: “The question was: did the management team, with whom he had been with the previous year, want to take him to South Africa? If they had said ‘yes we do’, we would have had no problem.” Insole makes Cowdrey and Ames the key influencers, perhaps the scapegoats. Daily Mail sports columnist Jim Manning posed three possible reasons for D’Oliveira’s omission: lack of cricketing prowess, deficiencies in his personal character, and interests of the game. Many dismissed the first two points outright, although the management found personal insufficiencies; as a tourist, it was Basil: Faulty.

Legend has it that Don Kenyon was the only one to truly back D’Oliveira, though Insole insists he didn’t push all that hard: “Don was obviously a close colleague and was inclined to support him. Once the manager and captain had said that they don’t think he had come into their first reckoning, Don didn’t tell us ‘I want to record my regret.’ He went with the flow.” Allen, Griffith, Gilligan and Insole had more badges on the chest, but inside those four walls between 8pm and 2am on selection night, Cowdrey and Ames held the decisive cards. Once manager and skipper didn’t back him, Dolly was doomed.

In April 1969, MCC would claim that only Allen, Gilligan and Griffith were made aware of the Cobham–Vorster exchange. In 2007, Carr admitted that by the time of the selection meeting “I was vaguely aware of it,” although he was more cautious when later questioned. But did MCC “guardians”, for a decision so vital to English cricket and British–South African relations at large, broaden their function during this meeting? For if their selection views were aired, D’Oliveira’s exclusion was almost a foregone conclusion. Moreover, would this explain the missing minutes? “I probably wrote them,” Carr said, “I certainly don’t know about them being missing.” Insole insists: “The only input that Gubby Allen and Arthur Gilligan had on behalf of the MCC is that Barry Knight [who had a complicated private life] was not to be considered. Other than that, no interference whatsoever.” They were empowered to ban anyone they deemed would damage MCC’s reputation.

During a Cabinet meeting on the day the England selectors convened, the South African government declared: “As D’Oliveira gekies word is die toef af” (“If D’Oliveira is chosen the tour is off”). MCC minutes reveal it was agreed that “no voting figures regarding the selection of the team be given to the press”, although, curiously, Insole says: “I can’t remember a selection meeting where we ever had a vote. It was done by consensus.” The decision divided the press. EM Wellings and John Thicknesse of the two London evening papers strongly agreed with the decision, but at the other end of the wicket, Alan Ross of the Observer accused MCC of a “sad political blunder”, and Robin Marlar, writing in The Cricketer, called for the selectors to “resign totally from cricketing administration”. The ever-mischievous News of the World attempted to recruit D’Oliveira to travel to South Africa as a reporter – a move Vorster considered to have “ulterior motives”.

A fateful twist was delivered when Tom Cartwright, who had been selected despite missing nine of Warwickshire’s last ten county matches, ruled himself out of the tour on 16 September. Cartwright would later intimate that his son’s displeasure at seeing his father spend months overseas influenced his non-availability, as did the disgusting image of South African MPs standing and cheering in Parliament after D’Oliveira’s initial non-selection: “I started to wonder whether I wanted to be part of it.”

Carr, Insole and Allen failed to convince Cartwright to reconsider, as did Cowdrey via a last-ditch phone call – another item not deemed noteworthy in his autobiography. A ten-minute meeting dictated that Dolly was to be thrown a lifeline. For the South African government, the eight-year ticking time bomb, which had supposedly been defused three weeks earlier, went boom. History has it that when “a certain coloured gentleman” was called up, the South African Prime Minister denounced the touring party as “not the team of the MCC but the team of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the team of SANROC [South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee]”. Publically ambiguous throughout but unyielding in confidence, Vorster hypocritically accused MCC of conspiring to “gain certain political objectives”. He did not go as far as to scratch the tour; that was left to MCC after a four-hour meeting with Cheetham and Coy.

Denis Howell was quick to point out that the yo-yoing of D’Oliveira in and out of the team had been taken free from government intrusion. For many, D’Oliveira’s initial non-selection reeked of a desire to appease the South African government, with his call-up three weeks later perceived as surrendering to British public outcry. Reverend David Sheppard and fellow disillusioned MCC members blasted the committee for failing to demand an assurance from SACA. Today, Insole acknowledges that an assurance “probably should have been pursued rather harder than it was”. Just four months passed before MCC astonishingly invited South Africa to tour during 1970, only to be negated by the “Stop the Seventy Tour” campaign. For 22 years between South Africa’s 4-0 whitewash of Australia in 1970 and the meeting of a Nelson Mandela-inspired new South Africa and India in November 1991, the Republic was isolated internationally, fed only crumbs via contentious “rebel tours”.

When MCC dropped Dolly, numerous commentators painted them as politically naive, but for Cowdrey there was no corridor of uncertainty: “The repercussions were every bit as bad as we expected them to be.” MCC wanted cricket to prevail over politics. Thus did the selectors, in a naive or misguided attempt to escape politics, actually make a highly political decision? After all, it was easy to find flaws in D’Oliveira’s cricketing credentials once a mammoth magnifying glass was thrust over them. The scope of Vorster’s collusion and the titanic pressure placed on the selectors has been proven beyond doubt. MCC executives, in typical English fashion, were generously accommodating to their SACA counterparts: the burying of vital intelligence; Griffith’s ludicrous proposal to D’Oliveira; and the dragging of the feet when it came to demanding an assurance. Although at the time, Insole insisted, “We have got rather better players than him in the side”, Griffith’s assertion that “never at any time was pressure put on the selectors by anyone in South Africa” was an outrageous fib. Vorster was peppering them from all angles.

D’Oliveira later batting for England versus Australia, 3rd Test, Trent Bridge, July 1972

The selection room was filled with men of substance but with their precious game under threat, did their hearts rule their heads? Politics “were mentioned because they were there” and “you can’t just clear it out of people’s minds”, yet Insole made an honourable, perhaps self-deceptive, attempt when he pronounced to the group: “Let’s forget it all and get down to picking a cricket team.” Thereafter, politics swayed either in a subconscious, unspoken or self-deceptive manner, while the notion that D’Oliveira may not have coped with the prospective stresses and publicity “might have been in the back of people’s minds”.

Even today, the last remaining survivors of that infamous selection meeting are still trying to convince themselves, at times rather unconvincingly, that the selection was based entirely on cricketing merit. Carr, for one, was “talked around”, “pretty sure”, “talked into believing” and “under the impression” it was a genuine cricketing decision. Helpful, warm and esteemed former pilots of English and world cricket, Carr and Insole dismiss popular conspiracy theories yet acknowledge that the selection meeting could not be held in a vacuum, detached from the outside world – no matter how hard they may have tried.

Donald Carr passed away in June 2016, while Doug Insole departed in August 2017. They both made outstanding  contributions to English cricket administration.

This article was first published in issue 6 of The Nightwatchman magazine (Lord’s bicentenary issue), The Wisden Cricket Quarterly. The hard copy is available to buy here.

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