By Gulu Ezekiel
The 1968 fifth Ashes Test at the Oval has produced some of Test cricket’s most memorable images.
There is the photo of a forlorn looking English captain Colin Cowdrey surveying the vast pools of water on the outfield on the final day with England on top.
Then there are the photos of all 10 English fielders clustered round the bat, desperately clawing away at the Australian tail with Derek ‘Deadly’ Underwood leaping up in another appeal—and John Inverarity looking away in despair as he is last man out to give England victory by 226 runs with barely five minutes of play remaining.
What photos have never been able to portray is the battle that was going on within the battle, the whole cricket world holding its collective breath over the fate of one cricketer.
That cricketer was Basil D’Oliveira and his story is unique; arguably the most dramatic of all the thousands who have played Test cricket.
‘Dolly’ was born a ‘Cape Coloured’ in South Africa at the height of the evil apartheid system that denied people of colour even the most basic of human rights. His prodigious talent in local non-white cricket came to the notice of John Arlott who helped him come to England in his 30s. He made his Test debut in 1966.
But always hovering his head like a dark cloud was the question of whether the land of his birth would allow him to return as part of an England touring team. The debate reached its crescendo in the summer of 1968 with Australia arriving in England as holders of the ‘Ashes’. A good show in the series would surely see D’Oliveira being selected for the winter’s tour to South Africa—even though the white racist government in power was determined to do everything possible to prevent this from happening as it would expose their pernicious system to the world.
The all-rounder was not to know at the time. But the entire political machinery of the apartheid state was ranged against him. And shamefully, the MCC—the guardians of English cricket at the time—were aligned with those unjust forces. They had just one target in mind—ensure D’Oliveira would not be selected to tour. And they almost succeeded in their nefarious designs.
What thwarted them was that old saying—“you just can’t keep a good man down”—combined with more than just a pinch of good fortune for ‘Dolly’.
England were beaten by 159 runs in the first Test at Old Trafford with all their batsmen failing except for D’Oliveira with 87 not out in the second. He was promptly dropped for the next three Tests—the first ominous sign of things to come.
Twice in the series Australia were lucky to escape defeat thanks to rain. Indeed, it was the wettest season on record.
They retained the Ashes after drawing the fourth Test but England were determined to win the fifth and final one at the Oval to square the series.
‘Dolly’ was drafted in late to replace an unfit player and that was the start of one of cricket’s most unforgettable dramas.
England finished the first day at 272 for 4 with opener John Edrich batting on 130 and D’Oliveira on 24 including a number of neatly struck boundaries.
The next morning he phoned his wife and told her to relax. He was sure he was going to score a century!
The pressure was enormous. One mistake and he would be out of the touring party. But a century would surely mean his inclusion and a nail deep into the coffin of apartheid.
At 31 he had an escape. A sharp chance was dropped by wicket-keeper Barry Jarman off the leg spin of Ian Chappell. It was all the luck he needed.
He serenely moved to his century and the words of umpire Charlie Elliot proved prophetic: “Oh Christ, you’ve set the cat among the pigeons now.”
He was ninth out for 158—in retrospect and considering the circumstances, perhaps the greatest of all innings—and the entire ground rose to applaud him back to the pavilion.
England reached 494 and despite a century by skipper Bill Lawry, Australia conceded a lead of 170 runs.
England’s second innings was disappointing but the target of 352 was still formidable and by close of the fourth day Australia had lost Lawry and Ian Redpath with only 13 on the board.
It was said that England captains always carried Underwood in the side like they would an umbrella in case of rain—for on a drying pitch affected by rain, the fastish left-arm spinner was almost unplayable, hence the nickname of ‘Deadly.’
Deadly he proved on the final day. But not before a torrential downpour during he lunch break almost proved heart-breaking once again for the home side.
At the interval it appeared to be all over for the Aussies at 85 for 5, Underwood wrecking havoc. Only opener Inverarity was holding firm.
It took a tremendous effort by the ground staff aided by hundreds of spectators who helped the mopping up that saw play finally resume. Australia now had 75 minutes in which to survive.
Jarman was hanging on and more than 30 minutes had elapsed when D’Oliveira bowled him in his fifth and last over.
Underwood now cleaned up the tail, grabbing the remaining four wickets for 6 runs in 27 deliveries. England had just made it and saved honour, though not the Ashes.
Nothing it now appeared could prevent the South African-born all-rounder from returning to the land of his birth as a member of the England touring party.
Instead, the England selectors dropped a bombshell. They left him out and a storm burst over England cricket like has rarely been seen before or since.
It was the pressure from Pretoria that forced their hand. England/South Africa ties simply could not be jeopardized for the sake of one player.
But fate was to play one more stunning hand. A few days later medium pace bowler Tom Cartwright declared himself unfit and now the selectors had no choice but to draft in the Oval centurion.
The South African government promptly declared he would not be welcome and MCC’s hand was forced. They cancelled the tour and South Africa’s self-inflicted cricket isolation had begun. It would last a further 23 years till apartheid had finally been dismantled.
One dropped catch and one century had turned the tide of history. And all thanks to one remarkable cricketer.