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By Partab Ramchand
He is best known as the symbol against the hated apartheid system in South Africa who made it good playing for another country. But this camouflages the fact that Basil D’Oliveira was a mighty fine utility player for England in the period 1966 – 1972. His record of 2484 runs at an average of 40, five centuries and 47 wickets from 44 Tests speaks for itself. Indeed it can be said that D’Oliveira was born 20 years too soon for his all round game would have been ideal for limited overs cricket. As it was his experience was limited to the first four ODIs played in 1971 and 1972, all against Australia.
But of course D’Oliveira had the game for the traditional format too coming good many times in a crisis. Firmly slotted in the middle order he rescued England from a poor start with batting that was an ideal blend of aggression and caution. With a beautifully relaxed side on stance and a very short backlift his powerful forearms nevertheless gave him command of all the strokes. He bowled steady medium pace with swing either way and a disconcerting wobble and made a reputation as a partnership breaker most notably at the Oval in 1968 when his crucial dismissal of Barry Jarman opened the floodgates for Derek Underwood to weave his magic and England went on to register a famous win.
With well known broadcaster and writer John Arlott playing a major role D’Oliveira came to England in 1960 where he signed on for the Central Lancashire club Middleton. Four successful seasons followed and with Tom Graveney persuading him that he could make the grade in county cricket he spent 1964 qualifying for Worcestershire and making a century against Bob Simpson’s touring Australian squad. Worcestershire won the county championship in 1964 and 1965 with D’Oliveira making a sizeable contribution. An England cap came his way in 1966 and scores of 76, 54 and 88 plus the odd wicket or two in the first two Tests meant that he was an instant success.
The following season D’Oliveira got his first Test hundred - against India – and in 1968 came his most famous innings when he scored 158 against Australia at the Oval. His not being picked for the tour of South Africa that winter despite this led to the wider repercussions that have been well documented – South Africa refusing to accept England’s touring squad after he was hastily reinstated following an injury to Tom Cartwright, the MCC calling off the tour and South Africa’s subsequent excommunication from international cricket.
D'Oliveira's century against Australia is his best known knock but perhaps his greatest innings in Tests came against Pakistan at Dhaka in 1969. In South Africa he had enjoyed considerable success despite playing on very poor grounds and matting wickets. Now he was confronted by a pitch reminiscent of those sub standard surfaces on which he had cut his cricketing teeth. It was pitted with holes all over but D’Oliveira made light of these adverse circumstances. Coming in when England were 100 for four in reply to Pakistan’s 246 he negotiated both pace and spin with more than a degree of comfort. He was 80 when he was joined by last man Bob Cottam and scored 34 of the 38 runs added for the tenth wicket. His unbeaten 114 was easily the highest score of the match - there was only one other half century – and confirmed his position as Mr Crisis Man.
D’Oliveira remained a permanent fixture in the England side till 1972 before the entry of Tony Greig endangered his position. Both players had similar utility qualities and the inclusion of both would affect the side’s balance. With Greig being 15 years younger D’Oliveira played his last Test against Australia at the Oval in August 1972 when he was almost 41. But he could never sever his ties with his beloved Worcestershire and continued playing for them till 1979. Even in later years he was capable of reaching great heights, once almost winning a Benson & Hedges Cup final at Lord’s single handedly despite a severe leg injury and on another occasion keeping Yorkshire in the field for more than a day in 1974 while compiling 227 purely because an opponent had annoyed him with a reference to his colour. He was the Worcestershire coach from 1980 to 1991 a period of continued success for the county and also had the pleasure of seeing his son Damian establish himself in the side.