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Don't forget what happened to D'Oliviera

PREDICTABLY, a number of commentators in Australia have come out criticising the South African selection policy which has led to Justin Ontong, a coloured player, making his Test debut in the third Test of the series against Australia. If public memory is short, it would appear that the memories of these worthies, who have turned to the pen to make their livelihood, are even shorter.

In 1968, South Africa refused to let the English team land on its shores if Basil D'Oliviera was selected. There was no criticism of selection policies in Australia then, none at all. This, despite the fact that D'Oliviera, a coloured player from South Africa, who had made his home in England and earned a Test place at an advanced age, had made a magnificent 154 against Australia in the fifth Test of the Ashes series that year, an innings that was in part responsible for England's score of 494 (John Edrich made 164), a total that enabled the English team to win the Test and square the series (Derek Underwood's magnificent bowling on the final day, 7 for 50 on a sticky wicket, was the clincher.)

South African Prime Minister John Vorster made it clear early on that he would not look favourably on a team which included D'Oliviera. The MCC, which was then the ruling body of English cricker, was as craven an organisation as the present ECB, and it did not pick the coloured player. But when Tom Cartwright of Warwickshire opted out, the MCC had no choice but to pick D'Oliviera. South Africa cancelled the tour - in effect it was trying to tell the MCC whom it could, and whom it could not, select.

This did not bother Australia in the least. The Australians, baggy green caps and all, went to South Africa for a four-Test series under Bill Lawry soon after this tour was called off. (Bill Lawry got the hammering of his life there, losing all four Tests, and after the team returned he also lost the captaincy and his international career ended.) In 1971, South Africa was banned from international sport.

Soon after this, the South African rugby team toured Australia. They needed a military escort in some parts of the country. And according to cabinet papers which were revealed a few days back, the prime minister of Australia, William McMahon, had no objection to also letting the South African cricket team undertake a tour soon after - and this despite the fact that the South African government had insisted that two coloured players selected for the tour be dropped!

Although McMahon arranged to send a message to the South African ambassador about "the concern and disappointment which would be widely felt in Australia at the rejection by that government of a proposal by the South African Cricket Association that two non-white players be included in the touring team", he said he had no objection to the tour taking place. Don Bradman cancelled the tour, saying that while he agreed that sport and politics should be separate, the decision of the South African government to mix the two could not be ignored.

The South African government, by its racist apartheid policies, has denied thousands of good coloured players a chance to play international sport. Now the government is trying to make amends by positive discrimination. The players who benefit are not mediocre, not by any stretch of the imagination - all the government is asking is that if two players, coloured and white, are equal, then the coloured man should be given first chance. This is nothing but just after decades of discrimination.

It would not be out of place to point out here that Australia has never bothered to do anything to encourage its Aboriginal populace to participate in cricket. Jason Gillespie is the first cricketer with any trace of Aboriginal ancestry to make it to the Test team. Given the impact that Aborginal players have had in the national Australian rules football league, and anecdotal evidence, many people feel that if Aboriginal kids are given the same chances as white kids are when it comes to cricket, then there would be a good number who would be able to challenge for a place in the state teams.

Who are these Australian writers to question the policies which South Africa has undertaken? My sincere advice to these pundits who now come out crying that South African selection policy is all skewed in the wrong direction is to think of what has happened in the past. And to collectively hold their peace.