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Cricket at the Crossroads

Guy Fraser-Sampson talks about his book detailing the controversies and personal drama of English test cricket from 1967 to 1977.

One of my fondest memories is of a childhood holiday in Norfolk which included five days spent listening to the gripping last test match of 1968 against Bill Lawry’s visiting Australians. It will be remembered for Derek Underwood bowling England to victory on a drying wicket after groundstaff and spectators alike had spent the afternoon mopping up after a sudden cloudburst had left the outfield flooded, but it would also go down in history for darker reasons.

For Underwood’s heroics had been made possible by two match-winning centuries, one from John Edrich and the other from Basil d’Oliveira. It was what was to happen to the latter of these two heroes over the next few days and weeks which would provide the world of cricket with one of its most enduring and bitter controversies. For on the last evening of the match, just hours after England had won the match and squared the series, the England selection committee (then a committee of the MCC) met to choose the squad to tour South Africa that winter. This was sensitive ground, for South Africa operated a policy of apartheid and Oliveira was, according to the classifications of that regime, “coloured”.

As is now well known, Oliveira was left out of the party, the all-rounder’s place going instead to the veteran Tom Cartwright, then playing for Warwickshire. While a very fine bowler, Cartwright had only ever played five test matches, the last of them three years previously and his selection thus came from left field. He was a bowler who batted, whereas d’Oliveira was a batsmen bowled. Nonetheless, d’Oliveira was at that time lying fourth in the first-class bowling averages, well ahead of Cartwright. Given that, as Richie Benaud pointed out in a newspaper article, he also had a higher test match batting average than anyone in the party except Ken Barrington, it was commonly felt that he should have been given priority for the all-rounder’s spot.

A spirited protest movement promptly ensued, with a faction led by David Sheppard and Mike Brearley calling for a vote of no confidence in the committee (not only did this attempt fail, but it was acrimoniously attacked). Years later I was asked to write a book about cricket and instantly suggested the period beginning in the late 1960s, not only because this marked my own earliest memories, but also because it was such an interesting example of a game in transition: from what was then three-day cricket to one day limited overs matches, and from the time of ‘gentlemen and players’ to the professional era.

There was another reason for my interest, however. As I had listened on Test Match Special to the commentary on that waterlogged series of 1968 there had been occasional mysterious allusions to something which had happened the previous summer but which everybody, in typical British fashion, was obviously trying very hard to ignore. This had been yet another selectorial controversy and PR disaster, this time involving the sacking of Brian Close as England captain on the eve of a tour of the West Indies. I therefore determined to begin my story in 1967 and to focus much of the book on these two incidents, the first of which seemed deeply rooted in class prejudice and the second in something even more objectionable.

And so a fascinating detective story ensued. I was fortunate to be granted access to the MCC archives, to have the interested collaboration of Christopher Martin-Jenkins, and to be able to interview various former players. Where face-to-face interviews were not possible, I had the use of the MCC library as well as my own bookshelves, which between them contained just about every published cricketing memoir. I should mention in passing that Peter Oborne, whom I knew through his work in politics and economics, had previously written a book on the d’Oliveira affair. He was unlucky in his timing, though, for by the time I came to write my own further important evidence had come to light.

Sadly for the MCC, the results of my research would not make happy reading for them. The Close affair had been presented as a dismissal for disciplinary reasons following a ‘time-wasting’ incident in a county match between Yorkshire and Warwickshire, despite the fact that the selection committee which had earlier confirmed Close’s as appointment had known of this at the time (as had everybody; it had been in all the newspapers). Yet MJK Smith would confirm to me what I had already guessed from an entry which I had discovered in the archives: that he had been approached and asked to captain England in the West Indies some weeks before the infamous time wasting game at Edgbaston. Close himself told me that he had been warned by Crawford White (a well-known cricketing journalist) at about the same time that the establishment was out to get him, and that they wanted to install ‘their own man’ in his place.

In the case of the d’Oliveira affair it was not only the MCC’s reputation which would suffer, but also that of my boyhood hero, Colin Cowdrey. The new evidence to which I allude above included the testimony of Tom Cartwright, who sadly died while I was in the course of writing the book. His version of events flatly contradicts Cowdrey’s in various important respects, and since Cartwright was well known to be a committed Christian, and therefore unlikely gratuitously to lie, I chose to prefer his account. The fact that he had no personal interest at stake, whereas Cowdrey clearly felt that he did, also weighed in the balance towards believing Cartwright. In the interests of avoiding a ‘spoiler’ I will not reveal exactly what these discrepancies are, but they do throw into a very doubtful light the bona fides not only of Cowdrey himself but also the rest of the committee.

It also transpired that some of the MCC’s own officials had earlier that summer conspired to conceal the existence of a letter from the South African cricket board asking for an assurance that the England side would consist only of white players. Knowing that were the contents of this letter to become public knowledge then the resulting brouhaha would force the cancellation of the tour, the officials contrived to refuse formally to accept delivery of the letter though, as would subsequently be disclosed by various indiscreet acquaintances, they were perfectly well aware of its contents. Lest this allegation be thought fantastic, it should be pointed out that it was explicitly confirmed in the minutes of a meeting of the MCC full committee the following year.

To see the truth of my boyhood hero being revealed as having feet of clay slowly emerging as I conducted my research was not a pleasant experience. I do not believe that Colin Cowdrey was inherently a bad man, indeed probably exactly the opposite. Nor do I believe that either he (who had once contemplated taking holy orders) or the other members of the committee were racist, at least not by the standards of the day. I believe rather that he was a weak man who abhorred confrontation and had a tendency to tell people what they wanted to believe, and that when he was faced by the ranks of the cricketing establishment proposing a political fix his ethical resolve proved unequal to the task.

It is however perhaps ironic that the MCC should have chosen to name their annual ‘Spirit of Cricket’ lectures after him (surely someone like Garry Sobers might have been a more appropriate choice?). If so, then it is perhaps doubly ironic that when one of these lectures was delivered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2008 he should have chosen to pay tribute to David Sheppard and Basil d’Oliveira. He did go on, very tactfully, to complement the MCC on having finally selected d’Oliveira when Cartwright withdrew from the party, though he did wryly add ‘after initially shying at the hurdle’.


“Cricket at the Crossroads” by Guy Fraser-Sampson tells the story of English test cricket from 1967 to 1977 and is published by Elliott & Thompson under ISBN 978-1-907642-33-3

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