Around 50 years ago Basil D’Oliveira, a South African-born, olive-skinned professional cricketer who emigrated to England and qualified to play for his adopted home’s national team, was as controversial a sportsman in his way as Muhammad Ali, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Black Power-saluting American athletes at the 1968 Olympics, or even the NFL’s cretinous Colin Kaepernick today. Millions of people around the world who never went near a cricket field suddenly knew D’Oliveira’s name. He was the subject of heated exchanges in the House of Commons, and thousands of Britons took to the streets to demonstrate on his behalf. So bitter and prolonged was the debate that “the D’Oliveira affair” became one of the key societal events that helped turn the 1960’s into The Sixties, and one that still sharply polarizes many of D’Oliveira’s admirers and detractors today, five years after his death at the age of 80.
What did D’Oliveira do? He hit a coveted “century” (100-plus runs) for England in a game against Australia in August 1968, despite which the national team’s selectors promptly omitted him from the tour of South Africa that was due to follow in the winter. There were immediate protests that they had done so not on cricketing grounds but in order to appease the Pretoria government, and its concerns about having to host a “Cape-colored” player on equal terms with his “European” teammates. At the height of the drama, one of the England players then found himself unfit to travel, and as a result the selectors decided that D’Oliveira could go after all. The South African president in turn announced his refusal to “accept a team thrust upon us” by what he characterized as “troublemakers” in the antiapartheid movement, and after a bit more in this vein the whole exercise was called off, and South Africa entered a period of international sporting exile that spanned the next 22 years.
I mention all this as a backdrop to what happened to me one unseasonably mild afternoon in December 1968 at a heavily guarded government dacha in suburban Moscow.
I was there because my father then happened to be the British naval attaché to the Soviet Union. It was an interesting time to be behind the Iron Curtain, because only a week or two after I first arrived, as a 12-year-old schoolboy on my summer holiday, the Red Army invaded Czechoslovakia. I remember walking down the street one morning and hearing an announcement growling over the loudspeakers attached to the tops of the lampposts.
“What are they saying?” I asked my father.
He listened for a moment. “They’re telling us they’re granting the request of their fraternal Czech comrades for immediate protection against imperialist subversion.”
“Is that really what’s happening?” I asked.
“Not exactly,” my father replied.
One of the Russian military brass who regularly came to our flat for drinks was the cosmonaut Alexey Leonov. He and my father must have become friendly, because some months later, when I was back in Moscow for Christmas break, I was told that “Alexey” had spoken to certain colleagues, and as a result we were to make the acquaintance of a “very important person” at his nearby dacha. This was none other than Nikita Khrushchev, once the undisputed hardman of the Soviet Union, known for his impressively purple-faced rants against the West, until his abrupt sacking in 1964. Evidently, he had mellowed in his retirement, because he was now said to enjoy the company of “reasonable capitalists” (and even their offspring), who could go out to see him by invitation. There would be four or five guests in our party, I was told, and under no circumstances was I to utter a word about it to any of my friends. Like those of other Western diplomats, our flat was bugged, so I heard about these arrangements as I played my father on the embassy’s tennis court.
When the day came we were driven in a rather nondescript minivan into the countryside west of Moscow. It would be nice to think that we were followed by men in black suits, but I don’t remember any particular drama about the journey. It was less like a scene from Mission: Impossible and more like a pleasant holiday outing, down narrow country lanes flanked by tall, snow-powdered trees. The dacha itself was painted dark green, not large, and surrounded by a log fence. Several men in hooded tunics with rifles across their shoulders were milling around outside. One of them came over and spoke in Russian to our driver, looked us up and down, and then walked back to open the front gate laboriously. We were in.
Khrushchev himself appeared a moment later. Then in his mid-70’s, stout and bald, dressed in a baggy linen suit, he looked like a former nightclub bouncer who could still take care of himself if the need arose. When we were introduced he gripped my arm tightly above the elbow, as if making an arrest, before offering a chortled “’Allo.” He smelled a bit musty. Eventually, we were shown out to a back veranda, with a view over speckled green-and-white fields, a nearby river gleaming in the winter sun, and served tea. We could have been somewhere in Sussex. Was this really the man who had once gone berserk in the U.N. and promised to “bury” us in a nuclear holocaust?
Khrushchev did most of the talking, using an interpreter, favoring us with a combination of epigrams and salty geopolitical statements. “What kind of shit is it when you have to keep people locked up behind a wall?” is one I remember. A strikingly attractive young woman came out from time to time to whisper something in Khrushchev’s ear. We later learned that our host’s wife had been ill in bed, so perhaps he was merely receiving news of her condition. My father thought the whole exercise “rum,” and came to believe we’d been brought there for a reason—possibly connected to the fact that Khrushchev was then secretly planning to publish his memoirs in the West and had wanted an audience to bounce ideas off. Perhaps he also harbored the conceit, not altogether unjustified, that if given the chance he could still browbeat most of his ideological foes into seeing his side of an argument.
I had just one direct exchange with Khrushchev. He asked me what sports I liked, and I mentioned a fondness for cricket. To my surprise, he immediately launched into a long and highly animated speech, in which the name D’Oliveira was intelligible before translation. This was rum. When Khrushchev eventually came up for air, the interpreter told us that he had expressed the view that “agencies of Western imperialism” combined with “racists” and “fools” were responsible for D’Oliveira’s exclusion from the tour of South Africa, “a country the civilized world needs like a dog needs five legs.” When Khrushchev leaned forward during this tirade, eyes flashing, you suddenly caught a glimpse of the man who had brought the world to the brink of destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was somehow impressive and a little disconcerting that the former first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union should know quite as much as he did about the vagaries of English cricket selection.
As we left, Khrushchev assured us that the whole meeting had been “invisible” and, rather ominously, that there would be “no repercussions” as a result. Perhaps our visit had not gone entirely unobserved, however. My father had brought his camera with him and, with Khrushchev’s approval, took a snapshot of our host standing at his front door. The picture was then converted into a slide, and carefully filed away in a container. Later, when my parents returned to Moscow from a holiday, my father reported that our flat was just as they had left it—“Although that photo of the Chairman of Selectors had somehow turned upside down in its box,” he added.