I wonder how many other people in Israel, like myself, were sat glued to the computer this last Sunday, watching the final day of the Cricket test match between England and Australia from Headingley in the north of England. Even in Metar, in the south of Israel, we have a handful of ex Brits, South Africans and an Australian who are sufficiently interested in, and understand the complex rules of, the game of cricket to discuss it after (or even during) the morning minyan (prayer services) at the local synagogue, despite all of us having lived in Israel for well over forty years.
Although most of us (especially the Brits) are more interested in football (soccer to the American readers) and retain our intense loyalty and following for the teams of our youth from London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Leeds, we can honestly say that the last few weeks of cricket, beginning with the World Cup (one day cricket matches), through to the current Test Match series between England and Australia for the Ashes, has probably been the most exciting cricket we have ever seen in our lives. No need to explain to our bemused Israeli and American neighbours how a game can take five long days (6-7 hours each day) to complete and, more often than not, end up in a draw. This was for real and could have swayed either way right through until the exciting closing seconds, when a one man display by Ben Stokes pulled England through to victory in a match that only 24 hours previously they were dead certs to lose, and lose by a large score.
Cricket is normally a game for the leisurely. It is complicated, slow and generally polite. The Australian cricket captain was gracious in his post match comments, praising the way in which England had snatched victory out of the jaws of almost certain defeat, ad looking forward to the next match in the series (the best of five) which will start next week in Manchester.
Cricket is probably one of the few major activities left behind by the British Empire wherever they ruled their colonies, and still viewed in a positive manner. It is possible that these latest exciting games, televised to cricket lovers around the world, may yet create a renewed interest amongst a new generation of cricket fans, as appears to already be the case throughout Britain. Last months exciting finish to the World Cup series, where it was England (again) that won the final at the world home of cricket, Lords Cricket ground in the St Johns Wood neighbourhood of North London, which had already resulted in an immediate growth in interest, which last weeks Ashes test just strengthened.
There are less people playing cricket in Israel today than there were thirty years ago. Working at Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva for well over thirty years I have often been bemused by the small hut just along from the campus which bears the sign “Beer Sheva Cricket Club”, although I have never seen any activity actually taking place there. In the past there was a cricket league in Israel with teams from many of the southern development towns, especially Dimona, where there had been groups of immigrants from India – a cricket crazy country where even today you will see children playing the game in the middle of slums and rubbish heaps – to Herzliya, with its strong presence of immigrants from South Africa. It’s not the type of game one would normally associate with the Israeli mode of behavior, but given the fact that we have immigrants from almost every place on the globe, so too they have brought their sports, as too their foods and culinary preferences, with them from all of these places. In over thirty years of living in Israel, I have noticed that the one loyalty most immigrants do not shed when they come to Israel, is that of their former sporting affiliations. It is something which allows all of us to retain links to the places we grew up and, given the fact that most Israeli sports teams – both the local and the national – are not (to use a British understatement) the most successful, it allows us to retain some former loyalties without any major guilt complex.
There is a strong British and South American following for football in Israel, just as there has developed a growing soft ball league amongst ex-American citizens. It is always great fun when supporters of local teams from “back home” get together in Jerusalem or North Tel Aviv, to watch a big derby game together – as indeed will be the case this coming Sunday when ex Londoner supporters of Tottenham and Arsenal, old school and synagogue colleagues, friends and neighbours, before making Aliya, will get together in South Jerusalem or in a specific Pizza bar in Petach Tikva to watch the game together. Cricket hasn’t quite found the same following in Israel, but it exists and could probably do with a boost.
From 1988-1992, the representative of the Gerrer Hasidim on the Agudat Yisrael slate in the Knesset was Rabbi Moshe Zev Feldman. During that period he also served as Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Welfare. Born in Austria, he had come to England shortly before the outbreak of World War II and had grown up in the UK, before he came to Israel at the end of the 1940’s. I recall him once being asked by a television interviewer how he always appeared to be so calm in the middle of heated debates about social welfare issues or religious-secular relations. He replied that as a Hasidic youth growing up in the UK, he and his friends had been allowed to play cricket in the local parks – I suppose it reminds one of the Hasidic youth in Chaim Potok’s acclaimed book “The Chosen”, who played baseball in the ball parks of New York. Feldman explained that the most important thing they had learnt from cricket was to play the game in the spirit of a “gentleman”, applauding the opposition when they played well, and always conducting themselves in a polite and calm fashion. This, he argued to the bemused Israeli television interviewer speaking to an orthodox politician dressed in black hat and kapote, was how he conducted his political life, causing his opponents, often hot headed opponents, to completely lose their cool as he never seemed to be ruffled by their criticism and shouting.
There is a sign in our kitchen which states as follows: “there are two things in life which, if you don’t master by the age of three, you will never succeed in overcoming. One of these is eating Marmite (definitely a topic for another blog). The other is the rules of cricket”. I’m not sure that I really understand all the rules or the names of the field positions, with such quaint and strange names as “silly mid off”, “square leg”, or “popping crease” (to name but a few), and I doubt if there will ever be a linguist who could translate such terms into Hebrew (suggestions are invited) – classical or modern. And to be a commentator of the game, you have to be able to hold your viewers interest for literally ten hours a day, with chit chat, statistics, jokes and stories from home, since the time between the action takes longer than the action itself, until you feel one of the family. It really is not something for hot headed Israelis, but for as long as there are descendants of olim from so many cricket crazy countries, there will always be groups of us who will meet together and occasionally follow the games, as the world outside our door is more taken up with elections, Hamas and Hezbollah. Everyone needs some escapism from the real life threats we encounter every day, and there is nothing like a good sports competition to provide it for us, as an alternative to medication to relieve stress. And if that game continues for three to five days, it has the potential of introducing many Israelis to a way of life which is completely different to anything which we are used to experiencing out their on the street.
And it certainly wouldn’t do any of us any harm to occasionally applaud an opponent when he/she does something about which we approve. It is a lesson that many of us in Israel (including this writer) could take with us, especially as we enter yet another round of elections where everything is couched in extreme terms. It’s just not cricket.