New to International Cricket Conference, 1975

Israeli cricket

Terence Prittie

The State of Israel took its place on the cricket map on July 23, 1974 when it was proposed and accepted as an associate member of the International Cricket conference, itself constituted in 1909. With about a score of teams and perhaps 400 people playing regularly, Israel will be the smallest members of the ICC, as well as joint youngest along with Singapore and the Argentine. This is hardly surprising; the State was founded only a quarter of a century ago, its people have endured a diet of austerity ever since, and only about six per cent take part in any form of organised sport.

Cricket has followed the British flag to the Middle East as elsewhere. English residents played a match at Aleppo, in Syria, in 1676, and there was an English side at Balta Liman, in Turkey, in the middle of the last century. English residents and military have played in Egypt, Jordan, and in the Mandatory Palestine of 1922-1948, out of which the State of Israel was carved. But the end of British rule in the area meant, at least for the time being, the end of cricket there. Gradually Jewish settlers filtered in from cricket-playing countries, Britain, Australia, South Africa, India, Pakistan. The first recorded all-Israeli cricket match took place in 1956 between Tel Aviv and Beersheba, using the Tel Hashomer Hospital ground which had a cricket pitch throughout the Mandatory period. The match was notable chiefly for the fact that the Beersheba side included Ben Abrahams (from India, and the acknowledged grand old man of Israeli cricket) and his seven sons.

The 1956 war against Egypt gave Israeli cricket a jolt from which it took time to recover -- all young and most middle-aged men were called up for military service and they continued to be called up for duty as reservists, usually in the summer, during the next few years. Not only was Israel on a permanent military alert; but her people work a six day week and the substantial proportion of the religiously minded will not travel on the Sabbath. There were plenty of other difficulties, mainly economic. No kit or cricket clothing is manufactured in Israel, and it ranked as luxury imports. There were, and are no cricket-grounds as such; matting wickets are laid on unused football pitches. This made any sort of regular practice very difficult indeed; nets can usually only be fixed up, and then on some grounds, on the morning of a match. Add to that the fact that a great many young Israelis do two jobs during a working day, the first from perhaps 7 a.m. until 2 p.m., and the second from tea-time onwards. Nor do schools have their own sports-fields as a rule; when they do, cricket is not a contender for use of them.

Yet by 1966 the revival of Israeli cricket was under way again. The chief reason was the immense enthusiasm of the immigrants from cricket-playing countries, with the ex-Indians and South Africans in the van. Within one year three were 21 teams, divided into four zonal leagues. There were zonal competitions, on a league basis of points for results and bonus points, and an inter-zonal knock-out competition. All games were one-day, with a limited number of overs for batting but no limitations on overs bowled by the individual cricketer. Test Matches against touring sides were of two days. In fact, Ken Barrington led a Mowbray team in Israel in 1968, a Bournemouth side toured in 1969, a South African all-Jewish team in 1971, and Harrow CC in 1972. In 1973 the experiment was successfully carried out of playing a Maccabiah Competition in Israel, between all-Jewish teams from England, South Africa, Australia and the U.S.A., as well as Israel itself. In the meantime, an Israeli XI toured England in 1970, and England and Ireland in 1974.

Good grass is hard to grow in a country with Israel's soil and climate; matting wickets are invariably used. The soil is very hard and there is a shortage of water, so strips of clay are heavily rolled and the matting stretched on them. The pitches are prepared by the players themselves -- a groundsman is an unheard-of luxury. On precisely one occasion a groundsman was mobilised for a match at the Carmiel sports stadium near Haifa. He misunderstood his instructions and watered the pitch for 24 hours -- assuming that what was good for football must be good for cricket too! The players had to organise shifts to roll the pitch throughout the whole night before the match in order to harden it up again. It is, indeed, normal for the home team, already dressed for the match, to complete the preparation of pitch and ground on the same morning. At present there are only two really good pitches in Israel, at Carmiel and at the port of Ashdod which, with its large Indian population, has become the unofficial capital of Israeli cricket. There are plans to make a permanent pitch at the kibbutz, or farming collective, of Jizreel in 1975.

To play in a cricket match in Israel -- for Jerusalem against Petach Tikva -- was quite an experience. The ground was an unused football pitch. It was pretty rough, but a more notable feature was its colour -- a patchwork of browns, yellows, greys and light purples, with only a little green showing here and there. Boundaries were 40 to 50 yards from the wickets, and the ground lay in a bowl-like depression. The result was that the heat, in an invariably cloudless July, was intense; players left the field every three-quarters of an hour for a cold drink and one was earnestly advised to drink at least six pints during the day to avoid de-hydration (its effects are a literal black-out, often accompanied by violent shakes). Play began at 11 in the morning and ended around 5 p.m., with 40 overs a side. The luncheon interval, in the high heat of the day, was a somewhat extended one. It needed to be, with a temperature of over 100 degrees!

What distinguished this game -- and this is a feature of Israeli cricket -- was the excellence, even brilliance of the fielding. Catching and throwing were first-class and the ground-fielding -- with the ball jinking, popping and skidding on the uneven ground -- deserved descriptive superlatives. Stretched over rock-hard ground, the matting wicket resulted in plenty of lift, and the first-aid kit in the pavilion was in use half a dozen times. Batting and bowling were of good club standard. One was made aware of the very special comradeship engendered by cricket played in difficult circumstances. For apart from the vagaries of the ground and the rigours of the weather, the actual laying-on of a match presents problems. Umpires must be found (they invariably are) ready to do the job for nothing on their one free day of the week. Cars are in short supply and petrol is expensive; it is not uncommon therefore to find a whole XI turning up at a match packed like sardines into a couple of cars. It may be that the overcoming of difficulties actually increases enthusiasm, which on this occasion was tremendous.

In spite of further setbacks caused by the 1967 and 1973 wars -- once again virtually the whole youth of the country was mobilised for active service and for reservist duty when the fighting ended -- Israeli cricket has made real progress during the last few years. Leading players think that the standard may have improved by about 30 per cent; the nucleus of older players who learnt their cricket in the countries of their birth are now being reinforced by Israeli-born sabras -- the word means a cactus fruit, noted for its tough exterior and soft heart. The visits of teams from abroad have helped tremendously, and in the Maccabiah Competition of 1973 Israelis had the chance of watching, and learning from such players as the South African Test cricketers Dennis Gamsy and Neil Rosendorf, Marshall Rosen of New South Wales, and Bob Herman of Hampshire. The coaching undertaken by Ken Barrington and Bob Herman has played its part -- Barrington, incidentally, along with the Bedser twins, is a member of the Israel Cricket Supporters Association in Britain. What a trio of supporters for a young and struggling cricket community, with over 50,000 runs and 3,000 wickets to their joint credit! The Israeli tours in England have provided useful experience too, with the additional treat of playing on green grounds and grass wickets.

Israeli cricket, during its short history, has had plenty of events. Perhaps the most stirring finish was produced by the South Africa-Australia match in the 1973 Maccabiah Competition. South Africa made 243. Australia lost their eighth wicket at 238, their ninth at 240 and their last man out at 242. South Africa's 243 remains the highest team score since 1966 (there were higher ones during Israel's first, brief revival of cricket, plus one individual score of 199). The lowest score by a club side so far has been the 12 of Lod B playing against Ramleh. The same match produced a bowling analysis of eight wickets for 3 runs by the left-arm slow bowler Nissim Reuben, of Ramleh, who collected Ken Barrington's scalp twice in 1968. There have been a number of centuries, the highest 143 not out by Tony Wiseman of Tel Aviv, playing for Israel against England in the Maccabiah Competition.

Only twice has a game in Israel been seriously interrupted, although there have been attempted interruptions by sticklers for Sabbath-observance. The first time was during a match at Ashkelon in September 1971. A girls' school close to the ground stopped work for the day at 1.30 p.m., and about 200 girls invaded the pitch. They meant no harm, but they had never watched cricket before. They disturbed the game and the players in more senses than one and the easy and immediate fraternisation which took place contributed to play being held up for an hour.

The second time was on July 15, 1973, when a match was held up by rain, the first time that this has ever happened in Israel and the last, maybe, for a long time to come. Just think of it -- one hold-up for rain, in a country's cricket history!

The record crowd so far is the 5,000 who watched the Test Match between Israel and South Africa at the Carmiel Stadium's opening game in 1971. This was a big social occasion, too, but over 2,000 watched Israel v South Africa at Beersheba in the same year and South Africa v Australia at Ashdod in 1973. Club games which invariably attract the most crowd-support are those at Ashdod and Beersheba, both places with a large ex-Indian population.

Israeli cricket faces plenty of problems in the years ahead. Perhaps the biggest is the lack of a good ground; it was because of this that the Israeli Cricket Association had to refuse proposed visits from two English first-class counties, Glamorgan and Essex. Then there is a chronic shortage of clothing and equipment, especially white flannels. The financing of tours abroad presents insoluble problems; Israelis must pay a travel tax on top of normal costs and this means that the return ticket by air alone costs £220 a head. The 1970 tour cost over £4,000; costs for 1974 were always bound to be much higher. Struggling desperately for economic viability in the face of a total economic blockade by its Arab neighbours, with markets for its goods very far distant and with no basic raw materials of its own, Israel had had to devalue its currency on a number of occasions and maintain a disciplined austerity regime ever since the State came into existence in 1948.

There is, above all, the need to stimulate interest in the young of Israel. They are much busier than their contemporaries in Britain, working longer hours both at school and in their jobs. Their tendency is to take concentrated exercise like football, basketball or a vigorous swim. Coming mainly from families which emigrated from Eastern Europe or Arab countries, cricket is to them a somewhat exotic as well as slow-motion sport. Cricket will not become a mass-sport in Israel, but prospects are improving all the time, with the young showing increased interest and their seniors remaining deeply and sentimentally attached to the game. The future for Israeli cricket may not be brilliant; but prospects are at the moment set fair.

It would be pleasant to record that the Israeli cricketers who toured in Britain and Ireland at the end of the 1974 season met with the success that their friends hoped for them. They lost seven out of their thirteen games, won only two and saw two more to which they had particularly looked forward -- against Essex and Harrow -- totally washed out by rain. They were, quite simply, beaten by the weather, coming from unbroken sunshine and temperatures in the nineties into one of the coldest and wettest late summers in our cricket history. Their batsmen were badly foxed by spin bowling on slow pitches, and their fieldsmen suffered even more in chilly winds and under leaden skies.

Still, there were some consolations. A strong Bournemouth side won by only three wickets, and a second match in Bournemouth would have been won but for rain -- the Israelis finished with 149 for four, with only nine runs needed to win. There was some useful batting in the two matches played in Ireland at the outset of the tour and the Israeli bowlers, led by Noah Davidson, were invariably steady if lacking the variety needed on grass pitches. With only four members of the side that came to Britain in 1970 available, there was a very marked lack of experience of the conditions which were encountered, but the Israeli cricketers were in no way depressed.

© John Wisden & Co