Jews and cricket

As a people, we may not have produced a Warne or a Botham, but we have played our part in the development of cricket in a number of ways.

July 30, 2013 23:02
cricket rivals

Cricket 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

While the teams have been battling it out in the cricket tournament at the Maccabiah Games, culminating in South Africa’s victory on Monday, the oldest rivalry in cricket has been preoccupying many in the Jewish communities in England and Australia.

There is strong connection between Jews and cricket. Many of our community are passionate fans, while there have been a small number of Jewish players, as well as strong contributions to the administration, marketing and media coverage of the game.

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As a British Jew visiting Israel in my childhood days, I have some great memories of trying to pick up BBC World Service on the radio to get the latest Test match score. Now, with advances in communications, we can receive updates from across the world at the click of a button.

How things have changed, and not just in technological terms.

Back in those days, Australia would routinely give England a good beating, despite the best efforts of boyhood heroes such as Graham Gooch and Michael Atherton.

I remember being in Israel in 1993, when I heard the news that Gooch had resigned as England captain after another pummelling from the Aussies (defeated 4-1 in the series). Now England, since winning back the Ashes in 2005 after an 18-year hiatus, have the upper hand. Their 2-0 lead in the series looks unassailable.

Looking back at the history of the Ashes, the only identified Jew to have played in the historic context was Julien Wiener, the right-handed Australian opening batsman.

Both of his parents were Holocaust survivors.

Wiener played six Test Matches between 1979 and 1980 (and also seven one-day internationals), making his debut at the WACA in Perth against England in 1979 when he scored 58 in the second innings in an Australian victory. More recent Australian Jewish batsmen have included Jonathan Moss and currently playing Michael Klinger.

Moss was part of the Australian delegation at the Maccabiah Games in 1997 when tragedy struck and a temporary bridge collapsed, leading to the deaths of four athletes. He played for the Victorian Bushrangers from season 2000 to 2007, and also spent two seasons in English County Cricket with Derbyshire; he is now winning plaudits as a commentator for the Fox Sports commentary team. Klinger, aged 33, has played for the South Australia Redback and is captaining Gloucestershire in the county championship this year. He has been in a hot stream of form this summer, registering his fourth century of the summer in mid-July.

On the England side, there have been players with a Jewish connection who’ve played Test cricket. The most famous of all was Fred Trueman, one of England’s finest-ever bowlers. He was born to a Jewish family in Yorkshire but was adopted and raised as a Christian; only later in life did he discover that his real mother had been Jewish.

Between 1952 and 1965, “Fiery Fred” took 307 Test wickets in 67 matches at an impressive average of 21.57, forming a fearsome opening bowling attack with Brian Statham.

Another well-known cricketer with some Jewish ancestry was Mickey Stewart, who played for Surrey and eight Test Matches for England between 1962 and 1964, averaging 37. He later became manager of the England cricket team from 1986 to 1992.

His son, Alec, achieved even greater success, becoming one of England’s most stylist batsmen of the 1990s. By the time he retired, Alec Stewart had become the most capped England cricketer of all time, playing 133 Test matches and averaging 39.5, and also keeping wicket in many of these. In an earlier era another Surrey stalwart, who captained the county between 1921 and 1931, Percey Fender, was thought to have been Jewish but now this seems not to have been the case. For the record, Fender played 13 Test Matches and as a pugnacious batsman achieved notoriety in 1920 when he hit a century in just 35 minutes! While no English identified Jew has ever played in the main Ashes contest, one English Jewish woman has played in one Ashes Test. Netta Rheinberg was playermanager for England’s 1948-49 tour of Australia, playing in one Test, and had the misfortune to score 0 and 0 in her innings! Of all Test-playing nations, South Africa’s Jews have probably made the greatest contribution to cricket in their country, despite a long exile during the Apartheid era. Pioneers included the batsman Manfred John Susskind who played five Test Matches for South Africa on their tour of England in 1924 and the bowler Norman Gordon, who played five Tests the 1938–39 season. Gordon, still alive and approaching his 102nd birthday [August 6, 2013], recalls that when he ran in to bowl his first ball in Test cricket, he heard a heckler in the crowd shout “Here comes the rabbi!” Many years later, he remarked “Fortunately I took five wickets and that shut him up for the rest of the tour.”

In more recent times, the Bacher family have become synonymous with South African Jewish cricket.

Ali Bacher embarked on a successful career as a batsman, after qualifying as a doctor. He played 12 Tests as a batsman, averaging 32.3, and memorably captained the South African Test team in their 4-0 triumph at home against Australia in 1969–70. Later he became a high-ranking cricket administrator for the United Cricket Board of South Africa, overseeing the planning for the 2003 Cricket World Cup. Bacher’s nephew, Adam, played 19 Tests for South Africa in the 1990s, averaging 26 with a top score of 96 against Australia.

Playing is one thing but where Jews have excelled, as in other sports, has been in the secondary careers linked to cricket. Off the field, Jews have made contributions to the running of cricket and the commercial side of the game.

Unsurprisingly, as the “People of the Book,” we have also excelled as cricketing journalists. In the UK, we can count among our number former Wisden editor Matthew Engel and the current Sky Sports cricket statistician Benedict Bermange.

This summer the Ashes contest has brought divided loyalties between the English Jewish community, numbering approximately 270,000, and the Australian community, numbering around 100,000. Many in both communities have been following the contest obsessively. Any visitor to Lord’s a couple of weeks ago for the second Test Match would have seen more than a smattering of kippot in the crowd. Similarly, the start of the Third Test this week in Manchester will excite many in the city’s 40,000-strong Jewish community.

As a people, we may not have produced a Warne or a Botham, but we have played our part in the development of cricket in a number of ways.

The writer is co-author of Cricket Grounds from the Air (Myriad Books). @zakicooper

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