Jews and cricket

Cricket has some unexpected Jewish connections. Even Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism, mentioned the sport in his novel, “Old-New Land” (or “Altneuland”).

September 24, 2019 14:24
4 minute read.
Old Finchleians Cricket Club v Highgate Taverners Cricket Club at Old Finchleians Memorial Ground, W

Old Finchleians Cricket Club v Highgate Taverners Cricket Club at Old Finchleians Memorial Ground, Woodside Park, North London, England.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a breathtaking summer of cricket and for supporters of the “old game,” particularly for Australian and English Jews. The latter were captivated by England’s World Cup victory in mid-July on home soil, the first time they have won that sought-after trophy.

Meanwhile, Australian Jewish cricket fans have been in an upbeat mood, after their country retained the coveted Ashes with a resounding victory at Old Trafford last week. Although this past weekend England bounced back to win the final Test at the Oval in London, leveling the series at 2-2 – the first drawn Ashes series in 47 years – the famous urn remains with its holders: Australia.

As well as being avid cricket supporters, Jews have played a pro-active role in the development of the game. The only identified Jew to have played in the England-vs-Australia contest is the Melbourne-born batsman Julien Weiner. Born in 1955 to Holocaust-survivor parents, one from Poland and the other from Austria, he played six Test matches (and seven one-day internationals), two of them against England in 1979-80. A stubborn opening batsman, he was unlucky to be dropped after scoring 93 in his last Test, against Pakistan.

Another Victoria-born Jewish batsman, Michael Klinger, has played international cricket for Australia more recently. The winner of a gold medal in 1997 at the Maccabiah Games as a 17-year-old, Klinger – known as the Jewish Bradman – was a prolific batsman, particularly in limited-overs cricket. When he retired from the Australian domestic competition – the “Big Bash League” – in 2019, he was the competition’s highest-ever run scorer. At the age of 36, Klinger was belatedly picked by Australia for a three-match T20 international series against Sri Lanka, in which he was the leading run-scorer.

No identified Jew has played Test cricket for England. But the great English fast bowler Fred Trueman (1931-2006), the first to take 300 Test wickets, spoke publicly in his later years about his discovery that he had apparently been born to a Jewish mother but had been adopted and raised as a Christian. He seemed to warm to his new-found Jewishness, albeit declaring that he was not willing to stop eating bacon sandwiches!

Recent genealogical research by his biographer, however, has cast doubt on Trueman’s apparent Jewish heritage. “Fiery Fred” apart, England has never produced a Jewish Test cricketer, though there have been a number of useful Jewish county players, including the Hampshire batsman Mike Barnard, who died last year.

The country that has produced the most Jewish cricketers is South Africa. Manfred Susskind, second in the batting averages in the 1924 Test series against England, took steps to hide his Jewishness. The first openly Jewish Test cricketer was the fast bowler Norman Gordon (1911-2014). When he ran up to bowl the first ball on his Test debut, a heckler in the crowd shouted: “Here comes the Rabbi!” Gordon was the leading wicket-taker in the five-Test series against England in 1938-39, but, somewhat surprisingly, was not selected for South Africa’s 1947 tour of England, possibly because of antisemitism.

THE MOST famous South African Jewish cricket figure is Dr. Ali Bacher. Better known in more recent times for his role as the supremo of South African cricket – including heading the country’s landmark hosting of the World Cup in 2003 – Bacher previously captained one of the greatest Test teams of all time. The highlight of his 12 Test career was skippering the Proteas to a famous 4-0 victory in the 1969-70 series against Australia. His nephew, Adam Bacher, played 19 Tests for South Africa, as well as excelling in one-day cricket as an attacking opener.

Other notable South African Jewish players include Sid O’Linn (born Sydney Olinsky) (1927-2016), who played all five Tests for South Africa on their tour of England in 1960, and the wicket-keeper batsman Dennis Gamsy (b. 1940), who played two Tests against Australia in 1970 as well as touring England in 1965.

Remarkably, the only Jew to have scored a Test century is a West Indian, Ivan Mordecai Barrow (1911-79). Born to Sephardi parents in Jamaica, Barrow toured England in 1933 and 1939. A wicket-keeper batsman, he scored 105 at Old Trafford in 1933, thereby becoming the first West Indian to score a Test century abroad. Centuries were also scored in the Ireland-vs-Scotland contest by Dr. Louis Jacobson for Ireland, and by the Sussex batsman Terry Raconzier for Scotland.

Two Irish Jews have captained their national team. Marc Cohen (b. 1961) played 69 matches for Ireland, a number of them as captain, scoring two international centuries. Jason Molins (b. 1974) captained Ireland in 45 matches: his win ratio of 60% makes him Ireland’s most successful ever captain.

As well as on the field, Jews have made an eclectic contribution to the world of cricket off the field, including in the administrative and commercial sides of the game as well as through journalism. Two Jews have been Presidents of MCC: Sir Archibald Levin Smith (1836-1901) and Lord Dalmeny (1882-1974), the son of a Prime Minister, the Earl of Rosebery, and his wife Hannah (née de Rothschild).

Alongside the popularity of cricket in Diaspora communities, the game in Israel has been bolstered by the arrival of immigrants from South Africa, India and the UK. The Maccabi Games, or Jewish Olympics, first featured cricket in 1957 – and in 1968 the Israel Cricket Association was formed. Israel’s fledgling national cricket team became an associate member of the ICC in 1974.

Cricket has some unexpected Jewish connections. Even Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism, mentioned the sport in his novel, “Old-New Land” (or “Altneuland”), which was published in 1902. More than century later, this exciting summer of cricket has been followed by Jewish fans throughout the world.

Zaki Cooper and Daniel Lightman QC are the co-authors of “Cricket Grounds from the Air”.

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