(photo credit: )
Sunday morning, flags will be unfurled and hoisted onto their masts, a synthetic pitch will be laid down, anthems will be sung, a coin will be tossed, 22 men in white will walk onto the field and the first-ever international game of cricket to be played in Israel will get under way.
Played over 45 overs at the Hadar Yosef athletics stadium in north Tel Aviv, the one-day European Championship clash between Israel and Croatia will be the first match between two International Cricket Council [ICC] member nations to be held in the country. The winner will earn a place in the 2008 European Division 2 tournament to be held in Guernsey, Channel Islands.
Israel has been an associate [non-Test-playing] member of the ICC since 1974. It has participated in international competitions regularly but has never hosted its own international game or tournament.
Despite being geographically part of the Middle East, Israel belongs to the European Cricket Council. It regularly takes part in the European Championship, and is currently ranked as the 12th-best non-Test team in Europe by the ICC. Croatia is ranked 17th.
"All other countries up until now have expressed fear in coming here to play in Israel, and that's why we should praise the Croatians for coming," Israel Cricket Association president Stanley Perlman said. Perlman, the team's most experienced player, will also be captaining the side against a Croatian 11 that Israel has never faced and of which not much is known. The Croatian team is centered around four Australian-born players who are "steady bowlers and useful batsmen," Perlman said.
The Croats finished top of Division 3, one below the Israelis, who make up the bottom of Division 2. In 2004 they won the European Cricket Council Representative Championships, the fourth tier of European competition. Their recent record boasts wins against minnows Malta and Belgium in Division 3.
Finishing top of their group, the Croats challenged Israel, the lowest-ranked team in Division 2. Israel was ranked second bottom in the division but found itself in the unlucky position of ranking last when Greece, the division's worst performing team, was kicked out of the division for fielding ineligible players.
Should Israel lose the match, it will be relegated to Division 3, with Croatia taking its place in Division 2.
According to Perlman and several other players, the Israeli side is viewing the game as "do-or-die."
"Everything is at stake here - it's about pride," Perlman said. With Croatia's recent win of its division - which includes Portugal, Spain, Malta, Cyprus and Belgium, among others - Israel was not taking the Croat challenge lightly, he said.
Israel wants to stay in Division 2 with countries such as Ireland, Denmark, Scotland, Italy and Norway. If it is relegated into the lower division, Israel will be playing teams of a lower standard than it is used to.
The Croatian ambassador will attend the game, but there will be no official Israeli representation.
"The [Israeli] sports authorities have shown such disdain to cricket in the past two years that we didn't even invite them," Perlman said. "They don't understand the first thing about cricket, they have no respect for the game, and we don't need them for anything." Nevertheless, he added, flags will be flown and anthems sung.
The Israeli national team is made up of expatriate South Africans, Australians, Indians and several native Israelis. Its strength is in its steady bowlers and committed fielding, while showing a vulnerability with perhaps only three or four tried-and-tested batsmen.
"On your day you can beat anybody," Perlman said. "We have one of the best teams we've fielded, and we have a quartet of fast bowlers that will close out the game for us."
The native Israelis are all youngsters, products of the country's youth cricket programs, which are highly developed and have produced teams that have won international competitions.
Apart from Perlman, the side also includes plenty of other experienced players. All-rounders Isaac Massil and Sanjay Gupta will both be key players in the middle order, and there will be big expectations from Herschel Gutman to perform with bat and ball. The attack will be led by Ramle's Isaac Talkar, who looked particularly impressive in practice, with the always consistent David Massil in support. Yaniv Razpurker provides a further option in the pace attack, and his superb fielding will also be crucial to the team's success. Off-spinner Steven Shein completes the bowling options available.
The Israeli team will also field four players who are past students of the Herzliya High School in Cape Town, one of the foremost Jewish day schools in South Africa: Perlman, Shein, Gutman and hard-hitting left-hander Dovi Myers.
The full team will be announced on Sunday, with three places still to be decided.
Sports channel Sport 5 will cover the event, and busloads of cricket fans from Dimona, Eilat and Beersheba will arrive. A youth competition will also take place on an adjoining field.
The game is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. and should be over by 4:40 p.m. The weather forecast is for 30 degrees, with overcast conditions.
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