Reminiscences of cricket in the Holy Land

The earliest cricketing story in Mandatory Palestine that comes to mind is of a match in the 1920s.

A cricket match in Lod in 2012. Cricket was introduced in Israel by the British during the Mandate period  (photo credit: DAVID HARRIS)
A cricket match in Lod in 2012. Cricket was introduced in Israel by the British during the Mandate period
(photo credit: DAVID HARRIS)
Long before the emergence of the State of Israel, the possibility of cricket in a Jewish state was visualized by Theodor Herzl who, in his book Altneuland, painted a picture of Jews playing cricket on the green fields of the promised land.
The Ottoman Empire was not a cricketing country – and in 1902 the Jewish state was a dream and cricket there was a dream within a dream. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the subsequent British Mandate brought both dreams a little nearer to realization.
The earliest cricketing story in Mandatory Palestine that comes to mind is of a match in the 1920s, when Prof. Norman Bentwich, the British Mandate’s Jewish attorney-general, was fearful of losing his place in the cabinet after dropping a catch in front of Sir Herbert (afterwards Lord) Samuel, the high commissioner.
Serious cricket was played during the Mandate period by British personnel stationed in Palestine, but after it ended there was very little cricket in the Holy Land apart from a sterling effort by a South African doctor named Bernie Cohen who, so I am told, created a ground of sorts on land of Sheba Medical Center, not far from Tel Aviv. But at that time, the 1950s and early 1960s, cricket in Israel failed to flourish, and Cohen was lured away by the creation of Israel’s first golf course at Caesarea in 1961.
In the late 1950s ,former South African Philip Gillon organized pick-up matches in Ashkelon and in nearby Ashdod. In 1957, Ashdod began to emerge and with it came a number of Indian immigrants, who were determined not to lose their cricketing skills. For eight years they practiced on a concrete strip, regarded as eccentric lunatics by their fellow citizens. But in 1966 their persistence was rewarded, in particular by two kibbutzim, Beit Ha’emek and Amiad, and an Israel Cricket Association (ICA) was set up.
My introduction to the Israel cricketing scene came in 1967, some while after I had returned to England after working in Israel. In March of that year I received a letter from an old friend, Shlomo (Sol) Temkin, who had been the director of the Tel Aviv office of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain since the founding of the State. He asked me if I could drum up support for Israeli cricket.
I said I would be happy to try to do so, but not at that time, as in April I was due to make a tour of Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, and with war clouds looming, did not think it prudent to advertise Israel connections. Then, a few short weeks later came the Six Day War. By September, I had written a letter to the Jewish Chronicle and received a positive response. So the England-based Israel Cricket Supporters Association (ICSA) was born. We organized the first tours to and from Israel and raised funds to supply cricket equipment including cricket mats for the pitches.
The first tour to Israel by an English cricket club in September 1968 was by the 5705 club of Bournemouth. The captain, Alan Argeband, was concerned that his team would not be strong enough. Now it so happened that one of the members of ICSA was Alan Cowen, a Maccabi sprinter. Alan ran the business of Ken Barrington Sportswear, and happened to mention the tour to Ken, who at that time was one of England’s star batsmen. Ken said, “I would love to go on that tour” (which was due to take place between the end of the English cricket season and the England tour of South Africa).
I called Alan Argeband to tell him I had found someone who would strengthen his team. When I told him who it was, he was flabbergasted and delighted. I was a lesser, a very much lesser, guest member of the touring team. Prominent among my memories were Ken Barrington scoring a century at Beit Ha’emek, marred only by hitting a six that struck his wife on her big toe. She should have been watching.
At that time there were problems with the South African tour because the apartheid South African government had put pressure on the English selectors by saying that Basil D’Oliveira, a prominent England cricketer at the time, would not be acceptable because he was a Cape Colored. So although he had just scored 158 in the last test match of the summer, he was not selected. As we were driving through the mainly Arab-populated Wadi Ara, Barrington turned to me and said “it only needs a terrorist to blow us up and they’ll have to select D’Oliveira.” It so happened that because of an injury to Tom Cartright, the Hampshire bowler, who had to withdraw from the squad, the selectors yielded, perhaps to a public outcry, and replaced him with D’Oliveira. The South African government, promptly canceled the tour and South Africa was ostracized from all sport for more than 20 years!
As a sidelight to that tour I had insisted that when in Jerusalem we stay at a hotel, the Lawrence, in east Jerusalem. This was an economic as well as a political decision. One surprise was to see Rabbi Hugo Gryn, the eminent British Reform rabbi and broadcaster, emerge one morning from the room opposite mine in the hotel. Another strange situation was that east Jerusalem was at that time still in the Sterling Area, so there was no limit to the amount of money one could take there – if one had it, while strict limitations applied to Israel.
The next match I remember was the 5705 Club of Bournemouth against Southern Israel in Beersheba. This was watched by a crowd of some 2,000, almost all knowledgeable Indians. Southern Israel scored about 130 and Bournemouth had a batting collapse. We had reached 32 for 7 wickets when I went in at number 9 to join Ken Barrington. As there was only an hour left he said we should not attempt to go for the runs but play for a draw. I was usually an opening batsman less bad at playing fast bowling than spin. Les Susser (formerly of The Jerusalem Report) was bowling leg spin from one end. At the end of my first over Ken walked down the wicket and said he would take a single so that he would be facing the leg spinner.
This was done and our partnership continued. One of the attempts to break it was when, extraordinarily, Les switched from right arm spin to left arm spin! But the match finished in a draw. My one and only partnership with an England test batsman yielded only 13 runs in an hour, all scored by Ken. But the important thing was that we had lost no further wickets. The crowd, keenly aware of the situation, did not barrack us.
Beersheba was an interesting cricketing venue. It was one of more than a dozen clubs beginning to function.
Israel’s national cricket team at the 2012 European Championship in Corfu, Greece (HERSCHEL GUTMAN)Israel’s national cricket team at the 2012 European Championship in Corfu, Greece (HERSCHEL GUTMAN)
BEERSHEBA CC was dominated by the Abrahams family – Ben, who umpired, and his seven sons, who played. The wicket was matting and the outfield rather rough, sandy and stony. A particular hazard was its closeness to the desert. At one stage during our match there Barrington, who was bowling, had to stop because the fielders on one side of the wicket had completely disappeared from view in eddying sand. I, keeping wicket, had to go off “injured” because sand had blown behind my contact lenses. When I returned I fielded away from the wicket and missed rather than dropped a catch. The wind had blown sand into my eyes at the crucial time and catching a flying cricket ball with your eyes closed presents a problem.
That tour ended with a “test match” between Israel and the Tourists, played on the much greener University Stadium ground in Jerusalem. We were bowled out for a lamentably low score of around 70. An excellent lunch was taken between innings. I have a theory that an Israeli cricketing tactic if the toss is won is to let the opposition bat first and then slow them down in the field by means of a delicious lunch. Barrington called us into a huddle and declared, “We are going to win this match.” We did, thanks to some impressive bowling from Barrington himself.
The Indian immigrants in Israel were initially rather detached from the “Anglo-Saxon” elements of the country and one of our aims at ICSA was to further their integration. I believe that cricket played an important part in doing this and it was a primary aim of ICSA.
A second club to tour Israel, in 1969, was a Jewish club, Mowbray, from Edgware in London. I was again privileged to be a guest player. I have fewer memories of this tour, but one stands out (apart from meeting the woman who became my wife!): Ashdod’s wicket. This was a mud strip, watered and rolled several times to make it absolutely flat. Here the key to success was to bat first because later the mud would begin to crumble making batting rather more hazardous. I also remember the intense heat (for English players) rising to 50 degrees centigrade, with no appreciable shade.
Encouraged by the success of these tours, the ICA agreed that the Israel National Side should tour England in 1970. In late August, the team arrived, composed entirely of immigrants originally from India and South Africa, and managed by the redoubtable Col. Maxim (Maxie) Kahan, assistant police chief of Western Galilee, who, among other accomplishments, had represented Israel at clay pigeon shooting at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. He proved himself a most able ambassador distributing gifts at every match.
For me the highlight was to see the Israeli flag flying alongside the Lancashire flag at the Test ground of Old Trafford in Manchester where a match was played against an XI raised by one of ICSA’s most enthusiastic supporters Dr. E Berstock. Another highlight would have been the last match at the Ealing Cricket Club ground in London against a star-studded XI raised jointly by Ken Barrington and Maccabi, had it not rained all day!
It was in 1970 that Geoffrey Davis of London’s Harrow CC joined ICSA and became one of its most enthusiastic members. For many years Geoffrey was treasurer of the International Cricket Conference ICC, the governing body of international cricket, and active in promoting the cause of Israel cricket, and arranging five tours of his club to Israel. The admission of Israel as an Associate Member of the ICC was in no small measure due to his efforts with the support of Denis Compton, one of the all-time greats of English cricket, who had succeeded the late Ken Barrington as president of ICSA and of another renowned England star – the chairman of the ICC, Colin Cowdrey.
Membership enabled Israel to participate in the Associate Members’ Trophy, which preceded the World Cup. As far as I recall, The top two Associate Nations took part in qualified for the main World Cup tournament the following year. Israel first participated in the Associate Members’ Trophy in 1979, its team captained by Jerrold Kessel, a Jerusalem Post stalwart and later Israel correspondent for CNN.
Steven Shain and Mikki Cohen walking out to open the batting for Ra’anana Cricket Club (RCC) in a first division match at Hadar Yosef Stadium (MIKKI COHEN)Steven Shain and Mikki Cohen walking out to open the batting for Ra’anana Cricket Club (RCC) in a first division match at Hadar Yosef Stadium (MIKKI COHEN)
So far Israel has never yet qualified for made it to the main World Cup, but all participants in the preliminary stages have been allocated a share in the revenue generated by the prestigious, widely-televised tournament. This share, which has been substantial, meant that ICSA no longer had to raise funds to support Israeli cricket.
Despite being in the Middle East, Israel’s national cricket team is a member of the European Cricket Council. The team has participated in the European Championship, and is currently ranked as the 12th best non-test team in Europe by the International Cricket Council (ICC), having been an associate member since 1974.
By 1992, Israeli cricket was in the capable hands of former top all-rounder and team captain Stanley Perlman and ex-Ramle club star Ezra Ashtamkar, having been helped on its way by coaching from popular tourist Basil D’Oliveira and having formed its own umpires’ association assisted by Alf and George Powley of the Association of Cricket Umpires.
The trained umpires have no doubt been able to prevent a recurrence of an incident about which I only heard second hand – namely the biting of an opponent’s ear by a player enraged by an adverse decision. Or did the ear belong to an unfortunate allegedly deaf umpire?
I had the honor of managing the British team for the 1973 Maccabiah, by which time cricket was well enough entrenched to be recognized as a participating sport in the Jewish games. I did in fact hand over my duties when the management of two daughters aged two and a half and one and a quarter had to take priority. I have a vivid memory of umpiring the final selection match for the Israel team and being asked at the end of it to chair the Selection Board. But, I remonstrated, I could not do that, as I had only seen most of the players for the first time that day. Ah, I was told, that does not matter; the important thing is that you will be the only selector who is not a member of one the clubs and so will not be biased in favor of your own players!
It all seems long ago and indeed it is 53 years since I set up ICSA. The ICA has survived wars and will hopefully survive COVID-19.
One further recollection I have is of preparing the fixture list for that 1970 Tour. At that time E.W. (Jim) Swanton, the cricket correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, and the doyen of English cricket writers, ran a team called “The Arabs.”
I thought a match between Israel and The Arabs would be a great attraction. Unfortunately, he regretted that he just could not find a gap in their long, pre-prepared fixture list. The Arabs CC has never toured Israel, nor has a team from an Arab country – yet!