The Friday Interview: Promoting the 'gentleman's game' in Israel

Cricket legend Jonty Rhodes believes the IDF should set up its own sports academy.

Jonty Rhodes 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
Jonty Rhodes 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
For those not familiar with South African cricketer Jonty Rhodes, the Cricinfo cricket Web site biography of the legendary sportsman is a good place to start: "Rhodes worked harder than anyone else in a team of hard workers," the biography reads. "Nobody has ever fielded better in the key one-day position of backward point, where he leapt like a salmon, threw opponents off balance, and stopped singles by reputation alone." A gritty team player, Rhodes, now retired, was repeatedly selected for the South African national side for his outstanding fielding, taking the place of batsmen and bowlers. His fielding saved his sides many runs, it won games, and won Rhodes legions of followers worldwide during an 11-year international career which lasted from 1992 till 2003. This week he was in Israel to play for the Israel Invitation XI against India A in honor of the State's 60th anniversary. While he did not manage to put in a massive performance and the Israel XI lost all three one-dayers, the very presence of Rhodes drew interest from cricket fans around the country as well as the international media. The 38-year-old spoke to The Jerusalem Post during his team's practice session at Hadar Yosef in Tel Aviv, expounding on the massive potential for cricket success he sees in Israel. Rhodes even has a novel idea of how to circumvent the problem of young Israeli cricketers giving up the sport once they enter the IDF: an IDF sport academy, which can select and train an army cricket team. Rhodes notes that many countries' militaries have sports academies and teams, including South Africa, which produced several top players some decades ago. "Not only are you serving your country but you're also playing sports in an academy that looks after all the sports. The army here is three years, so if a guy does his army service, but is based at the academy, he could be taught to play cricket," the ever-optimistic Rhodes says. Rhodes's fielding prowess spawned a generation of cricket players who, while not having the talent or skill to become batsmen or bowlers, nevertheless stuck with the game because they could throw themselves around a field and stop a ball with their bodies. That is an important lesson to keep in mind when thinking about developing a game totally alien to a country like Israel, where teaching correct batting and bowling technique may not be the most important part of the game, Rhodes says. "The West Indians bring their guys [international players] off the beach, same as India and Pakistan. Technique is not the most important thing there, but there are vast amounts of people playing cricket everywhere, and you should play cricket your way," he adds. The key, Rhodes says, is for administrators to make young players excited about the game, and a good way to do that is through the new 20/20 format, which is an action-packed, condensed form of the longer 50-over game. "Twenty-twenty [twenty overs per side] games are drawing in massive crowds all over the world. In a time when sport has to compete with entertainment [like movies], sport has to become sportainment," Rhodes says. "Spectators are the key. If people aren't watching the game, especially if it's new to them, they're not going to pick up heroes, because they're watching basketball and football. You need to bring people down to a game and 20/20 in SA has introduced a whole new generation to the game." The twenty-twenty format also suits Israel's climate, where most of the season takes place in sweltering heat. Rhodes believes the shorter form of the game could raise interest in a public accustomed to action-packed sports like soccer and basketball, and who are confounded by the notion of standing around for nine hours waiting for short bursts of action to occur. Likewise, the fact that a cricket game can last a whole day, and sometimes even five days, and still end in a draw, is just too alien to many Israelis. Despite shortages in funding for youth cricket development, especially in the south, ICA chairman Stanley Perlman is confident that 3,000 Israeli kids will be involved in the cricket development program within three years. On the more senior level, Rhodes thinks the national side needs to play more international games than it is now. The last international game Israel played was against Croatia last August, and its next game is at least 18 months away. Israel is an associate [non Test-playing] member of the International Cricket Council. "What we do in South Africa is make sure that enough kids get to hear about the game because then the better ones come through, if there is a system in place to identify them," Rhodes says. Regarding the stiff competition that cricket in Israel faces from more popular sports such as basketball and soccer, Rhodes says that 'the gentleman's game' can have a positive influence on the young Israelis' temperament, especially the lack of patience Rhodes noticed on the streets, where motorists honked at each other at traffic lights even before the light turned green. "The best life lessons I've learned have been on the cricket field. Cricket is not fair: you are given out when you're not out. You prepare, you practice really hard, you set yourself a goal, and you don't achieve it. That's what life's about. You don't always get what you want," Rhodes explains "Cricket is a game of patience and discipline. You can't just walk away if things aren't going your way. It certainly gives you great life lessons. "Basketball is pretty much over in one hour. If you're having a bad day you can sit on the bench for an hour and then you can go. In cricket you can bat it out, for three hours sometimes, and you can get naught [runs]. "You can bat one ball, get out, and you still have to contribute, even though you're feeling that's the last thing you want to do. It's a great leveler." For more of Amir Mizroch's articles, see his personal blog Forecast Highs.