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Israel: Cricket in the ‘Promised Land’

Shounak Sarkar reports on the health of the cricket scene in Israel

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ICC’s announcement of an expanded European qualifying tournament for the next T20 World Cup was greeted with much enthusiasm by the regions’ associate nations. The 24-team event will witness the official ICC debuts for Hungary, Romania and Serbia, as well as herald the return of Bulgaria, Greece, Luxembourg and Malta to ICC tournaments after an absence of several years.

However, one of the less highlighted nations taking part is Israel, who have been a staple at ICC qualification tournaments for more than four decades. Despite its location in the Middle East, it competes in the European qualifiers; like other sports codes such as football.

During that time, the Israeli cricket team have largely flown below the radar, no doubt hampered by their modest performances. The country has never progressed beyond Division Two in the European Championships or reached the second round of the ICC Trophy, despite participating in the flagship tournament since 1979.

Israel cricket team pose with flag (Photo: Israel Cricket Association)

However as of 2021, there is a new chairperson and CEO in place and hope abounds that this will lead to a more stable environment and an improvement in the national team’s performance.

Emerging Cricket chatted with Israel Cricket Association Chairman Yefeth Nagavkar to discuss the past, present and future of cricket in Israel. We also thank Herschel Gutman, former Israeli cricketer, coach and now an award-winning wedding photographer, for his contribution to this article.

Israel vs South Africa Invitation XI scorecard (Photo: supplied)

History

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The history of cricket in Israel can be traced back to the 1917 British conquest of Palestine, before it’s creation as an internationally recognised nation-state in 1948.

During the early years, the cricket played was very sporadic in nature and little is documented of its existence. However, since the 1960s, Jewish immigrants from Commonwealth countries have played a vital role in the sport’s resurgence. Indian Jews belonging to the Bene Israel community founded the country’s first cricket club, in the southern desert city of Beersheba. The national league, consisting of 10 clubs, was also set up during this time. Estimated to number around 80,000 today, the Bene Israeli community maintain their Indian roots through their shared love of Indian food, Bollywood movies and of course the cricket. 

Many Israeli cricketers come from the Bene Israel community (Photo: supplied)

Then there’s Leo Camron and Jerrold Kessel, two South African Jews who have played critical roles in shaping Israel’s cricket legacy. A highly decorated news editor for The Jerusalem Post, Kessel also did stints as a CNN reporter and wrote weekly sports columns for Ha’aretz. He was instrumental in restarting local cricket in the mid 1960s and played for the national team from 1979 to 1990.

Leo Camron was a cricket and rugby fanatic who participated in some of Israel cricket’s team earliest fixtures. He was also one of the founding members of the Israel Cricket Association, which opened its doors in 1968.  

It took Israel many years to register its first win at an ICC tournament. The perseverance finally paid off in 1990, when under the captaincy of Stanley Perlman, it defeated Argentina by one wicket in an electrifying finish.

Participation and domestic structure

Today, Israel’s domestic league is contested by 18 clubs, divided into two divisions of nine. All league matches are played in a shortened one-day format with 40 overs per innings. Impressively, the tournament covers a wide geographical footprint even though overall participation has fallen from what it was 30 years ago.

Cricket game in Ashdod, Israel (photo: supplied)

“We have teams hailing from towns such as Lod, Ra’anana, Ramle, Tel Aviv and Ashdod in the centre of the country, as well as Kiryat Gat, Beersheba, Dimona and Eilat in the south. In addition to the league, a Twenty20 cup competition is held between the same teams”, says chairman Nagavkar.

Furthermore, the cricket authorities have designed another condensed 90-minute version of cricket, which attempts to tap into the football-loving youth market.

Cricket in the southern desert city of Beersheeba (Photo: supplied)

“We also play this modified version of cricket with a taped tennis ball. It is played at night under floodlights on an enclosed double basketball court. There are two divisions, eight players per team competing in 16-over per side games, enabling the game to be completed in just 90 minutes,” Nagavkar continues.

Most participants are Jews who have migrated from or have parents who hail from the Commonwealth nations. In a country of 9.3 million people where immigrants from the Commonwealth number less than 200,000, the lack of underlying cricket knowledge amongst the majority population has proved to be a major barrier in increasing the game’s popularity.

Night cricket in action, it is played on a double enclosed basketball court (Photo: supplied)

“It is indeed a challenge for us”, concedes Nagavkar. “We have had a handful of Europeans and Americans playing in the junior leagues and we have had a number of Christian and Muslim Arabs playing in our junior teams. However, there is definitely more work to be done to grow the game.”

“In the past, we had a league where some Palestinian villages were taking part. This was done in partnership with Cricket4Peace and the Peres centre for Peace and Innovation. Israel Cricket won the European Cricket best initiative and best programs in 2016 and 2017”, he further adds.  

Compulsory military service

Another challenge to growing cricket participation is the requirement to serve in the military. It applies to all citizens of Israel over 18 years of age (both men and women). Exemptions are often granted on medical grounds, to new immigrants and certain religious groups such as Haredi Jews and Israeli Arabs.

For men, the compulsory military service time amounts to 30 months, while women are usually required to serve 24 months. Sportspersons are afforded the luxury of flexible service time, but this privilege is usually only extended to the elite athletes.

Nagavkar states that the mandatory service time has a highly detrimental effect on cricket’s developmental pathways. “From age 18-21, with mandatory service, the percentage of cricketers that still want to play the game after these 3 years is very minimal. It is an issue that we have not yet got hold of. We are introducing the game into the municipal centres in Israel and in schools around the country through our current national team players,” he says.  

Youth Cricketers Israel
Compulsory Military Service makes it hard to retain youth players (Supplied)

Maccabiah Games

To Jews, the Maccabiah Games are an event of extreme cultural significance. Speaking to Times of Israel, Dr. Dagmar Gavornikova states that the games’ objective is “to find people of Jewish heritage and bring them back to their Jewish identity through the prism of sport.”

Held quadrennially, the event has grown quickly to become the world’s third largest sporting event. The 2017 edition of the Maccabiah Games had 10,000 athletes from 85 countries taking part in 45 sports, and interestingly, cricket was one of them.

The event acts as a magnet to bring together cricketers of Jewish heritage from around the globe. In the past, it has even attracted high-profile names such as Australian first-class cricketers Michael Klinger and Julien Wiener.

More significantly, the Maccabiah Games provides cricket with a rare opportunity to receive some decent press coverage, something that the ‘niche’ sport desperately needs more of. Nagavkar confirms that they will feature a full junior and senior programme at the upcoming games in 2022. Team South Africa remain the defending champions, having won the finals in 2013 and 2017. 

Opposition to Israeli cricket teams overseas

The rise of widespread anti-semitism in the Islamic world and the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had unfortunate real-world consequences for the nation’s cricketers.

Israel’s successful application for ICC associate membership in 1974 had been strongly opposed by Pakistan. Israel’s 1997 ICC Trophy tour was marred by ongoing violent demonstrations from opposition Islamist parties in Malaysia. In 2006, during the ICC Europe Division 2 tournament in Glasgow, the Muslim Association of Britain even called on other participants to boycott Israeli cricketers. This resulted in the abandonment of a game, with the rest played under heavy police presence with angry protestors greeting the Israeli cricketers at every game.

However, according to Herschel Gutman things have improved considerably over the last decade, at least from a cricketing perspective.

“The Israeli teams that have travelled abroad recently, thankfully haven’t faced any anti-Semitic attacks. Most of the European teams we play have many players from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and there has been zero incidents during these fixtures.”

Future

The upcoming ICC T20 World Cup Europe Qualifier in Finland presents Israel with a good opportunity to notch up some wins and enter the ICC T20 rankings table for the first time.

“Yes, plans are already in place, however this is all up in the air due to the COVID-19 restrictions. But we will continue to prepare and hope we can travel. We are very excited. Every year, the average age of our team goes down as we have some strong juniors coming through. We have appointed a new captain and selection and hope that the experience he has will rub off on the team”, says Nagavkar.

Israel Youth Team
Israel youth team (Photo: Israel Cricket Association)

In the longer term, he is hoping for an increase in playing numbers which could translate into winning some silverware.

“We ultimately hope to have a thriving junior and senior program played by all in Israel. We would love our ex-players to come back into the game in some way and assist in the coaching and general management of the game in various towns within Israel. We hope to one day lift another European trophy [European Cricket Championships, Division 3], like we did in 2009.”

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Shounak Sarkar
Finance Professional by day & Emerging Cricket Writer by night. Passionate cricket fan and advocate of the Global Game!

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