By Bharath Ramaraj
Israel is a country made up of diverse conditions: with a desert in the south and snow-capped mountains in the north. Unfortunately, the region is also known for never-ending conflicts with Palestine. In short, it is a region that is invariably under incessant threat of wars.
Amidst all the tight security and tensions bubbling in the region, cricket in Israel has slowly, but steadily, been gaining a foothold in the country. Compared to football and basketball, cricket is relatively a minor sport. But make no mistake, locals and expats are straining every sinew to make it more popular.
Just like in most countries, cricket was first introduced to Israel by the British in the early 19th century. To an extent, those few locals who lapped up the sport manfully tried to keep the interest in the game afloat. With the influx of Jewish immigrants from cricket playing countries like South Africa, United Kingdom and Indian subcontinent, it gave the game the much needed fillip.
It was in 1974 when Israel became an associate member of International Cricket Council (ICC). Since then, they have gone onto play the ICC Trophy seven times albeit with little success. In the 1997 ICC Trophy played in Malaysia, they were in midst of unwanted media glare, as Malaysia don’t recognise Israel as a country. In spite of protests, they did participate in the tournament and finished in the 21st place.
Israel geographically belongs to Asian continent, but because of never-ending conflicts in West Asia, the ICC allocated Israel to Europe. Since 1996, they have largely played in the second division of European one-day championships. Their best performance in European championships was a laudable fifth place finish in 2000 as well in 2010.
In 2006, when the Second Division European Championship was held in Glasgow, they were again met with violent protests. Even one of their games against Jersey was cancelled and their play-off matches were shifted to RAF Lossiemouth.
The seriousness of the situation was such that European Cricket Council (ECC) had to come out with a statement that read, “The ECC and its parent body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), are not political organisations; the task of both bodies is to promote and encourage cricket, a game that embraces diversity, and that mission is the driving force behind this tournament. Both the ECC and the ICC believe this tournament can send out a positive message by showing the value of sport as a force for good and something to be enjoyed.”
Israel is certainly a true embodiment of an immigration country with Jews from all over the world streaming back into the land of their birth. It has resulted in an amalgamation of amateur cricketers mainly from South Africa, Eastern Europe and Indian subcontinent playing the game in Israel just for the sheer love of it.
Israel’s premier domestic competition is comprised of a compendium of 18 teams from every nook and corner of the country. It is run on a league basis and spread across two divisions. Nowadays, they also play a T20 tournament.
Over the years, Lions Lod has been the team to beat in the domestic circuit. Last year, they regained their indefatigable stamp of supremacy after three years of agonising wait by bestriding the defending champion, Young Ashdod to lift the coveted Dudi Silbowitz Trophy.
Israel’s youth development programme is bearing fruits too. For a cricket observer, it is heartening to know that the game is played as part of the curriculum in numerous elementary schools in Israel.
The fast-medium bowler, Herschel Gutman, is the present captain of Israel. The seasoned campaigner, originally from the Rainbow Nation, also doubles up as a development officer of Israel’s cricket association. His effervescent endeavours as the development officer helped him to win the ICC European Coach of the Year award in 2013.
The precociously talented young all-rounder, Josh Evans, achieved the memorable distinction of being voted the most valuable player in European Under-19 Division Two Championship, held in the year 2011.
A hard-hitting belligerent batsman, Evans gave a glimpse of his cricketing skills by bludgeoning a quick-fire half century in the third place play-off against Spain in the European T20 Division Two Championships last year. In that tournament against Isle of Man, the fledgling all-rounder bowled a parsimonious spell of leg-spin and snared three crucial wickets in the process.
Cricket has also been the harbinger of peace and harmony in the troubled region. To bring about peace and tranquillity, a novel concept called Cricket 4 Peace has been initiated. This novel concept vision is to bring together Israeli and Palestinian children from disadvantaged communities under one emblem, and teach them the wonderful game of cricket. The project has been successful in its endeavour of inculcating the old virtues of peace and harmony.
For an aficionado of the game, it is awe-inspiring to note that in spite of severe odds stacked against them, a dedicated bunch of cricket enthusiasts with undying love for the game and an unstinting service to its cause, have pushed the envelope of possibility by creating a bit of buzz for cricket in the troubled region.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)