Left: Logo of first Maccabiah Games, 1932 (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons) Right: Bensiyon Morisbhai Songavkar, cricket captain of India in the 2017 edition, is bowling in the image (courtesy: Australia Maccabi Ajax bulletin)
Left: Logo of first Maccabiah Games, 1932 (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
Right: Bensiyon Morisbhai Songavkar, cricket captain of India in the 2017 edition, is bowling in the image (courtesy: Australia Maccabi Ajax bulletin)

Bensiyon Morisbhai Songavkar will be proudly bleeding blue when he leads the Indian cricket team on to the field in Jerusalem next Friday for India’s first match against Israel at the 20th Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympics.

In 2009 at the 18th Maccabiah, Songavkar, the former Saurashtra Ranji Trophy player, scored a chanceless 50 in the final to bring India close to a Gold Medal. Raphael Moses, who describes himself as a restaurateur by profession and a cricketer by heart, hit Adam Bacher of South Africa for 3 consecutive sixes to help India score 147 for 7 in the allotted 50 overs.

Bacher’s 86 not out, however, ensured a South African victory despite a superlative bowling effort from debutant Moses Borgaonkar (vice-captain of the current side), who returned astonishing figures of 10-4-12-4. India thus had to settle for Silver in 2009, which in itself was a tremendous achievement given that the field consisted, among others, of Australia and Great Britain besides the formidable South Africans.

India had a dream start in 2013, winning the first two matches against Israel and Great Britain. Then it lost the next two to South Africa and Australia. The NRR worked against India and Great Britain picked up the Bronze, pushing India to 4th place.

In 2017, the team is keen to not only replicate that 2009 performance, but go one better and bring home Gold, if all goes well in the tournament. If this happens, Jerusalem 2017 would be no less significant than Mumbai 2011 for a country that reveres its cricketing heroes and their heroics.

But what exactly are the Maccabiah (pronounced Makkabee) Games?

The idea of a Jewish Olympics was first conceived by 15-year-old Joseph Yekutieli against the backdrop of the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. For the next 20 years he would persevere in his efforts to make this dream a reality. The purpose of these worldwide Jewish competitions was to allow the various participating associations an opportunity to test their strength, prepare themselves for international and Olympic competitions and to glorify the sports achievements of Jewish youth.

The first Maccabiah finally took place in 1932, north of Tel Aviv, with 390 athletes from 18 countries participating. The second Games were organized in 1935 with 1,250 sportspersons from 28 countries competing for medals. Germany surprised the organizers by allowing last-minute participation of athletes from that country. After 1935, no further Maccabiah was held for fifteen years.

The murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during the holocaust unsurprisingly decimated a generation of elite athletes who would have made their mark at the Maccabiah. It is a tribute to the spirit and enterprise of the Jewish people however that barely five years after the end of World War 2, one of the first events to be organized on a global scale was the Third Maccabiah Games, held in 1950 in the newly independent state of Israel. 800 athletes from 20 countries participated in these emotional Olympics.

The list of sportspersons who have made their mark at the Maccabiah and gone on to conquer the world stage is long and distinguished. Mark Spitz (swimming), Angela Buxton and Brad Gilbert (tennis), Adam Bacher (cricket), and Boris Gelfand and Judith Polgar (chess) are just few of the names on that notable list.

With over 9,000 athletes from 78 nations expected to participate at these Games which start on July 4, this is now the third-largest sporting event in the world, after The Olympics and The Asian Games.

Independent India sent its representatives to these Olympics in Israel for the first time in 1950, a tradition that continues to the present day. The 14-member cricket team travelling to Jerusalem this weekend is a part of the 24-strong contingent representing India at the 20th Maccabiah. Other than the cricket team, there are seven badminton players, a swimmer and two tennis players in the mix.

The delegation is led by 82-year old Mumbai-based businessman Sam Marshall, who has been participating at the Maccabiah since 1956. Marshall will remarkably be proudly representing his country in the Masters category for tennis along with his son Yossi! Sam Marshall has been core to India’s attendance at these Games and plays the vital role of making all the arrangements for Maccabiah and also helps raise the funds necessary for the Indian team to participate at these Games.

The eyes of the nearly 10,000 members of the Jewish faith in India (and cricket-lovers like you and me) will, however, be on the cricket team which is determined to put up a good show and try their best to climb the peak that holds the medals of Gold, something that has eluded them thus far.

Songavkar will be looking to emulate MS Dhoni in holding aloft the top prize; with former Railways opener Swapnil Penkar, the hard-hitting Jitesh Bangera, and Moses Borgaonkar, who Adam Bacher called a “mystery machine” after his 2009 final performance and offered a contract to move to South Africa, in the mix, the team is raring to have a go and be splashed on the front pages for their exploits in a few weeks’ time.

Songavkar’s Men in Blue will play Israel on the July 7, South Africa on the 9th, Great Britain on the 10th and Australia on the 12th.