Passing —and failing — the cricket test

By Daniel Lightman, July 15, 2013
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Jewish cricket fans — of which there are legion — have been looking forward with keen anticipation to the Ashes contest between England and Australia, which started on Wednesday. However, no Jewish cricketer will be involved: despite having scored four centuries for Gloucestershire this season, Michael Klinger has failed to secure a place in the Australian squad. Indeed, Julian Weiner, who played six tests for Australia in 1979 and 1980, remains the only man known to be Jewish to have played Ashes cricket.

But there has also been one woman: Netta Rheinberg. After attending South Hampstead High School, she played for Gunnersbury and Middlesex as a batswoman, and was for years secretary of the Women’s Cricket Association. Player-manager for England’s 1948-49 tour of Australia, she played in one test. Unfortunately, she was stumped for a duck in her first innings, and bowled first ball in the second!

Rheinberg was a respected administrator and cricket writer and, when women were finally admitted to membership of the MCC in 1999, she was one of its first 10 honorary women members. “For a north London Jew, playing cricket for England and being one of the game’s most important administrators is about as well-trodden a career path as prime minister or bacon-buttie salesman”, wrote Rob Steen shortly after her death aged 94 in 2006. “That Rheinberg happened to be a woman made her accomplishments all the more admirable.”

Many have speculated as to why there have been relatively few Jewish cricketers of international renown. Writing in the JC in May 1949, Edward Grayson, later the doyen of sports law, offered this explanation: “The characteristic English background of the leisurely cricket field is usually all too sedate, and expensive in point of time, to whet the appetite of the average Jewish nature… A less potent reason may be that in generations gone by the opportunity of indulging in athletic pastimes was restricted by the orthodox observance of the Sabbath, which would seriously conflict with Saturday afternoon — the customary time for English sporting activity.”

The clash of cricket matches with the Sabbath hindered my budding cricket career: almost three decades ago, I came close to being expelled from University College School for refusing to play on Shabbat. The then head, fresh in his post, was adamant in his view that making oneself available for sports on Saturdays was a sine qua non for attendance at the school. The cricket coach berated me, in the cricket nets, for putting my “petty superstitions before the good of the team”.

According to his grandson, the Establishment was suspicious of him and thought he was a radical, socialist and free-thinker

It is ironic that so bigoted a stance was adopted by a school that had been founded in 1830 by the University of London. At a time when only communicant members of the Church of England could attend Oxbridge, UCL was established to open up higher education to those of any faith (or none). The school it established (whose alumni included Hermann Adler, chief rabbi from 1891 to 1911) notionally shared the ethos. Hence the school song says of its founders: “They laid intolerance low”.

A number of Jewish parents supported the school’s stance. “Jewish parents,” reported the JC, “have reacted angrily to pleas by other, more Orthodox parents that boys should be excused from playing games on Saturday.” I was told at the time that the principal reason why the school council did not sanction my expulsion was because one of its members, the Bishop of Southampton, said that he would refuse to play cricket on a Sunday, his day of rest. However, as a consequence of my reprieve I was banned from representing the school against another school at any sport.

A Jewish Old Gower who did enjoy a distinguished cricketing career was Manfred John Susskind, who played five test matches for South Africa on its 1924 tour of England and ended up second in his team’s test batting averages (268 runs, average 33.50). But Susskind took pains not to publicise his Jewishness. Norman Gordon, who knew him well, tells me he “was Jewish but didn’t profess to be Jewish, didn’t admit to it. The South African papers never mentioned he was Jewish.”

It was left to Gordon, a fast bowler, to become the first openly Jewish test cricketer. When he made his test debut, the South African Jewish community “were very proud that a Jew was playing for their country”. Not all shared their view. Gordon, who is due to celebrate his 102nd birthday next month, recalls that when he ran up to bowl the first ball on his Test debut, he heard a heckler in the crowd shout “Here comes the rabbi!”

“Fortunately I took five wickets,” Gordon notes, “and that shut him up for the rest of the tour.”

Gordon was the leading wicket-taker on either side taker in his only test series, against England in 1938-39. Many thought his bowling would thrive in England. In his autobiography, Sir Len Hutton stated that he had “little doubt that if the war had not intervened Norman Gordon would have made a big name for himself had he toured England”.

South Africa’s 1940 tour of England was cancelled because of the war, and Gordon was not picked for the 1947 tour. Why? Many years later, Gordon says, “a friend of mine told me that he had heard from one of the tour selectors that [the South Africa and Sussex batsman] Alan Melville had told them not to select me as there might be antisemitism and unpleasantness in England and he thought it expedient to let me out of the tour. I am sure that my friend wouldn’t have told me if it wasn’t true. There was quite a bit of feeling about Jews even after the war in England.”

Seven decades later, this explanation cannot now be verified. I have, however, been able to ascertain the truth behind a selectorial assertion that Jewish cricket aficionados often make: that Percy Fender did not captain England because he was Jewish.

“Percy Fender, tall, angular, beaky, balding, surprisingly reminiscent in appearance of Groucho Marx,” wrote Ronald Mason, “looked about as unpromising material for an all-round cricketer as could be conceived. He looked decades older than he really was, and his large horn-rimmed spectacles over the assertive turfed moustache gave him the air of a fierce cashier peering angrily among the ledgers for a lost sixpence.” But appearances were deceptive. Fender was one of the best all-rounders of his generation: a big-hitting batsman — his century in 35 minutes in 1920 still remains the fastest 100 ever (save in contrived circumstances) in first-class cricket — a canny spin bowler and excellent slip fielder. In his memoir, the great Yorkshire batsman Herbert Sutcliffe described Fender as “the best cricket captain I have known” and wrote that he “could never understand why in his most successful years he was not England’s captain”.

In his biography by Richard Streeton, written when Fender was in his late 80s, Fender denied that he did not get the England captaincy because he was Jewish — because he wasn’t Jewish. However, Streeton’s book did not put the rumour to bed: some speculated that Fender was a self-denying Jew.

Recently I bought in auction a cache of letters written in 1992 between Irving Rosenwater, the (Jewish) cricket writer, and Richard Hutton, the then editor of the Cricketer, which included a strongly worded letter in which Rosenwater took exception to an article suggesting that Percy Fender was Jewish. “PGH Fender was born a non-Jew; lived his entire life as a non-Jew; and died and was buried a non-Jew”, he wrote. “This includes his marriage at Frinton-on-Sea Parish Church in 1924 and his Christian burial in Exeter in 1985. The further evidence for it… is profuse, but would simply weary a cricket readership.”

Included in the cache of letters was one from Rosenwater to a Mr PRK Fender, Percy’s only son, who, as a result, I was able to track down. Peter Fender, now almost 90, told me that there was no Jewishness in the family, and that it was his appearance (and in particular his long nose) that may have led people to think Percy Fender was Jewish. A possible source of the rumour, he feels, is a cartoon by Tom Webster that accentuated his father’s nose and curly hair. “People thought: because he has a long nose he must be Jewish,” says Fender of his father, “but this was just tommy rot.” And according to his grandson, Guy Fender, the reason why he did not captain England was because the Establishment was suspicious of him and thought he was a radical, socialist, free-thinker.

The prevalence and plausibility of the myth that Percy Fender was not appointed as England captain because he was Jewish offers an insight into the perceived antisemitism of English society of the 1920s and beyond. The apparent concerns that Norman Gordon would have a hard time as a Jew in England in 1947 remind us that even shortly after the Holocaust there was much antisemitism in England, especially following attacks in Mandatory Palestine. And the support given by a number of Jewish parents to attempts to compel Jewish children to play cricket on Shabbat rather than to those Jews who did not wish to, shows how insecure and conformist many Anglo-Jews of the 1980s were. The cricketing world is best viewed in its social and historical context. As CLR James famously asked: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”

Last updated: 6:16pm, July 15 2013