What a wonderful summer's bat mitzvah

By Zaki Cooper, September 3, 2009
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Born in Johannesburg, he grew up in the UK and graduated from Durham University in 1998. Since then, he has settled in north London and forged a very successful career. His surname is Strauss. But, much as we’d like to claim young Andrew as a nice Jewish boy, don’t expect to see him in shul over Rosh Hashanah. The England cricket captain will be away basking in his team’s recent victory over Australia.

The Ashes series has certainly excited the cricketing devotees in our community. Visits to shul on a Shabbat morning in the midst of a Test match this summer prompted plenty of chatter — and anxiety.

On the Sunday of the Lords Test match in late July, when strolling around the ground during the breaks, I spotted several faces I was more accustomed to seeing in Solly’s. Even in the grand English splendour of the pavilion, several kippot were in evidence, neatly setting off the MCC orange-and-yellow tie.

There are undoubted similarities between cricket and Judaism. Both value history and tradition. Just as Judaism combines laws and ethics, the laws of cricket are supplemented by the spirit of the game. Both depend upon an intricate balance between the individual and the collective.

Yet there have been few professional Jewish cricketers. The pre-war Surrey all-rounder Percy Fender, who played 13 Tests for England between 1921 and 1929, was thought to be Jewish but this is now doubted. Fred Trueman, the great Yorkshire and England fast bowler, who took more than 300 Test wickets, was born to a Jewish mother but adopted and raised as a Christian. Fiery Fred, who once described himself as “the finest bloody fast bowler that ever drew breath” — not without good cause — discovered his Jewish roots only after he had retired as a player to become a well-known radio commentator. More recently, Alec Stewart, Surrey and England wicket-keeper/batsman and captain, had a Jewish grandfather through his father, Mickey Stewart, also of Surrey and England.

Off the field, the press box at Lords has a healthy Jewish representation, and one of the most famous international cricket administrators, Ali Bacher, is a Jew. Moreover, both Bacher and his nephew Adam played Test match cricket for South Africa.

This link is a relatively recent one, whereas that between cricket and Christianity has held strong since Victorian times, when clergy saw the game as a way of inculcating a moral code. Astonishingly, one-third of all Oxbridge cricket blues between 1860 and 1900 later trained for the clergy.

Even after the Second World War, a Christian minister, David Sheppard, who became Bishop of Liverpool, played 22 Tests between 1954 and 1963. Not so long ago, the England set-up included a spiritual adviser, the Rev Andrew Wingfield Digby, appointed in 1989. One of his claims to fame is having dismissed Viv Richards for five, when playing as a student for Oxford against Somerset in 1976.

Some years later, Wingfield Digby bumped into the legendary West Indian batsman, who, recalling the dismissal, told him: “You stick to preaching, Man.”

Which is what our rabbis tend to do. But, with experts like Matthew Engel, the distinguished former editor of Wisden, the Bible of cricket, we still talk a good game.

Zaki Cooper is the author, with Daniel Lightman, of ‘Cricket Grounds from the Air’ published by Myriad Books

    Last updated: 2:00pm, September 3 2009