My greatest ever Jewish cricket XI needs every bit of help it can get
Next month, as part of Israel’s 60th birthday celebrations, a unique Israel team that will include a collection of Jewish cricketers from South Africa, Australia, Ireland and India will take on an India A squad. Here, Rob Steen selects his greatest ever Jewish XI
How many renowned Jewish cricketers are there? The answer lies somewhere between the number of world-beating Jewish footballers and rugby notables. Then again, the South African Arthur Goldman did call his 1968 book about sporty Jews “What is Cricket… Rugby?”. Perhaps we’re so busy worrying about our own tribe we don’t have time for less important team pursuits?
In the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, alongside the illustrious likes of Mark Spitz, Harold Abrahams, Joel Stransky, Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, stands but one cricketer, Dr Ali Bacher. And while Bacher, in 1970, captained the best side South Africa ever fielded, he is best known as the administrator who alienated so many by organising the “rebel” tours of the Apartheid era.
Walter Hammond, the greatest English batsman of the inter-war years, told Goldman that the South African Norman Gordon was “the greatest seam bowler I faced since [Sussex and England legend] Maurice Tate”. The best Jewish batsman was probably the Australian Leonard ‘Jock’ Livingston. Had he not insisted on playing county cricket, many believe ‘Jock’ would have pre-empted Julien Wiener (1979), cited by the Oxford Companion to Australian Cricket as the “only” Jew to play for Australia. Wiener’s mother and father, Vella and Sasha, were Polish and Austrian Jews respectively, and both escaped the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. He made his test debut against England at the WACA in 1979 and went on to play six tests for the baggy greens.
Goldman’s All-Time Jewish XI, however, also name-checks Maurice Sievers, who took out five Poms for 21 in a 1937 Ashes Test.
In keeping with demographics, the vast majority of eminent Jewish players have been South African. The Republic, indeed, competed in the Maccabiah Games during the isolation years. Now, given the white South African exodus, the Australians, thanks to the likes of Jon Moss and fellow Maccabi participant Michael Klinger, are closing fast.
Here, confirmed sightings have been fitful: a century ago, John Raphael captained Surrey; Bev Lyon was Hammond’s captain at Gloucestershire; Mike Barnard helped Hampshire win their first County Championship in 1960. Hence those JC tributes to Moss, who in 2004 became county cricket’s first self-confessed semite for 40 years.
The reluctance of players to out themselves, as it were, is unsurprising. Lyon and Wiener were subjected to antisemitic sledging, the latter, most shockingly, from his boyhood hero, the Test opener Keith Stackpole. Barnard still avoids discussing his roots.
In the opposite corner sits Mandy Yachad, dubbed “the world’s first kosher cricketer” by the Indian sportswriter Gulu Ezekiel, who recalls how, during South Africa’s 1991 tour, the batsman “carried hot-pack kosher meals everywhere he went, approved by the Johannesburg rabbinate”. Torn by the Shabbat v cricket dilemma, Yachad ultimately took up law. “I could not,” he explained, “justify [playing on Saturday] to my children any more.” In June 2004, he addressed Edgware Lubavitch’s birthday celebrations.
Which brings us to Jewish cricket’s longest-running mysteries: Percy Fender and Fred Trueman. One of England’s most charismatic Sixties sporting idols, Trueman was the first bowler to take 300 Test wickets and, by his own estimation, “T’ finest ruddy fast bowler that ever drew breath” (his proposed title for his biography). Shortly after the Yorkshireman’s death in 2006, a JC correspondent claimed that Trueman had admitted to him in 1993 that he had only recently discovered that his maternal grandmother was Jewish and that his mother, Ethel, had been put up for adoption. “Freddie said he was perfectly happy to be considered Jewish. ‘But don’t expect me to stop eating bacon sandwiches,’ he added.”
Then there was Fender, whose resemblance to Fagin inspired many a newspaper cartoon in the 1920s and whose rumoured faith, it was claimed, barred him from the England captaincy. Though Fender denied all, his Surrey teammate, Alf Gover, assured me he was “cut like a Jew”. That’ll do me. My all-time Jewish XI needs every bit of help it can get.
Rob Steen is a senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton and a sportswriter. He has written award-winning books on the game