Howzat!

At last I managed to find cricket, Israel, and Australia, all in the one article.
This summer, the only game of the European Cricket Council championships that was jam-packed with spectators was held in Mechelen, between Norway and Israel. Neither of the teams is exactly a cricketing powerhouse, even in the ECC; so why the interest? It seems the Israeli cricketers were all of Indian origin, while the Norwegians were all of Pakistani origin.

So there was great interest, particularly in Israel, which has a 70,000-strong community of Jews from India. Local papers called it another India-Pakistan "proxy war". The result, however, was a bit lop-sided: Norway won by 149 runs.

The loss didn’t diminish Israeli enthusiasm for cricket: in fact, the 16-team strong professional league is adding two more teams this year. And though there are some Israelis of South African origin and British origin playing in the league, it is dominated by Indian Jews - the Lion’s Lod team, which won the Premier League championship this year, is wholly of Indian origin. As is the number two team, Ashdod (the port city in central Israel). As is the number three team, from Tel Aviv.

Take for instance Haskel Dilkolkar: today his team, from Kiryatgat, is spending today playing a limited overs match against Dimona. This city, which has a sizable population of Indian origin, is bang in the middle of the Negev desert which dominates the wedge of Israel between southern Jordan and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and so the matches take place on pitches which are literally nothing more than sand and rocks. But when has that ever deterred an Indian? "

Sometimes we’re very serious about it, but sometimes we make it into a picnic outing," says Haskel in Marathi-ised Hindi (his grandparents came to Israel from Thane). Since the Israeli’s Saturday is like other people's Sundays, "it becomes a time for the family to enjoy". No wonder the Norwegian Pakistanis beat our Israelis.

But if it weren’t for the Marathi Jews like Haskel, Israeli cricket would be non-existent. About 30,000 Jews of Indian origin are from Maharashtra, known as the Bene Israel; the next big chunk are the Cochin Jews; then there are the Baghdadi Jews, who apparently migrated to Calcutta from Iraq about 500 years ago - the hotelier Sassoon family are its prominent members; and there are the "lost tribes" from our Northeast, the Bene Menashe from Manipur and the Shevet Menashe from Mizoram.

The Bene Israel is concentrated in the port city of Ashdod, which has two teams in the big leagues. And those who can’t actually join the team, like dock-worker Shalom Astukar, catch their cricket matches on digital cable. Ashtukar can’t play because he injured his left eye in the Yom Kippur war of 1973; he was 16, and just seven years after migrating to Israel from Byculla, he was operating a tank in the Sinai when he was caught in an explosion. No prizes for guessing who his, or any Bene Israel Jew’s favourite player is: "Sachin Tendulkar!"

As Haskel points out, though Tendulkar is the king, the Indian Jews prefer to watch the Australians on TV. "We love their team," he says. "We watched all the matches from their tour to India."

And if the grown-up players seem a bit, well, happy-go lucky, the real story is, their kids: the junior leagues are where all the Israeli cricket action is. Again they are mostly of Indian origin, with a smattering of South Africans. And they have won championships: the under-15s won a European medal in 2001, and the under-13s won the championships in 2002.

So there is hope that the Israel cricket team will play India one day in the future. At the moment, the Israel cricket association is an associate member of the ICC, and the ICA chairman, Stanley Perlman, is an executive member of the ICC. If they continue to groom their youngsters seriously,then who knows…

(Cross-posted on Israellycool)

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