If you’re like me, your knowledge of cricket comes from Bollywood movies like Lagaan or Slumdog Millionaire. It’s a sport that’s got half the world crazy — and the other half wondering what the heck is meant to happen between those two little wooden peg structures (the wickets), why there are so many pauses between pitches (balls bowled), and how you can play a game for hours, days even, and have it end in a tie.
As an American, I can’t exactly claim to be a baseball devotee, but at least I somewhat fathom the routine — hit the ball, and run around the bases. I get it. But while traveling through India, I was forced into becoming a cricket spectator over countless chai teas and aloo gobi dinners in numerous Indian cafés and bars. The game is always on in India, and I often found myself thinking: Their bats look flattened, okay, but, I mean, where are the bases?
When my editor (himself a battered cricket player) asked me if I wanted to cover a match between the Israeli Cricket Association and members of the Lords and Commons Cricket Club — a visiting British parliamentary team, largely comprised of Conservative party MPs, one Labor MP, and a former England captain — I thought of India, hesitated, agreed, and then panicked.
What was needed, I decided, was a quick course of cricket-edification: I watched YouTube clips (mostly from the Pakistani league), read some Guardian articles at the suggestion of a friend, and started investigating just how big a deal this John Emburey character is (the ex-England captain).
By the time the match in Tel Aviv came around, on a summery, pleasant Friday morning, I was ready to “get on the front foot,” as the cricket saying goes — as in mustering up your energy, or courage, to do something.
A few hours, and a lot of banter later, I finally realized what the game was all about. So much more than blokes wearing sweater-vests.
When I got to the game, the British team was fielding, and the Israelis were batting — a batsman at either end of the pitch (the rectangle in the center), clad in protective gloves, pads (on the legs) and helmets (optional), trying to hit the (extremely hard) ball and run between the wickets as many times as possible. The idea: to garner as many runs (points) as possible for the team until the allotted number of balls have been bowled, or until 10 of the 11 batters are out. Got that?
I sat down with the members of the Israeli team who weren’t out “in the middle” — a colorful bunch from South Africa, England, India, and other Commonwealth countries — and had a chance to boast about some of my newfound expertise: “Cricket was invented in the 13th century, and it’s the second-most popular sport in the world,” I ventured, though don’t ask me why I felt the need to tell them that.
They started quizzing me.
The chairman of the Israel Cricket Association (ICA) and the brainchild of the British MPs’ visit, Stanley Perlman, a boisterous man from South Africa, began: “So how many ways can you get out in cricket? Ten?” I nodded in agreement. (I had no idea — about that question or any of the others that followed.)
It didn’t take long to realize that these guys were specialists in banter. Indeed, one can argue that cricket’s as much about the wisecracking as it is about the sport — and the unique thing is the two teams have a lot of time to interact because the batsmen, if they’re playing well, are on the field with the opposing team for a long time.
The Israeli team was beaming; they were clearly winning. (To be fair, some of the conditions, like the blazing Mediterranean sun and the makeshift cricket field — a plastic strip laid across the soccer field — were an adjustment for the visiting MPs.)
Graham Jones, the Labor MP for Haslingden and Hyndburn, was injured within the first few minutes of the game. I went over to try to strike up a conversation. “So, how were you hurt? Did someone hit you with the ball?” I asked, trying to relay some sympathy.
He deadpanned: “Oh no, I just slipped and did it to myself.”
When the first half of the game had finished, Crispin Blunt, an MP for Reigate in Surrey and most recently parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, was the first off the field. Seeing his teammate and political opponent Jones speaking to a journalist, Blunt chimed in with a friendly jab: “Well, isn’t that just typical. Labor falls over and it’s up to the Tories to clean up their mess!”
Beneath their easy-going vibe, the MPs were well aware of the purpose of their trip, which was billed as a fact-finding cricket mission. Israel comes up a lot in parliamentary debates and is a major concern among their constituencies, they explained.
They had already met with the British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould, and they were going to be taken on a tour of Jerusalem’s Old City and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
The day before, they had visited a Bedouin village, Hura, and played with local kids. “Were you surprised to find Bedouin kids so eager to play cricket?” I asked a few of them.
Actually, they weren’t. “And they were really rather good,” Jones said.
The MPs also visited Sderot and played cricket in Beersheba with Israeli and West Bank Palestinian kids, as part of the ICA’s Cricket4Peace program in conjunction with the Peres Center for Peace.
Cricket is no stranger to politics and justice. England, for example, was prominent in the international boycott of South Africa via cricket to try to end that country’s segregation policies under apartheid.
Nick King, a special adviser to the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, who had previously traveled around the Middle East and spent two years living in Saudi Arabia, said that it was always good to see how cricket could be used as a “means” of crossing barriers.
“I’m very interested in the role sports can play in bringing people together,” he said. “And I think yesterday’s trip inspired the MPs to think about how they can implement sports to help communities, and do more with it.”
I couldn’t help but think about India and Pakistan, and their shared love of cricket. A legacy of years of British rule, the sport often helps them transcend their tensions.
A gentleman’s game
On the way back from lunch, I walked alongside Emburey, a legendary spin bowler who turned out to be soft-spoken, witty, and polite. We joked about the British team and talked a bit about Israel, but what I really wanted to know was why he loved the game so much.
“Because it’s a leveler, you see?” he said. “One day, you can be scoring hundreds and the next day, nothing.”
“So it keeps you grounded — and gentlemanly?” I asked.
“It certainly does,” he said with a smile.
Now the Brits were batting, but the score wasn’t heading in their favor. They took a drinks break, and I asked Blunt what they were huddling about. He laughed and said that they knew they were going to lose, but he was busy devising plans for how to lose – to give it their all, or just say “screw it,” and try a few tricks they had up their sleeves.
“See, the question is how to lose best — with dignity,” he said, jokingly.
They seemed to settle on the fight-til-you-die mentality. But even as they played their hearts out, the teasing on the sidelines continued. I started to feel like I was on holiday — in Bombay or Yorkshire, it wouldn’t have made much difference. Wherever cricket is played in this kind of spirit, the camaraderie seems to matter more than conquering the other side.
Lessons there somewhere for us all?