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Catching up with cricket in the Promised Land

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It was the third day of the wedding ceremonies and one of the most important rituals for Ezekiel and Noori, the bride and groom. But Ezekiel could barely sit still. He glanced at his watch every few minutes - it was 10 am. He had to be somewhere else. At 10. 15 am, he got up impatiently, shook the hands of his parents and his bride and zipped off.

Ten minutes later he was on the cricket field, all padded up and ready to play the most memorable game of cricket in his life. "You're the craziest man I've ever met!" his brother-inlaw remarked later, and he couldn't have been more right.

Ezekiel is one among an entire community of Bene Israel Indian Jews in Israel for whom the passion for cricket runs deep. Israeli sports is dominated by football and basketball;cricket figures nowhere in the league of popular games there. But Israel has been called the land of miracles for a reason. These men have struggled long and hard to look past the odds stacked against them and have fought for the survival of a game that is their life.

"Like in most cases, cricket was brought to Israel by the English. But it has been revived by enthusiastic immigrants from cricket-playing countries like India, " says Ezekiel.

Born in Mumbai, Ezekiel has been playing cricket for as long as he can remember. "Earlier, I played with a tennis ball and when I turned 17, I switched to a seasoned ball. But the seriousness and devotion with which I played was always the same, " Ezekiel recalls.

Ezekiel migrated to Israel when he was eight and his love for cricket tagged along with him. He made his debut in formal cricket in 1976 and is currently the captain of the Dimona-A Cricket Club, a second division club consisting only of Indian Jews. At the age of 20, Ezekiel was the first from his club to get a call from the national selectors for the Israeli national team.

He didn't make it though that didn't dull his ardour for the game. But it hasn't been easy sticking to his passion. The cricket grounds, if they can be called that, are muddy, grass-less football fields that are far from inviting, let alone creating cricketing history.

"There are only two grounds in Israel that have grass - one in Tel Aviv and the other in Ashdod. I have grown up playing on pitches without a blade of grass, " Ezekiel says.

Ezekiel recalls the time a ball hit him near the eye. The ball had risen from good length and the pitch had a gaping hole and the bowler had managed to get the ball to hit it. "It could have been a serious injury but I was lucky, " he says.

There is a severe shortage of coaching academies as well. "There is no money in the game. Apart from national coaches, none of the players, even international ones, get paid. Apart from the country's security and education, the government allots funds only for football and basketball, " he says. And if this was not challenging enough, Ezekiel and his team often drive for four hours to Tel Aviv only to play a three-hour match.

Ezekiel and his team in Dimona aren't fighting a lone battle. Just over 100 miles south of Dimona is another fraternity of passionate, struggling cricketers looking to perfect their drives, cuts and pulls. Playing in Israeli national league games in the B division under the name of Sitar Elat Cricket Club, Avner Dighorkar and his team in Elat are striving to make it to the A division.

Playing for his club at the national league level for over a decade now, 39-year-old Avner is known among competitors as a bowler to be feared. Born and brought up in Surendranagar, Gujarat, Avner migrated to Israel in 2000.

"My father was the captain of the hockey and football teams at Sheth NTM High School in Surendranagar. He was a good basketball player too. But I developed my interest in cricket only when I came to Israel, " says Avner.

When he got to Elat, Avner met a couple of young boys who wanted to play cricket, and he joined in. When other teams in Israel got to know about these boys, they invited them to play for various teams. After three years of playing random games, they formed their own team in Elat.

The southern part of Israel is a desert - temperatures soar above 45 degrees in the summers. The games are either interrupted by frequent water breaks or sand storms. "Sometimes the wind blows so hard that it becomes difficult for the bowlers to bowl accurately, batsmen to judge the ball and the fielders to take catches. The wind affects the ball a lot, " says Avner.

In addition to this, Elat is about a five-hour drive from central Israel, and teams visiting Elat or the other way around have to travel for long. "We get up at 4 am and then play our game for six hours, before returning home by nightfall. It can be extremely tiring. "

Avner feels that cricket and India are like the body and the soul. "When Israelis watch us playing cricket they know that Indians are playing. Often our families come to watch the game. At times people bring Indian food stuff and it becomes a picnic for Indian families, " Avner adds with a smile. The cricket kits incidentally usually come from Ahmedabad or Mumbai.

BENCH STRENGTH


Apart from Avner Dighorkar, Gujarat has contributed a few other cricketers to the Bene Israel cricket community in Israel. Nineteen-year-old Shalom Christy Nagavkar from Anand is an excellent bowler and also plays for the Under-19 Israeli national team in the European games where amateur teams from various countries play. In 2011, Shalom took 11 wickets in the European games and was awarded the best bowler award. He also received the best sportsman of the year award in Israel in the same year.
Sanjay Gupta, a batsman from Ahmedabad, played for the Sitar Elat Cricket Club and for the Israeli national team in the European games as well.

Sixty-eight-year-old Joel Samuel Digorkar from Surendranagar still plays for the Dimona-A team. The oldest member of the team, Joel is an allrounder and hit the winning boundary in a recent match against the Indian Embassy team.
Other than Joel, there is Benson Salgaonkar from Rajkot, Abner Gerard from Ahmedabad, Benhur Salgaonkar from Rajkot and Moses Mashon from Ahmedabad who play for the Dimona team.

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