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Wisden Almanack 2024

The —sky’s the limit: A history of Jewish cricketers – Wisden Almanack

Jewish cricketers
by Daniel Lightman 5 minute read

Daniel Lightman’s piece on Jewish cricketers originally appeared in the 2024 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

“I for one shall never be satisfied of the complete assimilation of Jews in the English nation,” wrote the literary critic and historian Joseph Jacobs in 1898, “till one of them has rowed in a Varsity race or played in England v Australia.” Unknown to Jacobs, Archibald Levin Smith, who later became a first-class cricketer, Master of the Rolls and the first Jewish president of MCC, was part of the Cambridge boat that sank in 1859. More than a century and a half on, no Jewish man is known to have played for England, let alone against Australia, though Micky Stewart did have a Polish-Jewish great-grandparent.

But a Jewish woman has played for England, even if the experience proved chastening. Netta Rheinberg was player-manager for the tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1948/49. On the eve of the First Test at Adelaide, Joan Wilkinson withdrew because of an ulcerated eye, and Rheinberg took her place. “I was so overcome I had to have an immediate swig of brandy!” she wrote in her diary. She had developed a fever, which she decided “on no account” to tell the selectors, and was “annoyed that my first chance should have come when I was not feeling on top of the world”. On the first morning, she dropped Betty Wilson on nought, a difficult chance at slip: “What a difference it would have made had I held it!” Wilson went on to score 111 in an Australian total of 213. Not feeling well enough to eat, Rheinberg spent the lunch break in the dressing-room, while her team-mates were presented to the governor of South Australia, Sir Willoughby Norrie, and to Don Bradman.

On the second day, she was stumped for a duck (off Wilson), and England were all out for 72. “I feel very depressed,” she wrote, “but everyone is nice to me & so the game goes on.” In the second innings, she was bowled first ball by a “stinking off-break” from, inevitably, Wilson. Rheinberg was the first woman to bag a pair on Test debut. “Try to smile as if nothing had happened on my return to the pavilion – but hard to pull off! I use every swear word imaginable beneath my breath & feel utterly disgusted – my worst day so far. However, no good crying over spilt milk.” England lost by 186 runs.

Rheinberg, who went on to play a pioneering role in women’s cricket, and was among the first ten women to become honorary members of MCC, is celebrated in the first exhibition devoted to Jews and cricket, which I have co-curated with Zaki Cooper at the new Communities Gallery at the Lord’s Museum, where it will remain until 2025. And while it is true that no legendary cricketers – with one possible exception – have been Jewish, a number have made significant contributions. But their heritage often affected their lives and careers, and both the existence and fear of anti-Semitism have cast a shadow over their involvement at the highest level.

The exhibition also features the Baggy Green of Ruth Buckstein, the only Jewish woman to represent Australia. An opening batter, she could look back on her one Ashes Test, at Hove in 1987, with pride – and disappointment. In the first innings, she reached 83 before being run out when Denise Annetts, on 49, hit the ball to cover and called for a suicidal single. Buckstein, who was run out again in the second innings, for two, went on to score two centuries during Australia’s triumph at the 1988 World Cup.

Several members of her family died in the Holocaust, which also cast a deep shadow over the childhood of Julien Wiener, the only Jewish man to play Test cricket for Australia: his grandparents, two uncles and an aunt were all murdered. “My parents spent the war running, hiding, doing things people had to do to survive,” he says. “Dad ended up fighting in the Russian army under an assumed name – he never told me what it was. It was his way of surviving.” Wiener’s international career, confined to three months in 1979/80, comprised six Tests and seven one-day internationals. He scored 58 in his first Test, against England at Perth, and 93 in his last, against Pakistan at Lahore. “When I was out lbw to Iqbal Qasim, I thought: ‘What an incredible lost opportunity. Who knows when it will present itself again?’ The next tour was in 1980 to England. I wasn’t picked, and that was the end of that. No communication, no feedback. Nowadays, players have an expectation they will be spoken to. In previous generations, you were left more to your own devices.”

Michael Klinger, whose prolific run-making, especially in one-day cricket, earned him the nickname “the Jewish Bradman”, was unfortunate not to play Tests or ODIs for Australia. But, aged 36, he did appear in a three-match T20 series against Sri Lanka in 2016/17, and was the leading scorer. Another Australian Jew who might have had a Test career was Leonard “Jock” Livingston, an attacking batsman who enjoyed success with Northamptonshire in the 1950s. His family have confirmed he was Jewish, a fact unknown even to members of the small Northampton Jewish community. “If he had been born in England,” wrote JD Coldham, “Livingston … would have been certain of a place in the England team.”

Three Jewish batters – Wiener, Sid O’Linn and Adam Bacher, nephew of Ali – have all fallen in the nervous nineties, leaving Ivanhoe Mordecai Barrow as the only Jew with a Test century. Born to Sephardi parents, Hyam and Mamie Barrow, in St Thomas, Jamaica, he scored 105 for West Indies at Old Trafford in 1933. “Technically, Barrow’s innings was sound and workmanlike,” said The Jamaica Times. “But from a moral point of view it was a meritorious and glorious effort. He raced [George] Headley for the honour of notching the first West Indies century against England in England, and won by a few balls with a glorious late cut for four off Hammond. The applause that greeted him was thunderous.”

Also a wicketkeeper, Barrow finished the tour with 1,046 runs and 54 dismissals, though no other score above 16 in the Tests. Wisden called his keeping “quiet and thoroughly competent”. When West Indies next toured England, in 1939, there were difficulties choosing a vice-captain to Rolph Grant, the policy being to appoint only whites. But none of the whites in the party had played Test cricket or toured England – except Barrow, who by now had ten caps. It has been suggested his Jewishness ruled him out. Instead, the role went to John Cameron, who was of mixed race but a Cambridge Blue and MCC member; Wisden said he was “not reliable with bat or ball”. During the tour, Barrow wanted to write an article for the News Chronicle showing his solidarity with Europe’s Jews, but was blocked by Jack Kidney, the team manager. Kidney, he wrote to a friend, “says I must hold it to after the tour. I wish I was free!” Barrow died in 1979, and the Jamaica Gleaner’s Anthea McGibbon later noted that he made “his fellow Jamaican Jews proud”.

Off-spinner Reg Scarlett was another Jamaican Jew to represent West Indies, playing three Tests against England in 1959/60. Jackie Hendriks, the Test wicketkeeper and an old friend – like Barrow, they attended Wolmer’s Boys’ School – says: “From when he was a schoolboy, Reg spun the ball prodigiously, even on concrete practice pitches, and gave all batsmen many problems, some of whom padded up when the ball was wide of their off stump, only to lose middle. I found keeping wicket to him very exciting, as something was always happening. He became quite a student of the game, a hard-hitting batsman and an excellent fieldsman with a very powerful and accurate throw. He loved the game and gave much of his time to help young players improve their skills. Unfortunately, he was often overlooked by the West Indies selectors, much to his deep disappointment.”

After moving to the UK, Scarlett played a major role in developing black youngsters at Haringey Cricket College, many of whom forged county careers. Scarlett’s mother, Mona (née Levy), was Jewish. Michael Blumberg, the former editor of Cricket World magazine, recalls Scarlett telling him about his introduction to the Lancashire League and North Manchester Jewry when he played for Church in 1961. The local rabbi enjoyed cricket, and always invited the team’s professional to dinner. When Reg announced he was Jewish, “the rabbi and his family were at first astounded but then full of joy and warm good fellowship. The rabbi obviously informed the community, and Reg barely paid for anything that summer, and was a frequent dinner guest within the Jewish community.”

While more Jews, and cricketers with a Jewish background, have represented South Africa than any other Test nation, a number have downplayed their heritage, fearful of anti-Semitism, anxious to blend in. Among them was the pioneering googly bowler Reggie Schwarz, whose father was Jewish. He played 20 Tests, and in 1908 was probably the only cricketer of Jewish heritage to be one of Wisden’s Five, after taking 137 wickets at 11 to top the 1907 averages. Fred Susskind, meanwhile, played all five Tests on South Africa’s 1924 tour of England, and was second in their batting averages, with 268 runs at 33. But it seems Susskind, who was educated at University College School in North London, took pains not to publicise his Jewishness. Norman Gordon, another South African Jewish Test player, told me Susskind “was Jewish but didn’t profess to be Jewish, didn’t admit to it. The South African papers never mentioned he was Jewish.”

Sid O’Linn was one of the most successful batsmen on South Africa’s 1960 tour, and at Trent Bridge fell for 98 to a remarkable catch by Colin Cowdrey. Shortly after his death in 2016, I discovered he had been born Sidney Olinsky, the son of a kosher butcher, Isaac, one of nine children to Jacob and Miriam (née Sladowsky), from Poland. They settled in Oudtshoorn, a small town in the Cape, where Sid was born in 1927. When his parents moved to Cape Town eight years later, they changed their name. “The children were told it was better to drop the ‘sky’ because of the Jewish connotations,” said Olinsky’s cousin Roy Wigmore. “The parents thought it was safer for them, because of anti-Semitism.” The influence of Nazi ideas had led to the establishment of anti-Semitic Afrikaner movements, such as the Ossewabrandwag.

Perhaps scarred by his childhood experiences, O’Linn was happy to give the impression he was the son of an Irish settler. Derek Ufton, his team-mate at Kent and Charlton Athletic FC, said: “Sid kept himself to himself. It was hard to get to know much about him. You have to remember that, in South Africa at that time, you wouldn’t get into certain clubs if you had different blood in you.”

The experience of Norman Gordon suggests O’Linn may have been wise to hide his heritage. The son of Lithuanian immigrants who changed their name from Eisenstat, Gordon was South Africa’s first openly Jewish Test cricketer. Sir Sydney Kentridge, an eminent, South African-born Jewish lawyer, recalls that, when Gordon made his Test debut against Hammond’s England at Johannesburg in 1938-39, the Jewish community “were very proud that a Jew was playing for their country. There was great interest, especially among Jewish cricket followers, in what he was doing. Here was a Jewish sporting hero.” But not everyone agreed. When Gordon ran in to bowl his first ball, a heckler shouted: “Here comes the rabbi!” Gordon, who died in 2014 at the age of 103, told me: “Fortunately, I took five wickets in that innings, and that shut him up for the rest of the tour.” Hammond, lbw for 24, was among his victims.

Gordon finished the series, which included the supposedly Timeless Test in Durban, as the leading wicket-taker, with 20. Many thought he would thrive in England. “Gordon was the greatest seam bowler I faced since Maurice Tate,” Hammond told the South African sports journalist Arthur Goldman. “He could move the ball beautifully, and his control was superb. It was a tragedy that war intervened, and Gordon could not come to England in 1940. On English wickets, and with a more helpful atmosphere for his outswing bowling, he would have been a terror to our batsmen.”

Yet Gordon was not picked for South Africa’s next visit, in 1947. Many years later, he said: “A friend of mine told me he had heard from one of the tour selectors that [South Africa’s captain] Alan Melville had told them not to select me, as there might be anti-Semitism and unpleasantness in England, and he thought it expedient to let me out of the tour. I am sure my friend wouldn’t have told me if it wasn’t true. There was quite a bit of feeling about Jews in England, even after the war.”

In 1969/70, Aron “Ali” Bacher became the first Jew to captain a Test side (and the first medical doctor since WG Grace). Like Gordon, Bacher wore his Jewish identity with pride. His parents had arrived as refugees from Lithuania in the 1920s, and his mother played the part of a typical yiddishe momme. After the schoolboy Bacher was compared by cricket writer Dick Whitington to Bradman, he was dismissed twice in a row for nought. Back home, his mother scoffed: “Huh, Sir Donald Bradman, they say. Rather, Sir Donald Duck!”

The side Bacher led to a 4-0 whitewash over Australia were arguably the strongest ever to represent South Africa. Uniquely, in two of the Tests their team included another Jew, the bespectacled wicketkeeper Dennis Gamsy. His father, Barney, had also arrived from Lithuania in 1928, leaving three brothers, who all died in the Holocaust; his parents died in exile in Siberia. “One thing I have always thanked my father for,” says Gamsy, “was that he changed the family name when he arrived in South Africa as a 13-year-old, from ‘Gamscavatuus’ – no doubt an incorrect spelling – to Gamsy. Can you imagine John Arlott saying, ‘Boycott caught Gamscavatuus bowled Adcock 102’, especially after a glass of South African Chardonnay?”

Jewish batters have scored centuries for both sides in the Ireland-Scotland fixture: Dr Louis Jacobson for the Irish, Sussex’s Terry Racionzer for the Scots. Despite its small size, as many as eight members of Ireland’s Jewish community have represented the country, including Jason Molins, who captained them 45 times, and his cousin Lara Molins Caplin, a medium-pacer who topped the averages at the 2001 European Championship.

In 1993, Fred Trueman claimed his mother was Jewish. He said she had been adopted at birth, and that her natural mother was the daughter of a Jewish couple named Bennett, who had lived in Leeds. Trueman appeared pleased with his new-found identity, which he said his mother had revealed shortly before her death the previous year. When he was interviewed by The Jewish Chronicle, he added: “Don’t expect me to stop eating bacon sandwiches.” In his biography of Trueman, however, Chris Waters suggested the Bennetts were an unremarkable family from Winterton, north Lincolnshire, with no Jewish ancestry. He cited Trueman’s “desire to invent stories and inhabit a fantasy world that was possibly something of a family trait”.

While Trueman claimed to be Jewish when he probably wasn’t, one of the reasons Percy Fender may have been denied the England captaincy was because he was erroneously thought to be Jewish. “Tall, angular, beaky, balding, surprisingly reminiscent in appearance of Groucho Marx, [he] looked about as unpromising material for an all-round cricketer as could be conceived,” wrote Ronald Mason. “He looked decades older than he really was, and his large horn-rimmed spectacles over the assertive turfed moustache gave him the air of a fierce cashier peering angrily among the ledgers for a lost sixpence.”

But appearances were deceptive: Fender was one of the best all-rounders of his generation. A big-hitting batsman – he still holds the record for the fastest uncontrived first-class hundred, made in 35 minutes for Surrey at Northampton in 1920 – he was also a canny spinner and excellent slip fielder. In his memoir, Herbert Sutcliffe described him as “the best cricket captain I have known”, adding that he “could never understand why in his most successful years he was not England’s captain”.

In his biography by Richard Streeton, Fender – then in his late eighties – said he wasn’t Jewish, and it would not have told against him even if he had been. But after his death in 1985, Frank Keating wrote that Fender “should have captained England regularly, many said, but he knew he never would when he overheard an MCC president at Lord’s referring to him as ‘the smarmy Jew boy’”. Peter, his only son, told me there was no Jewishness in the family, but felt a possible source of the rumour was a cartoon by Tom Webster that accentuated his father’s nose and curly hair. According to Percy’s grandson Guy, the reason he did not captain England was because the Establishment thought he was a radical socialist. Even so, Fender’s stereotypical Semitic appearance would have made him stand out in the 1920s. The cricketing authorities wanted England captains who fitted the mould – and their preconceptions of how a captain should look. The wait goes on.

Daniel Lightman is a King’s Counsel. He wrote Cricket Grounds from the Air with Zaki Cooper.

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