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Op-eds

Even from the pulpit, it’s just not cricket

  • Geoff Sifrin blog pic
“What would Cyril have said?” is what comes to mind for many people among South African Jewry, following last week’s ball-tampering scandal caused by Australia’s cricket team. They would be referring to South Africa’s late former Chief Rabbi, Cyril Harris.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Mar 29, 2018

The offenders were caught, proverbially, with their pants down, trying to tamper with the cricket ball’s surface to make it swerve when bowled, intending to beat South Africa by stealth rather than skill.

This was a blatant violation of the trust placed in them by cricket supporters. One Aussie was literally caught with hands in pants – videos showed hilarious images of him sticking his hand down his pants to hide the material he used.

Scottish-born Rabbi Harris, a hero of SA Jewry, worked with former president Nelson Mandela in bringing the Jewish community into post-apartheid South Africa, amongst other things. He also had a passion for cricket, believing it had an inherent ethical base and was “a game for gentlemen”.

“[Cricket] has an undoubted contemplative quality,” he often said, “appealing to the spiritual as much as the physical.”

The phrase, ‘It’s just not cricket’, was fondly used by British gentry, who brought the game to the Empire’s colonies. It was based on the assumption that cricket was an inherently decent sport, and other human affairs could be judged in reference to it.

Harris had an opportunity, through cricket, to express his opposition to apartheid in 1968, when London’s Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) – of which he had been a member for years – wanted to tour South Africa. This was despite then prime minister John Vorster’s view that the English team should not include a former South African coloured man, Basil D’Oliveira.

The MCC’s priority had been to maintain traditional cricket links with South Africa, in spite of apartheid and cultural and sporting boycotts. Harris objected to Vorster’s racially based interference and gave a sermon titled “Not on the Lord’s Side”, which he later published.

He brought his love of cricket unashamedly to the pulpit with his characteristic humour. In his first sermon at the St John’s Wood Synagogue in London in the late 1970s, situated around the corner from the famous home of British cricket known as Lord’s, he informed his new congregants: “I come here to bring you closer to the Lord – and me closer to Lord’s!”

In South Africa, one of his favourite places was Johannesburg’s Wanderers cricket ground. Shortly after South Africa returned to test cricket after the end of apartheid, he attended the first day’s play of a match there against Australia. When he arrived, South Africa was losing badly; his cricketing friends Ali Bacher, Joe Pamensky and Jackie McGlew pleaded with him to pray. “So I did,” he said. “And Jonty Rhodes and Dave Richardson built up a splendid century partnership, and we won the match!”

Last week’s disgraceful behaviour by the Aussies evokes sad memories of the former golden boy of SA cricket, Hansie Cronje, who was vital in reinstating South Africa as a dominant force in world cricket throughout the 1990s after the end of apartheid.

In 2000, Cronje was banned from cricket for life for his role in a match-fixing scandal. In 2004 – after he was killed in a light plane crash – he was voted the 11th most important South African. A born-again Christian, when he was caught he had said: “The devil made me do it.”

In today’s social media world, trust is a rare commodity. Do many people still think a “spiritual” game like cricket retains integrity and is worthy of people’s trust?

Unwittingly, the misbehaving Aussie cricketers have provided an opportunity for SA Jews to remember and celebrate Cyril Harris: a great rabbi with a cricketing soul.

·         Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog sifrintakingissue.wordpress.com

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