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Israel Cricket bats prejudice to triumph in Italy

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After seven weeks of practice, the Israel national cricket team set off for Rome on 7 June to participate in the ICC (International Cricket Council) Men’s T20 Sub-Regional Europe World Cup Qualifier, ultimately landing in seventh place.

It was a massive triumph for the team, which has been vastly affected by the war in Gaza, with many of the players reservists in the Israel Defense Forces and having gone to the Gaza Strip.

“The war has certainly affected the players,” said the team manager, South African Joanne Tankle. “Some of the light has gone out of their eyes.

“Five of these players have been to Gaza. One of them found a teddy bear laced with explosives,” said Tankle. “These kids, because they are the younger guys of the team, have seen things in Gaza that we can never imagine.”

However, there was mounting excitement to play in an international tournament, a feat that they feared could be impossible after 7 October 2023.

The team faced financial constraints as it was unable to get sponsorships because of the situation in Israel. The coach, who lives in South Africa, was also unable to train with the team because it became problematic for him to travel to Israel during the war.

“We were supposed to start training in November last year, however it was impossible at that stage,” said Tankle.

“We went into the tournament as the underdogs. These boys had only seven weeks of training, and in those seven weeks, there was hardly – if ever – a full team at training,” she said. “Some of the guys are serving in the army. They’re not paid cricketers, so they’ve got to make a living to feed their families. Cricket is just a passion.

“One player cuts trees for a living; one is a security guard at a factory; one cleans tables in a canteen; and one is a bus driver. They were just ordinary human beings going to an international cricket tournament to bring pride and joy to Israel, and I think they did just that,” she said.

Tankle said the team was warmly welcomed by the Italian cricket federation and ICC officials when they arrived in Italy. “But there was no real warmth from any of the other teams.

“The other teams were shocked that we were quite good. Had we had more practice time, I think we would have done a whole lot better,” she said.

In previous years, the ICC never had security at tournaments of this level, however, this year, it brought in a security detail specifically because of Israel’s participation and all teams were under strict instruction not to make it a political battlefield.

Tankle said the team was followed by security guards, both from the Israeli government and the ICC, and they weren’t allowed to travel anywhere without being escorted.

“On the morning of our first match against Austria, walking out of the dining hall, I spotted a bat with a ‘Freedom for Palestine’ sticker on it,” she said.

Tankle immediately alerted ICC officials and security teams about the bat.

“The bat was left there for more than an hour in full view,” said Tankle, “One of the players was visibly distraught when he saw the bat,” she said. “The others managed to contain it, but this player couldn’t. He lost six friends on 7 October and has been serving in Gaza.”

The incident was quickly dealt with by the ICC because “had we not nipped it in the bud, I’m sure that there could have been other incidents”, Tankle said. It has also been taken up with the Sports Knesset in Israel.

That wasn’t the only time the team met hostility. “On the bus to the match, we had to share a bus with the Austrian team which was mainly of Indian descent. They were speaking in Hindi, and a lot of our players understand Hindi. They were saying bad things about us, like ‘the pussy Israelis’.”

The Israeli team unfortunately lost that match, and at the end of the match, the Austrian team refused to shake Israeli team members’ hands.

“At the outset of this tour, I knew that the responsibilities of the actual tournament would be greater than anything I’d ever faced before, having previously managed only teams of young boys, but I thought managing the players would be a breeze,” Tankle said. “In retrospect, it was the hardest tour I’ve ever done, because I had to be on my guard all the time.”

The one highlight of the tournament for Tankle was Israel’s win against Portugal on 13 June.

“That match coincided with a memorial cricket game for the late Captain Daniel Perez in Modi’in. The team decided to dedicate that win to Perez and his family. The players knew Perez, and had played with him. If he were alive today, there would have been a big chance that he would have been a part of the team,” she said.

When the team wasn’t playing, they were travelling around Rome. However, due to the rise in antisemitism, the team was instructed to not wear any items of clothing showing that they were Israeli. This was made even more difficult by the fact that they weren’t allowed to speak Hebrew when they were out on the streets.

“We couldn’t enjoy Rome because we were always on our guard,” said Tankle. “Even though we weren’t wearing anything to show we were Israelis, we weren’t allowed to speak Hebrew. We were always on our guard, counting everybody, making sure everybody was within the barrier of our security, our bodyguards. We weren’t free.”

“The players were nervous. And every time we got on the bus, they all checked the baggage counters inside the bus to make sure that everything was okay. And since all the teams stayed in the same hotel, they were on guard all the time, especially after the incidents around the game against Austria.”

Tankle said she’s taking everything that she has learned at this tournament into the future. But, regardless, what this tournament and these players have shown her is that the resilience of the Israeli and Jewish people is amazing.

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