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Johannesburg Cricket Club honours the woman who made it possible

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NICOLA MILTZ

Today, the JCC serves 200 members, young and old, who have come to love it as a safe-haven and home away from home. It is a spiritual place of upliftment, where cricket is “more than just a game” says Chairman and Co-founder Indarin Govender.

Just 12 years ago, the JCC was an unused, forgotten, derelict piece of land in the heart of dingy, run-down Bertrams.

Today, with the help of a handful of passionate, cricket loving, civic-minded individuals, the JCC is a thriving club, steeped in the tradition of cricket. A mere stone’s throw away from Ellis Park and Troyeville, on the Rea Vaya route, it is a magnificent pocket of inner-city rejuvenation holding the promise of upliftment, social cohesion, and hope.

Because of her part in making it happen, the JCC made Bethlehem and cricketing legend Dr Ali Bacher honorary life vice-presidents of the club at a recent awards luncheon. Geoff Rothschild, the former Chairperson of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, was made an honorary life member.

Govender told the SA Jewish Report that Bethlehem was a “sterling human being”, and was considered “the centrepiece” of the club.

Bethlehem and Govender have known each other since their days as anti-apartheid activists. According to Govender, they have always had a mutual respect for one another.

“I remember vividly the Thursday afternoon in February 2007 when I called Lael, saying to her that we should consider building our first inner city cricket oval in Joburg,” he said.

He expressed his vision for a place that would serve the needs of the community in the inner city, becoming a magnet for youth, and a place of hope and dreams. Bethlehem latched onto the vision, and called him the next day saying that she “had found a piece of land – let’s do it!”

Bethlehem comes from a sporting family. Her mother, community stalwart Marlene Bethlehem, was an avid tennis player. A sport lover, she was immediately open to the idea of a cricket oval in the inner city.

Govender said the JCC’s roots extended back to 1992, when he and his late brother Neville and a group of men from the township of Chatsworth in Durban arrived in Johannesburg and established the Chatsworth Old Boys Cricket Club.

“We played without a home ground, using our car boot as the changing room. It was always our boyhood dream to one day build a cricket oval of our own.”

In 2007, when Bethlehem identified the land, “the dream became a reality”, said Govender. They renamed the club the Johannesburg Cricket Club, and named their home ground Hope Village.

It is hard to believe that the land on which it now stands was once destined to be included in the dust heap of no-man’s land. It has been lovingly transformed into a daily celebration of cricket and tradition. Cricket has breathed new life into the suburb, as players and spectators alike come together to celebrate meeting new friends and learning life skills and valuable life lessons, said Govender.

It has a well-tended vegetable garden, which serves the community, and a cricket oval fit for a one day international, with floodlights, pavilion, and all the amenities to host top-level cricket matches.

Govender, the life force of the club, said, “It’s a quaint, village cricket oval, with trees and shrubs and greenery, carefully designed with a lot of heart and soul, with the idea of creating a place for youngsters to feel safe.” The club’s mission has always been to “root the game of cricket in the inner city”, he said.

Bethlehem, now an investment executive at Hosken Consolidated Investments, said the JCC had a special place in her heart. “I am truly honoured to be part of this extraordinary cricket club. It is more than a club, it is a great institution of our city, built from the grassroots up, by people who care deeply about our community.

“I worked for the city for many years, and I can honestly say that this is the project that gave me the most hope and pleasure. Urban regeneration can work only when it involves genuine partnership with a committed group of people. Who would have known that Bertrams would be so blessed to have a group of people who are driven by love, honour and principle? Thank you to all who sustain this club and help build the lives of youngsters that play cricket here. May you go from strength to strength.”

Govender said the luncheon marked the effort and dedication of individuals at the forefront of the sporting miracle that is the JCC.

The club’s patron, George Bizos, unveiled the honours board. Cricketing greats Michael Holding and Hoosain Ayob, members of the Greek community, and corporate allies, were among those honoured. Groundsman Amon Malukle was made an honorary life member, and lauded for the club’s profitable vegetable garden, which successfully serves the community using hydroponic farming methods.

The master of ceremonies, radio personality and TV host John Robbie, who has previously been honoured by the club for his support, once described the JCC as “the best kept secret in South African sport”, a place that serves as a model for cricket development worldwide.

The club’s members participate at all levels of competitive league cricket under the auspices of the Gauteng Cricket Board, spanning youth teams from U9 to a senior team playing in the Premier League.

It also runs a successful feeding scheme every Saturday, providing a hot meal for about 200 children after they take part in a cricket clinic or kiddies yoga.

Bacher said he was honoured to be recognised by the club. It “deserves every praise for year in and year out taking cricket to the disadvantaged youth in the Bertrams area”, he told attendants at the luncheon. “While so many of our cricket fraternity have taken their eye off the ball, your team have not. Through your efforts, hope and new opportunities are presented to the youth of the Bertrams area.”

Govender told the audience about Bethlehem’s invaluable contribution. He said she was also the brainchild behind the annual corporate cricket day, an event that gives captains of industry the opportunity to demonstrate their support for inner city regeneration.

“Lael is a sister to me. Without her, we would all not be sitting here today. She ensured that the spirit and passion of the club would be ever present at all phases of this project. She simply believed in us.”

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