Better known for his coverage of Middle Eastern politics, Jerrold Kessel was also a resolute cricketer who did much for developing the game in Israel writes Matthew Engel
THE SCENE was the most euphonious-sounding cricket ground in the West Midlands: Blossomfield – a long way from the dusty Middle East. It was 1979, and the first ICC Trophy to find qualifiers for the World Cup. Israel had lost to the United States by 41 runs. Into the American dressing room strode the burly losing captain – to berate the opposition for cheating.
The whole Israeli team were convinced the US keeper had dislodged a bail with his pad before successfully claiming the batsman had been bowled. Their captain was not a man to let a grievance fester. And he let rip. In the years ahead the Americans might have seen him again hundreds of times without ever making the connection: as Jerusalem correspondent for CNN, Jerrold Kessel was a constant presence on the world’s TV screens for 13 years.
As a journalist Kessel, who died of cancer aged 65, was calm and even-handed, however appalling the news he had to deliver – and, since he covered the Israel-Palestinian dispute, it was nearly always terrible. In private he was tremendous fun: “A great, gregarious fellow,” as one ex-colleague put it. On the cricket field he was passionate. “Jerrold had a very strong sense that the game must be played to win but that it had to be played fairly,” says his Israeli team-mate and fellow journalist Leslie Susser.
Kessel was one of a group of South African migrants who played an important role in developing Israeli cricket. He arrived in the 1960s, an idealistic youngster with an original mind. The idealism and originality never left him.
He was also a deceptively good cricketer. Though overweight and seemingly unathletic, he had a terrific eye and kept wicket to what Susser reckoned was Minor Counties standard, rarely conceding a bye and sometimes taking exceptional catches. His middle-order batting was determined if unstylish. In three ICC Trophies (1979, 1983 and 1990) he played 16 matches and averaged only 11, but this understates his contribution. “You couldn’t miss him on the field,” says Stanley Perlman, long-serving chairman of the Israel Cricket Association, “because of his size and what he had to say. He was always encouraging and highly competitive, to put it mildly.”
Before joining CNN Kessel was sports editor of the Jerusalem Post; after leaving TV in 2003 he wrote a distinctive sports column, ‘On the Couch’, in the Hebrew-language paper Ha’aretz. He also turned out a documentary and book about a team of Israeli Arab footballers who stunned the nation by winning the cup.
Jerrold (‘Yoram’ to his Israeli friends) once joked that he had emigrated only so he could play international cricket. In fact, he cared deeply about Israel. But his vision of it was far more humane and kindly than has become the Israeli norm. And he never lost his love of cricket. As he was dying, he told friends he was playing for a draw and, towards the end, would remark: “The fielders are closing in.”
Jerrold Kessel was born on March 3, 1945 and died on February 24, 2011, aged 65.
Matthew Engel is a former editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and a columnist for the Financial Times