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The global game: Jewel of the Nile

JAMES COYNE on Egypt – where Jim Laker’s off‑spin came of age, and a local bey once raised an all‑Egyptian side to play at Lord’s and The Oval

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In more than 5,000 years of Egyptian civilisation – ancient and modern – cricket merits barely even a footnote, let alone inclusion in a hieroglyphic text on the pyramids.

The closest most Egyptians have come to a cricket bat is when some protestors were reported to have wielded them in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring.

And yet, a stone’s throw from the sphinx and the great pyramids at Giza is… a cricket pitch. The wicket, in the grounds of the Marriott Mena House Hotel, is grassy and uneven, but not even Newlands can rival such a backdrop.

‘The Sun Never Sets on Cricket’ was the globalising watchword of editions of Pelham Warner’s The Cricketer in the 1920s. But with the Suez Crisis of 1956, the sun set on the British Empire – and certainly on the cricket section of the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo. Now the Egyptian cricket scene is kept going by the spit-and-sawdust enthusiasm of a few expats from Britain, India and Pakistan.

"A stone’s throw from the sphinx and the great pyramids at Giza is… a cricket pitch"

The Brit who gave perhaps the greatest impetus to Egyptian cricket was Hubert Martineau. Like many a cricketing patron of the interwar period, Martineau had his own private ground, at Holyport Lodge, near Maidenhead, where he would organise country-house cricket. He had fallen in love with Egypt on a Free Foresters tour in 1927.

As a limber-up for the English season, every April from 1929 to 1939 Martineau would lead a private XI, mainly of first-class players, to Egypt. Among the Test cricketers who toured with HM Martineau’s XI to Egypt were Ian Peebles, Percy Chapman, Bryan Valentine, Eddie Dawson, Bob Wyatt and Freddie Brown. The marquee fixture was against All-Egypt in Alexandra or Cairo, where the Gezira Club was set up by the British in 1882. It was carved out of the Khedival Gardens on the island of Zamalek in the middle of the Nile, and many of the acacia trees remain intact.

In 1937, all the Gezira Club’s 16 committees – including the bulging cricket committee – were filled by British or Commonwealth men and women. But that very year, the club’s net bowler, Abdou Hassanein, caused a sensation when he ripped through the tourists’ batting with 4 for 64 and 9 for 60 at Gezira, to inflict a 74-run defeat on Martineau’s XI. He was the only native Egyptian ever selected for the All-Egypt side. In its report, The Cricketer called his bowling “brilliant” and made for “easily the best game of the whole tour”.

But Hassanein was far from the only Egyptian cricketer. Victoria College, Alexandria, formed along colonial lines, produced several upper-class Arab cricketers. And the Egyptian Cricket Club, who played at the Ministry of Education Ground also in Gezira – there was also a third ground, the Willcocks Sports Club – was an entirely homegrown set-up. Z Taher was an accomplished opening batsman, who scored 72 not out against Martineau’s side in 1935, and 34 against them in 1938. In 1939 Martineau’s side travelled by plane from Alexandria to Britain – said to be the first time a cricket team had flown overseas.

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Left: The Australian Imperial Forces side line up at the Gezira Club, Cairo, October 1941; Right: Lindsay Hassett gets ready to bat

The Second World War put a stop to Martineau’s annual jaunts, though if anything the quality of cricket in Egypt improved with the influx of thousands of Commonwealth servicemen to the North Africa theatre. Wally Hammond, Bert Sutcliffe, Dudley Nourse, Norman Yardley and Jim Laker were among past or future Test cricketers who played in regular inter-services matches, which increased in number after Rommel had been routed at El Alamein in 1942.

Laker apparently fibbed about his age when he volunteered. He saw little action, but his off-spin came to prominence on Egypt’s coir matting wickets while serving in the Royal Ordnance Corps: “To my utter amazement, I was soon turning the ball quite prodigiously on the coconut matting strips.”

John Arlott reported that English cricketers were writing home to their county secretaries with news of an unheralded off-spinner from Bradford. “I’ll get in touch with you after this lot is over,” the Essex leg-spinner Peter Smith promised to Laker. Nourse predicted there and then that he would play Test cricket. In the end, Surrey won the bunfight for his signature.

The Australian Imperial Forces side contained some top-class cricketers too. In October 1941, Ray Robinson, who played in the opening 1936/37 Ashes Test at Brisbane, struck a century to beat a Gezira side who had roped in Brown as skipper; Lindsay Hassett’s unbeaten 101 guided the Forces to victory at Alexandria. Hassett would go on to captain the Australian Services in the 1945 Victory Tests and be an Invincible in 1948.

"Now it turns out you can see the pyramids and play cricket at the same time. Maybe there is hope for cricket in Egypt after all"

In 1951, to mark the centenary of the Alexandria Cricket Club (which still exists today), Fares Sarofeem Bey raised an all-Egyptian side to tour England, playing 23 fixtures, including at Lord’s and The Oval. Hassanein opened the bowling at Lord’s, but his partner Hussain Aly starred with 4 for 72 as MCC chased down 205 to win.

A former Kent batsman, the recently-deposed MP for Buckingham and future journalist Aidan Crawley, skippered the Lords and Commons XI which took them on at The Oval, and picked up 6 for 35 with the ball. A certain Lord Dunglass made 24 opening the batting – a month later, when his father died, Alec Douglas-Home became the Earl of Home.

As the Egyptian CC was a product of the pro-British elite, it did not survive Nasser’s coup d’etat in 1952, followed by the abolition of the monarchy. The Gezira club was nationalised, and the white president and vice-presidents made way for an intake of pashas and beys. Nasser converted half of the 18-hole golf course into a youth club, and in the subsequent Islamic Revival of the 1970s the bar was closed and the balustrade pavilion converted into a mosque.

Cricket did survive at Gezira up to at least 1954, though, when the boat carrying the inaugural Pakistan touring side to England passed through the Suez Canal. The make-up of the Gezira team was still mostly British, except for Hassanein (who claimed the wicket of Maqsood Ahmed) and Shaaban (who dismissed Hanif Mohammad) as the Pakistanis racked up 218 for 4. Gezira’s XV were 52 for 13, one wicket still in hand and the former Somerset wicketkeeper Richard Stanbury 13 not out, when play was abandoned so that the Pakistanis could go off to see the pyramids and the Sphinx before catching the boat to England.

Now it turns out you can see the pyramids and play cricket at the same time. Maybe there is hope for cricket in Egypt after all.

This article was published in the March edition of The Cricketer - the home of the best cricket analysis and commentary, covering the international, county, women's and amateur game

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