A corner of the Arab world where cricket once held sway

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I HAVE received many letters of tribute to the late King Hussein of Jordan, some of which are sufficiently out of the ordinary to merit reprinting in this space.

From Sir Norbert Fantayle-Pidgeon

Sir, in all the obituary notices devoted to the late King Hussein of Jordan, I am sad not to see any mention of his abiding love of the game of cricket. At a time when British influence is at an all-time low in the Middle East, it is salutary to remember that at least in one corner of the Arab world, the gentlemanly code of cricket still held sway.

I was out there for many years as HM Ambassador to one or other of the little sheikhdoms there - I could never remember which, and was always returning to the wrong base! - and often had intimate talks with King Hussein in which he would talk about his cricketing days in England and how bitterly he rued not being able to play the game more often in Jordan.

"I was a very useful leg spinner, Norbert," he used to say. "I was known as Wily Hussein at my public school, and once even got a hat-trick. I remember writing home to my father and telling him I had got a hat-trick at cricket, but he did not understand."

"He did not know what cricket was?" I asked him.

"He did not know what a hat was," smiled Hussein. Later he said: "Norbert, do you think you could perhaps get together a special XI of British ambassadors to play against my XI? Goodness knows, you have enough diplomats doing nothing out here!"

I thought it was a very good idea, but the Foreign Office vetoed it. They thought it would be most unfortunate if the British XI were to beat the King's XI. They thought it would be equally unfortunate if we lost to an Arab side. I sometimes think that history might have been very different if cricket had established a toehold in the Middle East.

From Lady Rowena Dashwood

Sir, I can vouch for the sentiments of the above letter. I spent several summers in Jordan following my husband, who was an archaeologist, and several other summers following other archaeologists who were not my husband, and I recall once being in the depths of the desert all alone except for the workers on the dig, when out of nowhere swept a marvellous retinue of men on camels. They dismounted, and the leader introduced himself to me as King Hussein, out with his men looking for a private spot to play cricket.

These romantic sons of the desert promptly took off their robes, revealing white flannels beneath, and set about a fiercely contested, 40-over one- day match. Never shall I forget the sight of the camels being positioned as sight screens, or the imposing if diminutive figure of the King sticking three swords in the sand as the wickets. Lawrence of Arabia can hardly have seen a stranger sight. I sometimes think that history might have been very different if cricket had replaced warfare as the Arab national sport.

From Mordechai Beyan

Sir, I heartily concur with all the above. I too was in the Jordanian desert one day - though on a different mission, as I was an Israeli spy - when all at once a glittering bevy of camel-riders appeared from nowhere and surrounded me. I was resigning myself to a bullet in the head or at very least 20 years in an Amman jail, when the leader, who was none other than King Hussein, revealed that they were about to play a game of cricket and were one short.

"Tell me, O traveller," he asked, in the courteous tones for which he was world famous, "would you care to join us to make up one of our number whose camel has gone lame some miles back Do you bowl or bat?"

It so happened that when I joined Mossad I had undergone an intensive period of cricket training, prior to being posted to Britain, so I willingly joined him as fast medium utility seam bowler. It was a most enjoyable game, and we won by three wickets.

"Well played, sir," said the King to me afterwards. "I had no idea the Jews had a talent for ball games."

"You know that I am...?" I gasped.

"We Arabs have some talent for intelligence-gathering too," he smiled. "Perhaps we should play again soon. An Arab-Israeli cricket match might make breakthroughs unattainable in other ways."

I sometimes think that Arab-Israeli history might be very different if we played cricket against each other. Then I think of the relations between India and Pakistan, and I realise how very stupid I am being.