A surrogate for war, 1981

Cricket in the Pacific

Scyld Berry

The two epicentres of cricket in the Pacific - or so it seemed to me during the travels I was fortunately able to make after England's last two tours to Australia - lie in Fiji and Papua New Guinea; the island of Lakeba in the former and the villages along the south coast of the latter. These two countries are the only two in the region that are currently Associate Members of the International Cricket Conference, and between them they could perhaps turn out a team with a potential of good minor county standard. However, cricket is played, in some form or other, in most countries of the South Pacific, and it struck me as an interesting question why the game is so widespread and relatively popular.

The primary sport in the Pacific is usually rugby union or rugby league, because of Australia's influence, or football. But there is a fairly compelling reason why cricket comes first in Lakeba (pronounced Lakemba), a small island 200 miles to the east of Suva, the capital, on Fiji's main island. The Prime Minister, a native of Lakeba, banned all forms of rugby there; and he banned it because its close physical contact led to outbreaks of tribal warfare. So the islanders, 2,400 of them, all built like rugby players - though the more slender women might only make fly-halves - have long devoted their leisure energies to cricket.

Lakeba has eight villages, and each village has an A and a B team. Wednesdays are given over as devotedly to cricket as Sundays are to religion; the majority practise Methodism, the rest Catholicism, while everyone practises cricket as the original missionaries brought both bats and bibles. The island's collective fervour has its focus on the Dewar Shield, which is challenged for annually by one of the various district associations - Suva, Lautoka, etc. It is the most splendid cup I have seen: huge and silver on a platform of wood. To the great pride of Lakebans, the cup has taken up almost permanent residence in the Prime Minister's house, which stands on the fine leg boundary of the island's main ground.

Of all Lakeba's and Fiji's players, the star is Peni Dakai, thick-set, square-jawed, and in his eyes is the killer instinct that great batsmen have. He is a nephew of Bula, who was acknowledged in his day as the finest of Fijian batsmen, the maker of hundreds against provincial sides in New Zealand. Dakai also lives next to the main ground, which is of the village-green type, roughly grassed, with only the canvas-spread concrete wicket left untouched during the week. Dakai lives at mid-wicket, in a three-roomed house on stilts, and can beat a regular thud every match day on his corrugated roof.

The new ball swings violently in Lakeba, either because of the humidity or the wind off the ocean a hundred yards away. Dakai also opens the bowling and swings both ways. But it is his batting which is celebrated: not only his mid-wicket pull but his lofted straight drive over the Prime Minister's house and a variety of cuts. I did not see him bat during my visit (he had hurt his leg on coral while snorkelling after fish), but in 1979 I saw him hit a straight six in England that went off his bat like a tracer bullet. I can believe Peter Roebuck of Somerset, who has coached in Lakeba, when he says positively that Dakai can hit the ball as far as hard as either Viv Richards or Ian Botham.

His lifestyle would partly explain it. Lakeba is only starting to be integrated into the cash economy, and most of Dakai's time, as a villager, is taken up in subsistence farming. He goes fishing, too, for a couple of days at a time with his spear, and grows copra, his only cash-crop which brings him an income of a few hundred dollars a year. He also cuts down pine trees as part of one of those community projects which characterise the Polynesian and Melanesian lifestyle. Such work must have given him good eyesight and immense strength of limb. For his sixes he needs but a short backlift, which is also a help against the late, oceanic swing.

If Dakai is the champion of Fiji - and his failure to prove himself as such during the 'mini' World Cup in England in 1979 was an immense disappointment to him; in mitigation, he was rather a fish out of water as he cannot speak English - then Papua New Guinea's champion is Kila Alewa. He comes from that other epicentre; the villages, centred on Hula on the south coast of the island, that jut into the muddy waters of the Coral Sea. Even today Hula is four hours' drive from the capital, Port Moresby, through thick coastal savannah along a winding track. It is easy to understand why the first missionaries arrived by sea in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Today the clergy maintains as strong a hold on the game in Papuan villages as ever it did in the rural England of Cardus's imagination. The pastor of Hula - here again most missionaries were low church, Unitarians now - is not only captain of the village team, he also leads his flock by opening the batting and bowling, a monopoly which no-one is going to challenge as long as he keeps all the kit in his house. It is the same pattern as in Lakeba: one day a week set aside for religion, another for cricket, and another couple for community projects in lieu of rates and taxes. The simplicity is appealing, the lifestyle ideal for exercising a cricketer.

However, because there is no employment other than as a villager or pastor, most young men of the area, having learnt their cricket, migrate to Port Moresby and the few other towns. But they come together again for the few international matches that Papua New Guinea has played and form the bulk of the side: players like Kila Alewa, a fast-medium bowler with an action like Imran Khan's, hostile when he wants to be, Vavine Pala, his left-arm opening partner, and Brian Amini, the first native-born to captain a representative side - when they beat Fiji in 1977 by eight wickets.

Although organised cricket is a minority interest elsewhere in the Pacific, five other countries were able to send teams to the South Pacific Games held in Suva in late 1979: Tuvalu (formerly the Ellice Islands), New Caledonia, the weakest team for having to play the game in a French culture inimical to it, the Solomon Islands, where Australian expatriates have nurtured the game, New Hebrides and Tonga.

Papua New Guinea won the limited-overs tournament by beating the New Hebridean outsiders by nine wickets in the final. In the following months New Hebrides were otherwise engaged in becoming the independent state of Vanuatu, but several factors promise a future for cricket in the islands, apart from the fact that the secessionist Jimmy Stevens has a beard like W. G.'s. Their new President, Walter Lini, is said to encourage the game, and the two secondary schools on the main island both teach it. In consequence there are some good native batsmen, while bowling is mostly in the hands of expatriates. In New Hebrides, as elsewhere, those coming late and uncoached to the game are prone to throw.

Tonga was the surprise of the competition. For a start, few were aware that cricket is played in Tonga. But it is, if in a fairly unconventional form: the umpiring a highly subjective process, the bowling more a matter of throwing. If the canons have not been inculcated, then it is partly because there were very few British officials in Tonga in colonial days, and those who were posted there were not interested in cricket coaching. More recently, Tonga has been the victim of that disinterest which the ICC has shown all too widely. To promote cricket in Tonga it has done nothing. The first team to visit there was from the University of California, only a few years ago. Indeed, apart from New Zealand's interest in Fiji, and some generous help given by New South Wales to Papua New Guinea, the Pacific story is one of total neglect by the game's established authorities.

Given this, it is remarkable that cricket has made the headway it has in the Pacific. Compared with the state of the game in former British colonies in East and West Africa, cricket is much more popular amongst Polynesians and Melanesians than amongst African Negroes. The reason why appears to lie with those missionaries.

They came principally from the London Missionary Society, and apart from a few castaways and beachcombers they were the first white men to settle in the South Pacific; courageous men, too, for the cooking pots took a toll of them. According to their reports, they found cannibalism and inter-tribal warfare to be endemic. Frequent, indiscriminate massacring of entire villages made refinements like birth control superfluous. How were these missionaries to stop the natives butchering each other? By teaching them cricket, they decided; it was as simple as that. To quote chapter and verse of the missionaries' strategy: We transformed their spears into wickets, their shields into cricket bats. This was written by Charles Abel, the Missionary Society's leading evangelizer in Papua New Guinea.

Facts fall in with this theory. Fiji's Prime Minister bans rugby in Lakeba because it led to tribal violence - and even tiny Lakeba has 32 tribes. The clergy of Hula and its surroundings propagate the gospel and cricket, leading the community in both. Cricket, in short, was introduced into the Pacific as a surrogate for war, and it is still capable of serving that purpose today.

Non-conventional cricket in the Pacific confirms this. There is a mass form of the game - where whole villages of a hundred or more play one another, with one ball per over, thrown not bowled, and made of wood - made familiar by a recent film on cricket in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea. It is played by men and women alike, from Kiribati (the former Gilbert Islands) to Pitcairn Island, and even in non-British colonies like Samoa. This form of the game is even more manifestly a surrogate for war. Where in the past a village would take up its spears and go raiding its neighbour, now the inhabitants go armed with bats for a festival of eating, dancing and krikiti. Cultural imperialism it may have been on the part of those missionaries, but they certainly did a good job in imposing the peace. So the next question is: has cricket everywhere been a substitute for war?

© John Wisden & Co