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A Pattern of Islands

Cricket in the Blue

Cricket in the Blue

The beginnings of cricket in the Pacific were not invariably attended by the spirit of brotherhood that this noble sport was once believed to inspire. Something went wrong from the start in Samoa, for example. A match there was an affair of hundreds, not elevens; no tally of sides was kept, no amiable warnings of visits were issued; one village simply arose on a day and set forth to give battle to another. 'Battle' is the key word. The marching crowd paraded around the village of its chosen enemies with taunts and brandished bats until these emerged to accept the challenge. The bats, which were made of local hardwood and weighed eleven pounds apiece, were carved into shapes suited at once to conditions of war and peace. Competition was so terrific in the field that winning was a hazardous business. The position of the batsman who scored the winning hit was peculiarly trying. His was the heart of oak who, ringed around by a horde of furious fieldsmen, dared slog his side to victory. Those earliest Samoan matches lasted for weeks at a time and often ended in considerable slaughter. It was excellent for courage but poor for the moral score-board. The Missions rather understandably banned the game for the converts as one unsuitable for aspiring Christians, however militant their church. But I think it had been revived on more neighbourly lines by the early nineteen-hundreds.

Cricket was certainly going strong on Ocean Island when I arrived there. In the fair-weather season from late March to early page 52October, there were a dozen or more native police out for practice every day from 4 p.m. to sundown, and either a pick-up game or a match with the Company's team was billed for every Saturday at 2.30 p.m. The Old Man had notions derived from the very choicest public schools of his epoch about how often an officer and gentleman of the European staff should turn up at the nets. Every day, barring acts of God or the Resident Commissioner, was the rule for a good little cadet. It was lucky for me, in the circumstances, that I dearly loved the game for its own sake.

The cricket field was still very much in the making at that time. Starting with little but a pitch of tamped earth, over which a strip of coconut matting was laid, Methven and his prisoners had gradually cleared and levelled about three acres of stony flat around it on the Residency plateau. He heartily despised cricket, but he wanted a parade ground for his police. The south and west sides commanded a tremendous view of the Pacific, while palms and forest trees screened the north and east boundaries; but a dozen years were yet to run before any kind of grass began to grow cheerfully on that torrid waste of phosphate dust and rock. Every known variety was tried, and practically everything throve in the wet season, but nothing survived more than a month of the dry spell. When the effort was abandoned after many failures, the flat was triumphantly invaded by the tussocky grass of the island. That looked better to the ladies, but the man never lived who could drive a clean ball through more than sixty yards of it. The consequence was, we all became deliberate moonshooters and cowshooters. It was deeply immoral cricket and, for that very reason, highly amusing. Nevertheless, I preferred the stone age, when a batsman could score along the ground and even a wicked fluke off the edge of the bat could roll as sweetly (for me) to the boundary as the most accomplished leg glance.

The Company had an all-Australian team; the Government could put only two or three Europeans in the field; but half a dozen policemen – and especially the Fijian N.C.O.s – batted and bowled well up to the best of an average English club eleven. Despite that, I don't remember our ever winning a Government–Company Test rubber (for of course we played five page 53Test Matches a season). It struck me then, and I verified it later in other places, how notably higher the performance of average Australian cricketers was, age for age, than that of their English equivalents. But the ale we drank together after five hours of it under the equatorial sun tasted no less sweet for that. Maybe that was because the Australian ale was almost as good as the Australian cricket, and Australian good fellowship even better than either or both.

The Old Man was anxious to spread the gospel of the game more widely among the Gilbertese. He told me one Saturday to give the first lesson to twenty-two of the Company's labourers whom the police had inveigled up to the field. At the end of the practice, which had not proved very enthusiastic, I asked them if they would like another trial some time. 'Sir,' replied their spokesman with courtesy, 'we shall be happy to come, if that is your wish.'

I explained that there was no enforcement, but put it to him that the game was a good game: didn't he think so too? 'Sir,' he said again, 'we do not wish to deceive you. It seems to us a very exhausting game. It makes our hearts die inside us.'

I naturally asked why, in that case, he had said they were willing to have another go. He whispered seriously for a while with his companion. 'We will come back,' he answered at last, 'on account of the overtime pay which the Government, being just, will give us for playing on its ground.'

Those early teaching days provided some pretty problems of umpiring. In one case at least, no decision was ever reached. Ari, a little quick man, and Bobo, a vast and sluggish giant, were in together when Ari hit what he judged to be an easy two. He proceeded to run two, paying, as usual, not the slightest heed to his partner's movements. The gigantic Bobo ran only one, with the result that both players were at Ari's original crease when the ball was thrown in. But it was overthrown; seeing which, Ari hurled himself upon Bobo, started his great mass on a second run, and then himself careered away on his third. Bobo finished his second, but by that time Ari was back at his original crease again, having finished his fourth. He started on his fifth, but collided with Bobo, who was making heavy work of his page 54third, in mid-pitch. Both collapsed there, Ari on top of Bobo, and Ari's original wicket was thrown down. Which of the two was out? In point of fact, it was Bobo whom we sent back to the pavilion, but that was not on an umpire's decision. It was because Ari's head had butted with great force into his diaphragm and left him gasping for medical aid.

Another case was much discussed. One Abakuka (Habakkuk) so played a rising ball that it span up his arm and, by some fluke, lodged inside the yellow and purple shirt with which he was honouring our game. Swiftly the wicket-keeper darted forward and grappled with him, intending to seize the ball and so catch him out. After a severe struggle, Abakuka escaped and fled. The whole field gave chase. The fugitive, hampered by pads donned upside down (to protect his insteps from full-pitchers) was overtaken on the boundary. Even handicapped as he was, he would hardly have been caught had he not tried there, by standing on his head, to decant the ball from his shirt-front; and though held, feet in air, he resisted the interference with such fury that it took all that eleven masses of brown brawn could do to persuade the leather from his bosom. After so gallant a fight, it would have been sad to judge him out. Fortunately, we were saved the pain, as he was carried from the field on a stretcher.

Ten years later, cricket was popular everywhere, and a better grasp of its finer points was abroad, but odd things still happened now and then to keep us alert. When I became, in my turn, the Old Man on Ocean Island, there was a game between two Police teams in which the umpire of the fielding side, for no obvious reason (since nobody had appealed), suddenly bawled 'Ouchi', which is to say, Out. We were interested to hear what he meant, especially the batsman, but all the answer he gave was 'Sirs, you know now how bad that man is. O, beere! The expletive usually denotes disgust at a nasty smell. We decided that a man's personal odour had little to do with the laws of cricket, and that batsman continued his innings. But, an over or two later, there was a legitimate appeal against him. In attempting a leg hit, he had flicked a strap of his pad and it looked from point's angle as if he had been caught at wicket.

'Ouchi!' yelled the umpire with splendid gusto.

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'Ouchi?' queried his victim, 'and for what reason, O eater of unclean things, am I ouchi?'

'Rek piffor wikkut!' The decision was rendered to the sky, resonant with triumphant conviction.

We decided again that the batsman had better continue, but he was so shaken by that time that his stumps were pushed back by the very next ball, a deplorable long-hop.

'Ouchi!' gloated the umpire, 'ouchi-ouchi!' and followed his retreat, prancing with glad hoots, to the very pavilion.

We learned later that the complex behaviour of a light-hearted village girl was at the bottom of this regrettable business. But the sequel to the story has a nicer flavour for cricketers. Both men gave up playing for a while; a few weeks later, however, they came to the Residency hand in hand, with garlands on their heads, to say they wanted to be taken into practice games again. By that time, I knew the background of their quarrel, and said something severe about umpires who imported private feuds into their cricket. 'Yes, Old Man, of a truth,' the offender answered, 'our sin was to play this game while we were contending over that female person. It is not expedient for men at variance about women to be making kirikiti against each other, for behold! it is a game of brothers. But now we are brothers again, for we have turned away from that female.' As a matter of cold, hard fact, it was she who had turned away from them. But that aspect of the matter was, after all, beyond the cognizance of the M.C.C. whereas his finding that cricket is a game of brothers was sound beyond all argument.

But I like best of all the dictum of an old man of the Sun clan, who once said to me, 'We old men take joy in watching the kirikiti of our grandsons, because it is a fighting between factions which makes the fighters love each other.' We had not been talking of cricket up to that moment, but of the savage land-feuds in which he had taken a sanguinary part himself before the hoisting of the British flag in 1892. The talk had run mainly on the family loyalties which had held his faction together. His remark, dropping out of a reflective silence at the end, meant that cricket stood, in his esteem, for all the fun of fighting, and all the discipline needed for unity in battle, plus a page 56broad fellowship in the field more valuable than anything the old faction wars had ever given his people. I doubt if anyone of more sophisticated culture has ever summed up the spiritual value of cricket in more telling words than his. 'Spiritual' may sound over-sentimental to a modern generation, but I stand by it, as everyone else will who has witnessed the moral teaching-force of the game in malarial jungle, or sandy desolation, or the uttermost islands of the sea.