Murray Brown is the joint author of ‘125 Not Out, a history of Manawatū Cricket.’
As two days of what was described as “champagne cricket” finished in late January 1968 with a win to Manawatū, none of the numerous spectators realized this would be the last time the Fijian cricket team would be seen on Fitzherbert Park.
More than 1000 runs had been scored in two days of play, and local sports reporter John Mancer wrote “if batting of this nature could be seen every weekend it would certainly improve the image of cricket”.
This was the fourth game played by Fiji in Palmerston North since 1948.
All the games highlighted the Fijian’s approach to cricket was very different to the way the game was usually played in New Zealand at the time.
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Over a period of 20 years the visits of the Fijian cricket team were widely anticipated across New Zealand and then just as quickly they stopped and never returned.
Cricket in Fiji started in 1874 in Levuka, Ovalau when a visiting Royal Naval Ship played a local side.
From the onset the game was an integral part of the British Colonial administration with their first overseas visits to New Zealand in 1895 and New South Wales in 1908.
In the 1930s cricket was segregated with Europeans and ‘part-Europeans’ playing separately from Fijians and Indians.
In 1939, through the efforts of Phillip Snow, a Colonial administrator, the Suva Cricket Club became the Suva Cricket Association – the first multi-racial sporting organization in Fiji.
A prominent fast bowler at the time was Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who had played in Dunedin and became Fiji’s Prime Minister on Independence in 1970.
In 1946, with the backing of the leading chief, Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, the Fiji Cricket Association was established.
An immediate result was a tour of New Zealand in 1948 of the first truly representative team of 11 Fijians and 6 Europeans and ‘part-Europeans’.
The team was very successful with HJ Apted, a left-hander the youngest at 23, scoring nearly 1000 runs in 22 innings with an average of 46.
Ilikena Lasarusa Talebulamainavaleniveivakabulaimainakulalakebalau (thankfully for the numerous autograph hunters, known as IL Bula), exceeded 1000 runs with many soaring straight drives for six.
HJ Apted and Bula played on every tour from 1948.
Snow’s evocative description of Fijian cricketers provides an idea of why they caught the imagination of New Zealand crowds.
“Quick-footed, exceptionally muscular, piercingly sharp of eye, their forte has been to hit everything as hard and often as possible, to catch with maximum élan, to bowl as swiftly as arms allow single-mindedly at the center stump, to throw with utmost verve….
“Their dress shirt and sulu (knee-length, side-split skirt) – contrasting with bronze, rugged, cheerful faces, their sinew, bulging calves, bootlessness, provide a unique spectacle in the cricket world….“
Since the 1970s cricket has struggled in Fiji.
The costs of the game and lack of facilities and coaching means Fijian cricket has been unable to reach the heights of the post-war period with rugby becoming dominant in the sporting landscape.
The newspaper headlines associated with all the games in Palmerston North highlight the Fijian approach to cricket with the Manawatū teams also entering into the festival spirit engendered by the visitors.
The headlines in 1948 were “cricket fireworks” and Fiji “delights the crowd”.
The 1954 game saw Manawatū after bowling Fiji out twice trying to get 129 in 85 minutes in what was described as a “hectic finish”.
After some Fijian style hitting from Ian Colquhoun, 25, Manawatū managed to hold on for a draw at 8/81.
The Fijian cricketers “were in a happy mood” at the Sportsground was the headline for the game in 1962, scoring 221 before lunch with the large crowd excited by the cricket.
On the second day Fiji were all out for a whirlwind 229 leaving Manawatū 326 to win.
Noel Harford, the ex New Zealand and Central Districts player, scored 73 and Gary Hermansson attacked the Fijian style bowling much to the crowds delight.
However, it was not enough and Manawatū lost by 103 runs on a day described as “attractive crowd-pleasing cricket”.
Expectations were therefore high when the Fijian team of 1968, captained by N. Uluviti, who had played rugby for Auckland, arrived in Palmerston North.
The Manawatū team was a strong one with Vic Pollard and Bryan Yuile New Zealand representatives and Maurice Ryan a current Central Districts player.
Its captain was Bruce Turner a former Central Districts and New Zealand hockey representative.
Batting first, Fiji scored 210 with H. Apted at the end of 107 but Manawatū responded with 311 for 7 declared.
The openers Gerald Haddon and Bob Kelly set a good platform and Vic Pollard raised the crowd’s excitement with 55 runs in 28 minutes.
The second day saw the hectic pace continue with aggressive batting from Uluviti, with 71 in 35 mins, Fiji reached 311 at 2pm.
This left Manawatū 220 runs to score in 225 mins.
Manawatū were struggling at 6 /158 when Bryan Yuile joined the youthful Graeme Duncan.
The experienced Yuile then dominated proceedings scoring 68 in 50 minutes and finishing the game with two successive sixes to the applause of the large crowd.
After two draws and a loss the Manawatū team were finally able to beat Fiji on their final visit to Palmerston North.
John Mancer’s report noted: “The match had everything to offer. Aggressive batting, good bowling, excellent fielding and above all it was played in a fine spirit.
“To see BR Yuile waving to the ball as it soared over his head for six runs off the bat of N. Uliviti and both the Manawatū and Fijian players applauding one another soon caught the imagination of the public and they were quick to applaud every phase of play.”
As the images show watching cricket in the 1960s had a much greater degree of informality than today and the mainly-male spectators showed a complete disregard for sun protection.
Spectators were inside the ground right up to the boundaries and cars were able to park around the ground in the area now taken up by the embankment and hockey turfs.
Although Fijian cricket has fallen on difficult times their approach to the game has lived on in the emergence of T20 cricket.
The Super Smash T20 this December on Fitzherbert Park will see the ball being hit as fiercely and often as possible, cheeky running between wickets, athletic fielding and the once-occasional six replaced by a deluge.