Northern Districts Maori will take a big step forward for Maori sport today (Friday April 1) when it takes on visiting national team the Cook Islands in a Twenty20 contest at Hamilton’s international cricket venue Seddon Park.
Surprisingly, given the long association between Maori and rugby, newly-minted Northern Districts Maori is the first Maori domestic representative cricket team in New Zealand’s entire cricketing history - which at the domestic level stretches all the way back to 1875, when the Wellington association was formed.
Northern Districts Maori, which includes New Zealand Under-19 World Cup cricketer Tamati Clarke, warmed up last week when they played their first ever match together, a one-dayer against Waikato University. But this Friday’s event raises the stakes as the team’s maiden international fixture - a ground-breaking occasion against big-hitting visitors who share both close cultural and cricketing bonds with Northern Districts Cricket.
Explains Northern Districts Maori captain Leighton Parsons, “Friday is going to be extra special because, first of all, we get to play at Seddon Park, which is an international venue. For a lot of our players, it’s going to be the first time on a ground of that calibre and that in itself is a very exciting occasion for all of us. As captain, it will be a real honour to lead this side out there.
“That it’s a match against the Cook Islands makes it even more exciting: it’s a tremendous opportunity for all our players, many of whom are accomplished Northern Districts age-group representatives, to compete against an established international team.”
The Cook Islanders are known for playing an attacking style of cricket, meaning the format - Twenty20 cricket - is right up their alley. Parsons, who can draw on his experience representing Waikato Valley against the Cook Islands during a previous tour, is anticipating a torrid clash.
“Their strength is that they love to smash the ball from ball one, whereas in the longer form of the game that can be a weakness for them because they lose wickets too early.
“But in Twenty20, they’ve really come ahead to be one of the strongest teams in the ICC’s East Asia-Pacific region. That’s had a lot to do with the coaching they’ve had from Grant Bradburn [the former BLACKCAP was national coach of the Cook Islands for two years before taking up his current role as coach of the Yahoo!Xtra Northern Knights in New Zealand] and his assistant coach in the Knights, Graeme Stewart. They’re both such passionate and knowledgeable individuals and made a huge difference. Watching the Cooks’ progress in such a short time has just been extraordinary.”
Northern Districts Cricket has worked in partnership with Cook Islands Cricket for several years to foster cricket development programmes in the widespread islands, with Northern Districts Operations Manager Pat Malcon visiting each year to train coaches and coach clubs and players on the main islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki.
For the visiting Telecom Cook Islands squad, the match will be their final hit-out on a three-day warm-up camp before they depart for Samoa, where they are expected to be one of the strongest title contenders at the ICC East Asia-Pacific Division 2 Trophy - a title they have never won before. The ICC tournament, which begins on April 4 with their match against Tonga, is the major event on the Pacific’s cricket calendar, contested between the strongest ICC affiliate nations in the region, which this year is the Cooks, Tonga, Samoa, Indonesia and international cricket debutants the Philippines and South Korea. ICC EAP associate nations Japan, Fiji and Papua New Guinea meanwhile participate in a concurrent ICC zone tournament in the United Arab Emirates. All are attempting to qualify for the ICC Trophy - effectively the top cricketing stage for non-test-playing nations.
The Telecom Cook Islands team’s archrivals at their ICC tournament will be their Samoan hosts, who have a similar development partnership with the Auckland Cricket Association. Samoa currently has ten players competing in premier level club cricket in Auckland, as well as four young players involved in an Auckland Cricket Association/Samoa International Cricket Association high performance scholarship programme.
Alister Stevic, a Cook Islands-based New Zealander who is both coach of the Telecom Cook Islands team and the general manager of Cook Islands Cricket, says his side is deeply proud of their involvement in the history-making encounter with Northern Districts Maori.
“We do have a very special bond with New Zealand and there is a particular connection between the Tainui iwi in Waikato and Aitutaki Island, from which the Tainui waka is believed to have set forth. The depth of the connections will make it not only a special event, but a well-fought contest.”
Stevic says that cricket has boomed in the Cook Islands over the past two years, a product of abundant natural talent and Cook Islanders’ enthusiasm for sport in general, and the effect of the steady development programmes that have been put in place to give the sport real structure on each of the islands. And the results are already showing through in the national side.
“Our players have spent the past four months training four to seven times a week - which is impressive given they are all amateurs with family and work commitments. And not only do they put in all the effort in their training, but the nature of cricket in the islands is that they’ve also got to do a lot of fundraising activities to make sure tours like these can happen. So it’s a very valuable experience for us to be here and we want to make sure we make the most of it with a high-calibre match at one of New Zealand’s iconic test match cricket grounds.”
Northern Districts Chief Executive David Cooper says his association is extremely proud to be hosting the history-making international fixture and likewise proud of being the first first-class cricket association to launch a Maori representative side.
Says Cooper, “It’s a tremendous initiative that’s been driven by Pat Malcon and Graeme Stewart over the last couple of years, giving Maori players a special goal to aim for. When you look at the number of Maori players coming through our age-group development system, and the number of iwi within our large geographic catchment, it makes a lot of sense for us to be channelling that talent into another avenue in which they can display and develop their skills.
“We hope to lead the way for the other five first-class associations, some of whom have already expressed an interest in what we’re doing. The aim for us is to eventually see our team competing in a national competition for Maori sides.”
The Northern Districts Maori selectors already have such a wealth of Maori talent on their books that they have been able to make five changes from the side that played the inaugural match against Waikato University. In comes Brett Sorrenson - who ironically scored a century against them last week as a Waikato University Sir Edmund Hillary scholar; Shayde Perham, Keith Vincent, Elliott Timoti and William Kokaua - the latter two players Northern Districts age-group representatives of Cook Islands descent.
They replace Steve Rae, Izaya Broderick, Haamiora Clarke and Jake Bezzant, all of whom have study commitments; and the Auckland Aces’ contracted player Dusan Hakaraia, who was so keen to be involved in the ground-breaking initiative that he was included as a guest player in the “Northern Maori” team against University.
Northern Districts Maori captain Leighton Parsons was thrilled to receive the well wishes of a number of other prominent Maori cricketers from around the country ahead of the maiden match against University, including the Central Stags’ Kieran Noema-Barnett.
“He rang through with his best wishes to the team, saying what a fantastic idea it was and that he hoped they could get something similar up and running in Central Districts. Other Maori players from the Wellington region sent their support, and from within our own district other representative players who couldn’t be part of the team for scheduling reasons - Yahoo!Xtra Northern Knights Jono and Trent Boult and Pete McGlashan - sent their good wishes to us as well. The support from around the country has been absolutely tremendous. It’s made us feel really good about what we’re trying to achieve as cricketers, there’s some great talent on show and the dream is obviously to progress the concept to a national Maori cricket competition or tournament.”
Besides stepping up against an international opponent this week, Parsons says the conditions will also create a fresh test, both for the players and himself as captain.
“We’ve gone from an artificial wicket to a first-class international ground, so quite a difference in one week! It was like playing on concrete last week: the balls were coming through faster and the sixes were bigger as a result of the hard surface. In some ways it’s easier because the bounce is more predictable on an artificial wicket, but come Friday on grass it’s going to give our bowlers more of an opportunity to shine.
“I’m also looking forward to implementing the lessons I learnt as captain in that first match. We scored 282 against University and I thought that was a very defendable total. It was a good score, we were confident and we’ve got some amazing talent in the side. But because it’s a brand new team we have and I hadn’t played with half our players before, the hardest thing for me was getting the bowling combinations right, getting them working in partnerships and setting the correct fields for their bowling. University were getting away with a lot of easy boundaries and easy runs as a result and claimed the match, but now that I’ve seen the bowlers in action I’ll be able to plug those holes a lot better on Friday and hopefully we will be able to defend a total much better. So it’s ideal, in that regard, that we have the opportunity to play a second representative fixture so soon after out first one.”
Parsons agrees that implementing Maori cricket structures in New Zealand has been long overdue - the only previous Maori representative side of any type having been an ad hoc New Zealand Maori team that was sent to the Pacifica Cup in 2001. The team won the tournament but was never reformed. This time, a long-term vision is crucial.
“All the players love the concept and really want to do well. There are so many other Maori tournaments around the country in rugby, netball, touch - you name it: we’re a little bit behind in cricket, but I think we’re getting there now and that the introduction of the Twenty20 cricket format, and all the interest and excitement that it’s created within the game, has made it that little bit easier to make this happen.
“Within our own environment we’ve set up some little routines and systems that we want to become our team traditions, for example we say a karakia (prayer) before we start and we have introduced some Te Reo into how we go about our day. We come from all over Northern Districts, which stretches from the far North down to Taumarunui, but we’re already establishing a real brotherhood amongst the players. The environment has a different feel about it to other club or rep sides that we’ve experienced, a whanau-based approach where everyone is working for each other.”
Meantime he’s also looking forward to getting reacquainted with the unique Cook Islands approach to the summer game. “They’re a fantastic bunch of lads - they have the guitars on the sideline and just really enjoy their cricket.”
Northern Districts Maori v Telecom Cook Islands
What: Twenty20 International Tour Match
Where: Seddon Park, Hamilton
When: 11am, Friday, 1 April 2011
Northern Districts Maori: Leighton Parsons (captain), Brett Sorrenson, William Kokaua, Keith Vincent, Elliott Timoti, Cody Andrews, Carl Carmody, Graeme Stewart (player-coach, wicketkeeper), Shayde Perham, Zeb Walden. One to be added.
Telecom Cook Islands:
From: Patiiamai Ataela, Matt Beasley, Manu Emile, Tino Etita, Seb Maher, Apii Mamanu, Glenn Miller, Teararo Pokoina, Wayken Punga, Rob Samuel, Vane Tangimetua, Peter Tare, Davies Teinaki, Toara Teinaki, Daniel Tutai, Tom Wicks, Kitai William
Match Umpires: Ben O’Brien (Poverty Bay/Ngati Porou) and Koria Patia (Cook Islands)
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