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Four stitches, three wins and two trophies

Saturday 1 October 2022 | Written by Rahul Patil | Published in Cricket, Sports

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Four stitches, three wins and two trophies
The Cook Islands cricket team to the East Asia Pacific Sub-regional qualifier in Vanuatu. SUPPLIED/22092908

The Cook Islands national men’s cricket team recently toured New Zealand and Vanuatu to participate in the East Asia Pacific Sub-regional qualifier in an attempt to qualify for the 2024 T20 World Cup to be played in the West Indies and USA. Team manager Rahul Patil gives us a first-hand report of all that happened on this historic tour.

Day 1 – 01/09/2022 in Raro & 02/09/2022 in NZ: Leaving the rock – The tour got off to a hilarious start when coach Craig Murray turned up at Rarotonga Airport and tried to check in with his partner’s passport. The incident had all of us in splits and needless to say we will never ever let coach forget the incident. In a touching gesture the band at the departure lounge wished us well and sang for the team. Co-captain Hori Miller and Cook Islands Cricket Association (CICA) president Grant Walker were already in Auckland. Grant came to pick us up in a rental van but not before the team feasted on Big Mac’s and fries at the Auckland airport. We then made our way to the Quest Serviced Apartments – our home for our time in Auckland. The facility was top notch and kudos to Grant for selecting it. My roommate was Gabe Raymond. BSP and ANZ sharing a room for four nights, a great example of how sport always unites. The Raro contingent met up with the NZ contingent for the first time and the team management slept with a smile on their faces as we finally had a full team.

Day 2 – 03/09/2022: Auckland is cold, the All Blacks were red hot – The day started with a team breakfast at Denny’s. More time for the Raro and NZ boys to bond over some kai. In the freezing cold Auckland weather the only thing warm was the welcome we received by the Auckland Maori Men’s cricket team. They sang for us, gifts and speeches were exchanged and official team photographs taken. In the first game of the day Auckland Maori batted first and set us a stiff target of 176 to chase. We were on target for a long time in the run chase but once captain Ma’ara Ave departed trying to up the ante the batters to follow crumbled under the pressure and we lost the game by 18 runs. In the second game we batted first and had a forgetful outing with the bat. We were all out for 78 and the Auckland boys chased it down in no time. The Raro boys who struggled all day with the cold Auckland temperatures were happy to get back indoors. Although we were disappointed with both results the big picture was that we actually played together as a team for the first time and got some valuable game time under our belts. The All Blacks made sure that our disappointment didn’t last for long when they beat Argentina 53-3 and we celebrated the AB’s win with a few cold ones at a pub called Basalt in Howick. On the way back to our hotel we went through Burger King drive through for a feed and we still laugh about the single guy who had to wait for 17 massive orders to be delivered before he could get his hands on his order of fries.

Day 3 – 04/09/2022: One that we should have won – Day 3 gave us another opportunity to play together as a team against the Auckland Maori team. This time around the bowlers put in a spirited performance in restricting the opposition to 146. Once again captain Ma’ara Ave played an unbeaten knock of 57. In an attempt to give the other batters some valuable time in the middle Ma’ara retired hurt and from then on the run chase collapsed. At one stage we required 30 from 24 balls with 7 wickets in hand but somehow managed to lose the game by 17 runs. Needless to say the mood in the dressing room after losing from a winning position was one of extreme disappoint. As a management group we had the difficult task of stating some hard facts but at the same time we wanted to make sure the team got over the loss quickly. When I was a teenager one of my coaches said to me “when you are in, make it count. Win the game and finish the job at hand. Don’t leave it for someone else to finish”. I still remember those words today. The Chinese takeaway for dinner was a big hit with the team and with the practice matches done and dusted everyone was looking forward to the next stage of the tour.

Day 4 – 05/09/2022: First injury – Cory breaks a finger – Injuries are a touring sides biggest nightmare. When you travel with 14 players and require 11 to play the game, staying injury free becomes really critical. Half an hour into our first net session in Auckland, Cory Dickson tried to take a regulation return catch in his follow through but somehow ended up with the nail on his left ring finger bent backwards, a dislocation and possibly a broken finger. I rushed to the nearest hospital with him where an x-ray confirmed the dislocation and broken finger bone. The nail was put back in its place using force, the dislocation was fixed by tugging at the finger with force and Cory was referred to a hand specialist the following day to deal with the broken bone. Cory handled all the pain like an absolute champion and also enjoyed the attention of three nurses fussing over him. The one called Madeleine definitely had a thing for Cory. The brains trust of the team which included Grant, Craig, Hori, Ma’ara and myself were worried as Cory was an important cog in our wheel. Cory bowls with his right hand and bats left-handed so luckily it was his non bowling arm and bottom hand while batting. The Indian restaurant opposite the Quest was an ideal place to wind down with a couple of cold Kingfishers after a stressful day.

Day 5 – 06/09/2022: Bye Bye Auckland ... Halo Vanuatu – Travel days are always hectic. The day started with Cory’s appointment with the hand specialist who advised him not to go anywhere near a cricket field for a month. Left ring finger strapped in a brace Cory walked out of his appointment and the first thing he said to me and the coach was “I am fine to play”. The rest of the team had another intense net session at the Howick Pakuranga Cricket Club. Every member of the squad then had to get a negative RAT test before they could board the flight to Vanuatu. Once we were all checked in and waiting for our flight to depart, the beer at the Vantage Bar in Auckland International Airport tasted really good. Over three months of hard work was finally bearing fruit. By the time we checked in at the Holiday Inn Resort in Vanuatu it was almost midnight and everyone cherished a well-deserved rest after a pretty turbulent flight.

Day 6 – 07/09/2022: Rain rain go to Spain – One of the key variables of the tournament in Vanuatu was the hybrid pitch. None of our squad had any experience playing on a hybrid surface so the two practice sessions planned for the Cook Islands team were going to be extremely critical. But the rain gods are clearly not cricket fans and our first practice session on the pitch was cancelled. The team took the opportunity to explore the resort while me and two others treated ourselves to a Thai massage in Port Vila – a hilarious story in itself. I googled massage in Port Vila and booked Thai massages for three of us. We told the local cab driver to take us to the Thai massage place. When we arrived at the place he dropped us at, the staff there looked confused when I said that we had a booking for three massages. Halfway through the massage my Vanuatu phone rang. I ignored it and checked the number at the end of the massage. Turns out it was the same number that I had called to make the booking. I asked my masseuse why they were ringing me when we were already there. With a look of horror on her face she told me that the number belonged to another Thai massage business who was their competitor. Basically we had booked elsewhere and landed somewhere else but the massage was good so no complaints at all.

Day 7 – 08/09/2022: The opening ceremony – We finally managed to get in a 45-minute training session on the hybrid pitch. All the top order batters had a go while the bowlers tried to find the best lengths to bowl on the surface. Next up was an ICC integrity briefing for all the squads followed by a tournament technical meeting with captains, coaches, team managers and umpires. Things were really getting serious now a day before the tournament, but the opening ceremony in the evening was perfect to settle any nerves. The official T20 World Cup trophy and the EAP qualifier trophy were both on display and all the squads had an opportunity to get up close and personal with them. We all enjoyed the fire dancing and traditional Vanuatu dance performances along with some yummy finger food. The tournament was now officially open.

Day 8 – 09/09/2022: Lost Game 1 and maybe our captain too – Samoa won the toss and elected to field. Cook Islands 110/8 (20 overs) – Ma’ara Ave 28(31) lost to Samoa 112/3 (11.2 overs) – Tomasi Vanuarua 1/10 (1 over)

Was it nerves, was it the lack of experience of playing on a hybrid pitch or was it over confidence. Regardless of what it was but the 7-wicket loss to Samoa in our opening encounter really shocked us. Batting first, 110 was never going to be enough but to lose the game with 52 balls still remaining was definitely painful. To make matters worse captain Ma’ara Ave was rushed to the hospital with a cut to his forehead trying to field a ball of his own bowling. Thankfully X-ray’s showed no fracture and there were no concussion symptoms but the deep wound required four stitches. Again the doctors said that Ma’ara should not be anywhere near a cricket field until the wound is completely healed. The team management decided to delay the naming of the team for the next game to let Ma’ara sleep on his injury. It was my third visit to the hospital in five days with a squad member. The only positive thing to happen was that I got a chance to do live television commentary and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Day 9 – 10/09/2022: Improved performance but yet another loss – Cook Islands won the toss and elected to bat. Cook Islands 142/10 (20 overs) – Hayden Dickson 51(38) lost to Fiji 143/7 (16.5 overs) – Ma’ara Ave 2/4 (2 overs)

Cricket is a non-contact sport but cricketers are as tough as they come. It’s got to be something really serious to keep us off a cricket field. 12 hours after getting his forehead stitched up on a hospital bed Ma’ara was out leading his team once again. Step aside all the Hollywood superheroes as we had one of our own – Ma’ara Ave. Batting first against Fiji we managed an improved performance getting to 142 but with the bowlers leaking 30 extras in the field defending that total was always going to be difficult. With two losses in two games and every other team winning at least one of their games we were at the bottom of the table and there was only one way for us to go. The entire team was sitting at the bar in the hotel lobby that evening and there was a 3-man band playing. I happened to mention to one of the squad members that I liked to sing and next minute my name was being announced by the band as the next singer. I belted out “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias and got a standing ovation by 100 people in the lobby that day. Every tour has a moment. This was ours. Starting from Auckland we had lost five games of cricket in a row but here we were cheering me on, giving high fives to each other and still genuinely happy in each other’s company. That moment bought us even more closer and I knew that success wouldn’t be able to stay away from us for much longer.

Day 10 – 11/09/2022: History is made. David defeats Goliath – Vanuatu won the toss and elected to bat. Vanuatu 127/10 (19 overs) – William Kokaua 3/26 (3 overs) lost to Cook Islands 128/5 (16.2 overs) – Ma’ara Ave 50(48)

Just so that readers understand the significance of this win. Before this tournament we were unranked. Vanuatu were ranked 47 out of 75 i.e. a minimum of 28 ranks ahead of us. Say for example a team like Zimbabwe (ranked 11th in the world) beats a team like Australia (ranked 6th in the world) it is considered a huge upset as the gap between the two teams is phenomenally higher than the five rank difference between them. So when we beat a team that is ranked 28 ranks ahead of us it is a massive achievement. Our inspirational captain Ma’ara Ave led from the front with both bat and ball to help us win and in the process won his first man of the match award of the tournament. The atmosphere in the team tent was euphoric while the sound system at the ground played Hero by Enrique Iglesias. Gabe Raymond had said that if we beat Vanuatu he would put on a bar tab of 20,000 Vatu. True to his word Gabe did just that and everyone enjoyed a couple of cold Tusker’s (the local Vanuatu beer) to celebrate. As the next day was a rest day Vanuatu cricket organised a Kava night for all the teams. Half of the Cook Islands team celebrated with Kava while the other half celebrated with beer and wine at the Stonegrill restaurant in Port Vila. By beating Vanuatu, we had thrown the tournament wide open and every team had a chance to win it from now on.

Day 11 – 12/09/2022: Exploring Vanuatu – To make the most of our time in Vanuatu I organised a couple of vans to take us to a place called the Blue Lagoon. We enjoyed the 30-minute drive by the countryside and once we got there it was really beautiful. A natural pool formed by sea water coming inland. It didn’t take the team long to plunge into the cool blue water, a welcome break from the hotel and the cricket ground. Despite my warnings about being careful not to get injured the boys jumped into the water using a rope swing and off trees. One of them injured his neck and the coach and me rolled our eyes as he missed the next game vs Samoa but thankfully all the teams had the services of Vanuatu’s physiotherapist for the tournament who was able to help our player get ready for the subsequent game vs Fiji. Lunch was organised at The Beach Bar in Mele and the food was once again a welcome change from the regular Holiday Inn hotel menu.

Day 12 – 13/09/2022: Thrilling finish. Million Instagram views and 72K likes –

Cook Islands won the toss and elected to field. Samoa 157/9 (20 overs) – Liam Denny 3/12 (4 overs) lost to Cook Islands 158/6 (20 overs)

Confidence is a fantastic thing. The win against hosts and tournament favourites Vanuatu made us believe in ourselves and carry the momentum forward in the next game against Samoa. Having won the last game chasing we decided that chasing a target suited our team best and we asked Samoa to bat first. Once again the bowlers put in a disciplined performance, we restricted Samoa to 157. Sixteen-year-old Liam Denny was exceptional with the ball picking up 3 wickets for only 12 runs of his 4 overs. He then backed it up with a superb performance with the bat putting on 91 for the 5th wicket along with run machine Ma’ara Ave. When Liam was dismissed in the last over we still required 9 runs of 3 balls which then became 8 runs to get off 2 balls. Ma’ara hit the penultimate ball of the match for a six and we needed 2 runs of the last ball for victory. Without facing a single delivery Tomakanute Ritawa became an internet sensation as he ran like a panther to the danger end on the last ball. We won a thriller against Samoa and Ma’ara carried his bat through the innings and picked up his second man of the match award remaining unbeaten on 76. Our last over heroics made it to the ICC Instagram Reels and so far the clip has had over 1.1 million views and over 72,000 likes. We celebrated with some great food at a local Chinese restaurant, our stomachs were full and our spirits were sky high.

Day 13 – 14/09/2022: Third win in a row and a complete performance – Cook Islands won the toss and elected to field. Fiji 147/10 (20 overs) – Tomakanute Ritawa 5/19 (4 overs) lost to Cook Islands 150/2 (18.3 overs)

This was our best performance of the tour. Fielding first we managed to restrict Fiji to a par score of 147 thanks to an unbelievable spell of bowling by Tomakanute Ritawa. Five wicket hauls in T20 cricket are extremely rare and his figures of 4-0-19-5 put him in the company of superstars like Rashid Khan, Lasith Malinga, Tim Southee and Adam Zampa. The batters taking inspiration from the bowling and fielding put on a mind-blowing show themselves getting to the target in 18.3 overs. All the commentators were falling short of adjectives to describe Ma’ara Ave’s exploits with the bat. Once again he batted through the innings with an unbeaten 92. He was extremely well supported by Davis Teinaki and both the Parima brothers. We had now won three in a row and were in with a chance to win the tournament when we played Vanuatu in our last game the following day. Thomas Parima who saw the team home, came off the field not feeling too well. It was a mixture of dehydration, body ache and stomach pain which meant I had to take him to the hospital to get checked out. It was my second visit there. The doctor on duty checked him and confirmed that it wasn’t anything serious. We returned at about 11pm and went to bed with a chance of creating history the next day.

Day 14 – 15/09/2022: We lost but yet we won – After a night’s rest, paracetamol and antibiotics, Thomas was fit enough to play but Gabe woke up with pain in his side which was due to a fielding effort in the previous game. I made my third trip to the hospital on that morning and by now I was on first name basis with everyone that worked in the emergency department. Although there were no broken ribs Gabe was not in a position to play. We required Samoa to beat Fiji and do us a favour so that even if we lost to Vanuatu, we would still finish second in the tournament but the Samoans looked like they had mentally checked out of the tournament long back and lost badly to Fiji. The equation for us was a bit tricky. We had to beat Vanuatu but we had to beat them by a massive margin. If we lost, we would finish second equal on points along with Fiji but Fiji’s superior net run rate meant that we would be pushed into third place. Apart from the toss nothing went to plan. We chose to bowl first but six overs into the game the rain arrived and we had to bowl for the rest of the innings with a wet ball and on a slippery outfield. Taking advantage of the situation Vanuatu set us a massive target of 174 to get in 16 overs. Getting that wouldn’t have been enough as to win the tournament we had to get to 174 in 7.2 overs – an impossible task. As a team we just decided to go for the win without worrying about the net run rate. Ma’ara fell early unluckily picking out the lone fielder on the leg side in the power play. The Parima brothers, Cory Dickson and Liam Denny offered some resistance and we were still in with a fighting chance but once they fell the rest of the batters panicked and we were bowled out for 123. Thomas Parima during the course of his short stay hit the biggest six of the tournament. A fifty-run loss in the decider was a tough pill to swallow especially when at the start of the game we were in with a chance to win the tournament. But we walked away with our heads held high and with pride for what we had managed to achieve for our country. The way we played the game won the hearts of everyone watching. We won the respect of our opponents, the umpires, the commentators and the organisers. Our captain Ma’ara Ave was declared best batter of the tournament for his incredible efforts with the bat. He was also declared man of the tournament for his all-round skills of batting, bowling, fielding and captaincy. After the final game a number of locals asked him for his autograph and to pose for selfies with them. Their love for Ma’ara confirmed what we already knew – a star was born. The celebrations after the final game included dinner at Coffee Tree and then on to The Retreat Seaside Sport Bar to watch the All Blacks beat the Aussies in game one of the Bledisloe Cup.

Day 15 – 16/09/2022: Shopping & one last team dinner – On our last day in Vanuatu we woke up to the terrible news of the fire at a residential property in Takuvaine. Being away from home reminds you how much you miss it and our thoughts were with the family concerned. We organised a shuttle to take the team shopping and everyone returned back with gifts and souvenirs for their loved ones. It was amazing to see the busy Port Vila markets and take in everything that was happening around us. The noise, the various different smells, the chaos and the colours. We organised one final team dinner at our hotel as the following day once we reached Auckland we would all be going our separate ways. We were all happy to be together one last time but also sad that the team would split up without knowing if we would all ever play together again.

Day 16 – 17/09/2022 in Vanuatu, NZ & 16/09/2022 in Raro: Home sweet home – Our flight from Port Vila to Auckland was at 7am which meant that we had to be at the airport at 4.30am which in turn meant that the team was up from 3.30am. The goodbyes at Auckland airport between the NZ based players and the Raro based players took a long time. It is amazing how 16 days of playing and achieving together as a team had formed friendships for a lifetime. To our surprise the Parima family and the Mangaian community in Auckland had prepared a lunch for us. We landed from Port Vila at 11am and had to check-in for our flight to Raro at 1pm. In the spare two hours we were whisked off to a community hall in Auckland where a feast awaited us. The kai was delicious and even though we didn’t know a single person in that hall the warmth and love we received from everybody filled our hearts with joy and pride. Back at the airport everybody picked up their stash of McDonalds to take home to Raro. Although we landed at 10pm in the night there were lots of family, friends and supporters waiting to welcome us at the Raro airport. Everyone in duty free, immigration and customs knew about our successful tour and congratulated us for our achievements. After 16 long days on the road it felt good to be back home. Home sweet home.

The Epilogue

It’s been a couple of weeks now since we got back but the euphoria of the tour still lingers on. The Facebook messenger group we set up for the team is still buzzing actively and after a few days of being back at work I can safely say that everyone wants to go back to the cricket field. We entered the tournament unranked in T20 internationals. In the latest ICC rankings released after the tour Cook Islands is ranked 55 out of the 82 ranked teams. The massive improvement in ranking will hopefully mean improved funding from the ICC. It could also mean more opportunities to play at the international level and not just in T20’s but one-day cricket as well. Our next assignment is scheduled for March 2023 in Fiji but we have lots to do in the interim. For years to come we will proudly tell the story of the Four stitches, three wins and two trophies. The tour is over but the story of cricket in the Cook Islands has just begun.