The Shame Game: Talented Polynesian players left behind

Murphy Su'a is considered the first player of Pacific Island descent to play for New Zealand. Photo / Ben Radford / Allsport
Murphy Su'a is considered the first player of Pacific Island descent to play for New Zealand. Photo / Ben Radford / Allsport

The Pacific Islands community remains an untapped seam for New Zealand Cricket's future playing stocks.

The directive has often been pushed that such prodigious natural athletic talent needs to be harnessed; little has emerged. This year's Sport In The Lives Of Young New Zealanders survey from Sport New Zealand shows cricket does not make the top 10 for 5-18-year-old Pacific Islander boys and girls. Across all children, it ranks 16th for boys and doesn't make the top 20 for girls.

Murphy Su'a is considered the first player of Pacific Island descent to play for New Zealand, appearing in 13 tests and 12 ODIs from 1992-95. He remains a member of the Auckland Cricket board and Samoan coach.

Su'a says NZC could do more to promote the game among Polynesian communities.

"It's one of the reasons I got involved on the Auckland board. Growing up as a PI in the Waikato, it always seemed to be the kids from Southall, St Paul's and Hamilton Boys' High [predominantly white, high decile schools] that got ahead."

The 46-year-old says he was fortunate to be at Melville High School under the tutelage of people like Wynne Bradburn, a former test player and father of Northern Districts coach Grant, who encouraged his development. He wonders how many talented kids missed being identified.

Su'a finished his schooling at Auckland's Aorere College where there wasn't a cricket team. "Papatoetoe High was the only [secondary school] team in South Auckland as far as I can remember."

Su'a said Auckland Cricket had strategies they hoped would bear fruit in 10-15 years, not overnight.

"With Polynesian kids, it's not enough to get them involved, we've got to get into the homes and convince parents."

Auckland Cricket supports kilikiti in the hope different forms of the game will produce some jewels. Su'a says he has seen an "increase in brownies" among junior teams.

"Could NZC be doing more? Absolutely. It often comes back to funding and you find yourself hitting your head against a brick wall."

Su'a says Samoa's been lucky to have the support of New Zealand captain Ross Taylor. Taylor's mother is of Samoan descent. The Samoan national side has been known to walk onto the field in white trousers, some cut off at the low calf or with a couple of folds to stop cuffs slipping over sneakers.

How so? Taylor has been known to drop off used bags of Black Caps clothing to be auctioned with the proceeds invested back into the game. He is often held up to Pacific Island cricketers as an example of what can be achieved.

The New Zealand Cricket Players Association also helps. Their former events and operations manager, ex-test bowler Kerry Walmsley, ran the Hooked On Cricket programme to take the sport into lower decile schools.

"We targeted 8-10 year-olds and offered scholarships for kit and club fees so they felt connected to club teams like Papatoetoe and North City [in Wellington]. We'd take Black Caps and provincial players into primary schools like Bairds Mainfreight and Papatoetoe South where there were no previous cricket programmes.

"We tried to future proof it by following up with investment from the New Zealand Community Trust for two to three years in a row. We tried to emphasise there are teams other than New Zealand to play for; like Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands," Walmsley said. "The most important thing in the Polynesian community is convincing parents it's worthwhile. The kids are often big and strong; they have great eyes to smash the ball and natural, uncoached bowling actions.

"However, we believed it was vital to sit down to explain the bigger picture and the pathways cricket offers because it is not a sport they're accustomed to and can be quite expensive. It's always a battle in low decile areas because $10 buys you a rugby ball which can entertain 30 kids, just like that."

Su'a says rugby provides a simpler pathway to professional sport.

"I've seen a lot of talented PI cricketers growing up who are also talented at rugby. Good rugby players have incentives placed in front of them straight out of school. In cricket, it's often a five-year apprenticeship before you're in the first-class scene and have a chance to earn money."

Su'a, who described himself as a temperamental kid, said he sometimes felt uncomfortable in the mainly white world of rep cricket. He thinks many coaches and administrators struggle to find the right buttons to push to motivate Pacific Islanders, but cited former national coach Warren Lees as an exception.

- NZ Herald

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