Sunday, September 8, 2013

Martin Wilson’s 1969 Polynesian cricket story

A book recently donated to PANZA (Poetry Archive of NZ Aotearoa) is a collection of self-published poems and stories by a New Zealand author, Martin Wilson (1924-1980).
It was published in Rarotonga in 1969, and I don’t think I’ve come across his name before. Inside is a cricket story, and as the author describes, it’s a “gem”.
It tells the tale of a village match in Polynesia and is a wonderful evocation of cricket in the Pacific.
Aside from Michael O’Leary’s cricket novel, Out of It, which features Te Rauparaha as the hero and Lino Nelisi’s children’s cricket fiction written in Cook Islands Māori, it’s unusual to find a Polynesian cricket story. Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Michael O’Leary and Vaughan Rapatahana are among those who’ve written cricket poems in English.
I’ll share Wilson’s story with you here:

Martin Wilson (aka Rākamamao)

A Polynesian Cricket Match

It was four o’clock when Harry entered the ground by the opening in the thick coral and limestone wall and joined the village supporters beneath the au tree on the left of the gate. The greetings and handclasps over, he leaned over Rangi’s shoulder to look at the scoresheet. Surprisingly, the enemy’s pair had put together only a dozen runs, and their innings had obviously just commenced.
The game should have started at one o’clock: that is, it would have done so had both teams been ready; or as soon afterwards as late arrivals would have permitted. Harry wondered when play had in fact begun. The village side must have made a huge score, thought Harry. “How did we get on?” he asked.
“Not bad,” said Rangi, grinning up at him. “101. They scored 52 in their first innings.”
“They’re following on?” said Harry with a whistle. “What’s the local rule on the follow on?”
“Just the same; half the other side’s score,” said Rangi. He added, “They didn’t have to follow on, but their skipper agreed to do so.”
“Good oh,” said Harry.
He climbed up the wall. Perched on its pitted top surface he surveyed the field.
A sylvan setting: the Adelaide Oval, the Sydney Cricket Ground, and Georgetown, Jamaica, may be better known and more picturesque thought Harry, but you’d go a long way to find a more delightful setting. Two rough ‘road’ paths debouched from inside the gate, one running round to a house on the left, the other passing the wicket on the right and some twenty feet from the pitch. From time to time a truck, coming out from the hinterland on the right or entering the gate, rattled round the field causing a momentary stoppage of play.
The heavy shower which had accompanied Harry’s arrival had not affected the matting-covered concrete wicket or stopped play, but because of it the flamboyants at the far end of the ground stood out, a fresh, flaming red over pale iridescent green against the darker green of the sharp-edged volcanic mountain backdrop.
A few feet in from the undergrowth a row of wands indicated the left-hand boundary. A fold in the ground, at right angles to and in front of Harry, contained a scattered collection of middling-height shrubs, running out towards the wicket and ending about twenty-five yards from a square leg pull by a right hander at the road end.
One of the local picture theatres formed part of the boundary on Harry’s right. Trees and houses made up the rest. As this boundary was a bare forty yards from the wicket runs came somewhat easily.
Harry looked round the field: a good number of his senior village rugby team, an unaccustomed sight in white shorts and local style white shirts decorated with village names met his eyes. Two of the fieldsmen, one of them a member of the school committee, were in long whites. The village second five eight, an ex-League player of some renown, was bowling out of the flamboyants: fast-medium, quite a good length and accuracy and lifting nippily from the matting. Every now and then, dropping one short of a length on the off stump he was pulled viciously round through the leg-side shrubbery, leaves flying as the ball thrashed through the trees, the umpire signalling four by raising four fingers, and the batsman disputing the decision on the grounds that if the shrubs hadn’t been there it would have been six.
The over came to an end and the field changed over. Harry gazed in astonishment: the wicket keeper and the batsman had bent down and were pulling the matting wicket right down against the stumps at the flamboyant end, leaving a good six feet of bare concrete at the oncoming bowler’s end.
The popping crease was marked at each end of the wicket by short twigs pushed into the hard ground. The fieldsmen took up their positions and the lock forward of the winter lumbered in for deliveries which were surprisingly fast if short of a length.
The opposing captain, cross-batted, swung the second ball hard but not high towards the mid-on boundary. Mid-on, fielding just inside the boundary a few feet from the theatre wall, picked the catch from the air into his lean brown hands like a citrus fruit from the tree and threw the ball casually yet delightedly into the air. Harry applauded the catch. A hand-clap rippled round the fieldsman and under the au where Harry sat, and good natured comments were hurled at the departing captain. Dead silence prevailed on the right-hand side beneath the enemy’s tree. “That’s more like it,” said Harry happily.
The enemy’s silence was normal good manners: in winter a try was greeted with delirium on one side of the field, while stony silence and blank faces were to be seen on the other. Local custom decreed that you never applauded a fine try – if it happened to be scored by the opposition.
Harry decided that the cross-bat pull and hook were the reasons for the extra-ordinary on side field placings: long on, deep mid on, square leg, and fine leg were all within a foot of the boundary; the rest of the on side being bare of fieldsmen. Anywhere else in the world this would have been regarded as a defensive field, but in Polynesia it was a different matter.
Some overs later the remaining opener attempted a glide to a high one, got an inside edge, played it down onto his pad and off through slips to the boundary. A loud, confident appeal came from the bowler. Plum Warner might have hesitated, but the village umpire was made of sterner stuff – his finger jetted upwards and a howl of untuneful applause mingled with appreciative laughter greeted this very proper decision.
Wickets continued to fall: in the following over there was another appeal for lbw, from the road and bowler. The enemy umpire slowly raised his hand.
Stunned, the village supporters forgot to applaud, but Harry clapped loudly; he agreed with that decision!
When the sixth wicket fell to a well-judged return from the depths of the shrubbery, the enemy captain came onto the field and protested that the ball had been patently over the boundary. Five minutes were spent while the committee man showed the umpire the exact spot where he had fielded the ball, a good fifteen yards inside the boundary. To applause from the au tree the umpire upheld his run-out decision. With loud witticisms the village barrackers told the enemy’s supporters what they thought of their captain’s appeal. The game proceeded.
At 5.25pm, with the score at 96 the last enemy wicket fell to a straight ball on the leg stump which the batsman attempted to hit out of the ground, over the road, and into the lagoon.
Harry consulted Rangi’s scorebook again; the village was 47 runs behind: 48 to win in roughly half an hour. No one had told Harry that in their first innings the first five village wickets had fallen for 12 runs, so Harry was quite as confident as the three batsmen strapping pads on to well turned limbs.
Harry returned to his patch and looking up saw a knot of white clad figures gesticulating round the two captains and the umpire. He listened carefully but could make little of it. He turned to his neighbour on the wall and asked him what the argument was about. “The other side say they didn’t have to follow on,” said his neighbour. “They’re claiming an outright win.”
“What! With 47 runs on?” gasped Harry.
He turned curious eyes to the field again. Punctuated with full-flowing gestures the flood of Maori swept like a reef-race from one side to the other. The village captain, his shirt stained with red from many dryings of the wet ball after the earlier shower, was obviously hurt and deeply puzzled.
Time was passing. Harry lit a fag, drew on it, and began to feel annoyed. Couldn’t they see that this time-wasting was deciding the match for both sides? The village captain marched off the field towards the au tree and saw Harry for the first time. A smile spreading over his face he came over to the wall and they shook hands. “Trouble?” asked Harry.
“They agreed to follow on,” said Tangaroa. “Now they’re saying they’ve won outright.”
“What did you say?” asked Harry.
“I told them this wasn’t the place to argue about it,” said Tangaroa. “They’ll have to take it up with the match committee. I told them we are going to bat again right now. If they don’t come out we’ll claim the match outright by default.”
“Fair enough,” agreed Harry.

The openers strode out: only two of them thank heavens thought Harry, and the enemy reluctantly took the field. The enemy captain opened the bowling from the road end. The first ball was a nasty bumper, the batsman ducked making no attempt to play a shot. The wicket keeper took it high over his head. “Howzzat?” yelled the bowler to his own umpire. But the umpire, moving his straw from port to starboard in his fisherman’s mouth sternly shook his head.
Three overs had been bowled, one single had been scored, and both openers were back beneath the au. “Good grief,” groaned Harry.
But the stocky figure of the village captain had joined the senior lock forward, a fellow with strong wrists and strong arms. A mighty pull from this champion rose high in the air on the leg side from the flamboyant end. Harry scrambled off the wall excitedly. Fieldsman converged yelling on the leg side. But that ball, continuing to rise high as it crossed the boundary sailed over the picture theatre and disappeared from sight. The au trembled to the roars, hoots, cheers and yells and the umpire signalled six. The fieldsman, dropping to a leisurely walk strolled unconcernedly round the back of the theatre. The hunt for the wall took three precious minutes.
Excitement mounted. Harry found himself shifting about on the wall unable to sit still. The second enemy fast bowler was dropping them short on the off side, trying to tempt the village captain to touch one down to third man or gully. The last ball of his over rocketed straight through on a length. Tangaroa took a mighty sweep for the shrubbery but missed. The ball shaved over the top of the bails. The enemy wicket keeper, in pads but with no gloves or shoes and standing right up behind the stumps took the ball cleanly and swept off the bails. “Howzzat?” he roared triumphantly.
The village captain was well out of his crease: his bat was well inside the crease but at least two inches from the ground when the bails flew. Harry groaned and looked at the shrubbery. The enemy umpire emerged from the surrounding backdrop and strode forward to replace the bails. “Not out,” he said, spitting out the words on separate footfalls. Harry stared. The au trembled again. An expressive silence spread from the right-hand corner.
Harry’s watch said three minutes to six. The captains conferred with the umpires; the last over began.
A four from the first ball thumped against the wall of the theatre leaving a dirty circular mark. “It can’t be done,” announced Harry to his neighbour, “there’s just not enough time.”
“Another over would have done it,” said his neighbour.
Harry lit a fag and found himself holding the butt of the other one. “Damn,” said Harry, throwing it down.
A loud yell from the enemy’s side signalled a leg stump knocked clean out of the ground. “Blazes,” muttered Harry. “Five for 30.”
The next batsman ran in and took strike, waving away the umpire’s attempt to give him middle and leg. The enemy captain sped in; the ball flashed down the pitch. A perfect scythe stroke sent it soaring over the theatre again and the umpire signalled six. “One ball to go,” said Harry’s neighbour. “It’s been a good match.”
“Very exciting,” agreed Harry.
The last ball not only happened to be straight it was also a Yorker and quite unplayable; the middle stump fell flat.
“Six for 36,” said Harry, “a jolly good attempt.” Back home, New Zealand might have been moving to their second ever test victory against the West Indies, but it was nothing to this match! Harry jumped off the wall and joined the players coming off the field. “Well done,” he said, gripping the village captain by his brawny hand.
“Another over would have done it,” said Tangaroa with a wide smile. “Never mind, we got the first innings points.”

Harry climbed on his Honda, started up and set off contentedly for home. ‘The village is still leading the competition,’ he told himself. He was well pleased: he hated to see the village beaten.
The old stirring in the blood had come back again: the smell of new-mown grass; raw linseed oil on a new bat; the comfortable feel of a pair of well-fitting cricket boots; the rubbery bite of batting gloves, and the clang of the metal plates on the scoreboard pile – these and other memories flooded over Harry from the past. “Next Saturday,” said Harry to himself, “someone else can time-keep at the Sailing Club: I’ll be at the cricket!”

© M G Wilson 1969

(From Collected Poems and Short Stories, Rarotonga, 1969 self-published)

Author biography:

Martin Gordon Wilson (aka Rākamamao) was born at Moutere Private Hospital, Ōtaki, on 3 January 1924. He was educated at Ōtaki State Primary (1929-36), Levin District High School (1937-39), Horowhenua College (1940), and Victoria University of Wellington (post-war) where he took a Master’s degree in English and a double Bachelor’s degree in English and History.
A trained teacher, he taught in Sarawak (1966-67) as a Colombo Plan Expert, and then became Head of the English Department at Tereora College in Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
Wilson’s stories and poems first appeared in the NZ Listener and the Weekly News in Auckland in the 1960s. His memoir, In Search of the Great Fleet (1962) about the great Māori canoe voyages to Aotearoa/New Zealand, and his poem ‘Leaving for Aotearoa’ (NZ Listener, 17 July 1964) appeared under his given Māori tribal name of Rākamamao.
Much of his best poetry is collected in his Collected Poems and Short Stories of 1969. The book features work from 1939-69. The first poem in the book was written at Levin District High School aged 15 years and the collection takes in the Second World War, as well as his teaching time in Sarawak, Malaysia, and Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
An Anglo-Catholic, he married and had four children.
He was a well-known opera singer outside of teaching and writing.
Martin Wilson retired to Kerikeri, Northland, New Zealand, where he was active in swimming and life saving. He died in 1980 aged 56 years.

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