Kirirkiti

 


 

David Whitley tries his hand at Kirikiti, Samoa’s unique version of cricket.

 

As sledging goes, it’s a novel approach. Before the bowler trundles in to unleash his worst, the entire team embarks on a mini haka-like chant. They clap in unison, accompanied by hups, heys and a high-pitched squeal. But it doesn’t work – the batsman unceremoniously deposits the ball into the bushland on the other side of the main road.

 

The umpire raises both his red and his white flag to signal two points, and the rest of the batting team turns into a choir. Sat crossed-legged and in formation at the edge of the pitch, they launch into a traditional Samoan song, performed with exquisite harmonies. This, it is fair to say, is just not cricket. There are similarities, of course, but since missionaries introduced the game in the early 19th century, the Samoans have made up their own rules. The result is kirikiti, a game that is played across the country on Saturday afternoons.

 

Turn up in a village while a game is going on and there’s no better way to get talking to the locals. Show an interest in the bizarre sporting spectacle in front of you, and you’ll suddenly develop a whole community of new friends. There’s a high chance of being asked to join the game, too. The first major differences from cricket – as played elsewhere - are cosmetic. Gone are the whites (they’re saved for going to church on Sundays) and in are the brightly coloured lava lavas. These are the Samoan take on a sarong, and are frankly an utter nuisance to run in. The ball is made of rubber, and the giant bat looks like a murder weapon. It’s three-sided, with leather and coconut husk strapping. The blade usually has intricate patterns hand-painted upon it by the proud owner.

 

For a pitch, there is a concrete strip. Batsmen are not allowed to step off it – that’s out. Oh, and there’s none of that namby-pamby blocking either; the rules dictate that the batsman has to take a swing at every ball. Time frames are a little more fluid too. No one counts overs or balls, and the game is over when all the batsmen – which can number over 20 per side depending on how many people are around – are out. This means that games can stretch out over days or weeks, although the all-guns-blazing approach to batting ensures that only a very strong team’s innings will last longer than 45 minutes.

 

I arrive at the Piula Theological College in the middle of a torrential downpour. It comes as something of a surprise to find the teams enthusiastically twisting the chest-high cane stumps into the ground. As the college’s sporting director, Rev Dr Upolu Vaai, explains: “This is what we do every Saturday, rain or shine. We will play in a cyclone.” It’s the first clue that this is more than a sport; it’s a community bonding exercise. The college is a good spot for catching a slightly more formalised game – there are three teams in red, yellow or blue lava lavas and the rules are fairly well defined. But in the villages, it’s all about keeping everyone entertained. Men, women and children of all abilities will play together, and joining in the chants and dances is just as important as hitting the ball.

 

On the field, the sun suddenly comes out as the red team – Matasavaii – takes on the yellows – Fagalele. The Rev Dr Vaai tries to explain to me what’s going on; to the naked observer it appears to be a comic showreel of flailing batsmanship, shambolic catching and mesmerising music. Balls periodically come down with snow on them, and the stumps fly out of the ground every minute or so.

 

Then he gives me the bat. “Your turn,” says Rev Dr Vaai, as the choir breaks into big smiles and poorly suppressed laughter. “You’re on our team now.” I launch at my first ball in the spirit of things. It’s an ungainly air shot, and the ball flies past, somehow avoiding the long canes behind me. I get lucky the second time, and connect with a meaty blow. It soon becomes abundantly clear why the non-playing team (in this case, the blues) is on constant ball-boy duty. That rubber ball flies an awful long way. My effort clatters into a blue building way beyond the boundary flags, but the smile doesn’t last long. “You hit the house!” says the umpire. “That is out.” I trudge off, displaying far less grace than the fallen before me. The choir is struggling to sing through the laughter, and Rev Dr Vaai lets me in on a secret that finally makes everything click into place.

 

“In the village, that would not be out. But it is our rule here,” he says. “That is the thing about Samoa – we apply our own rules to everything. And everywhere you go, those rules will be slightly different.” It’s true, and cricket only scratches the surface of it.

 

Where to watch

Going east from the Samoan capital, Apia, it’s approximately 40 minutes by car to the Piula Theological College. The grounds are lovely, and they’re also home to the Piula Cave Pool - a beautiful pre or post-match swimming spot. The students and lecturers play from about 1pm onwards every Saturday.