South Pacific Games: Cricket goes back to the future

For the proponents of the International Cricket Council's Development Programme, the cricket event at next year's South Pacific games in Suva, Fiji, will be a bit like those before-and-after photos you see on advertisements for weight loss programmes.

The reason is a lot has changed in cricket in the South Pacific since Papua New Guinea's cricketers won gold for their country the last time our sport was included on the roster of the regional games in Port Moresby in 1991.

And all of the change is for the better - back then the cricketers and officials of the individual countries of the South Pacific would come out of four years of isolation from the rest of the cricketing world to compete in the only regional cricket tournament (longer if the Games host nation did not have facilities for staging cricket).

It was before the days of the Development Programme and there was no Pacifica Cup - cricket officials of the South Pacific were alone in trying to keep cricket alive in the face of concerted competition from sports such as rugby union.

Indeed since PNG took out the five-nation tournament, beating Fiji in the final, the game has died and then been reborn in Samoa and New Caledonia. The Development Programme came too late for countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, previous participants at the Games' cricket tournament, but where an exodus of expatriates has seen cricket fade out in both.

In contrast to 1991 at least seven of the countries which will 'go for gold' in Suva next year will have played in two Pacifica Cups, both organised by the ICC. And the officials of the South Pacific receive the ongoing support of the Development Programme, guided by the ICC's Matthew Kennedy, whose enthusiasm is infectious.

Whereas Fiji, Vanuatu, etc were previously holiday destinations for cricket officialdom from the region's giants, Australia and New Zealand, coaches from the 'big two' now routinely visit the region's seven Associate, Affiliate and 'New Territory' members.

So with the Pacifica Cup established what difference will there be between it and a cricket event at the Games?

Membership of the ICC won't be a requirement meaning even the smallest of the Pacific's cricketing minnows such as Norfolk Island and Wallis & Futuna Islands can enter a team, as well as providing impetus to the game in countries such as the Solomon Islands where attempts to get cricket going again have been stop-start.

Tantalisingly for some, the ICC's eligibility rules won't apply, opening the possibility for New Zealanders of Pacific ancestry to blend in with locals from the islands.

For the players themselves it is the chance of a unique experience.

"At the Games they can meet and mix with the best sportsmen and women from both their own and other countries, walk behind their national flag with other athletes and compete for a gold medal," enthuses Mark Stafford, Vanuatu Cricket Association President, who played for Vanuatu in 1991 when they lost the bronze medal play off against Tonga.

And although it is not an ICC sanctioned event, the world governing body is providing support in the form of funding and artificial surfaces for upgrading of cricket facilities needed for the Games.

The 2007 Games are scheduled to be held in Samoa, meaning cricket will again be on the roster.

While the International Olympic Committee can insist all host countries (even Greece in 2004) build a baseball stadium, the secretariat of the South Pacific Games obviously don't have that option with its constituent members when the Games are rotated to countries such as Tahiti (1971, 1995) and Guam (1975, 1999), the only two countries to host the Games where cricket is not played.