RNZ – 9:01 am on 25 January 2021
Every January, Tokelau stops as its people come together for an annual cricket tournament, but it’s played differently here. Elena Pasilio takes us inside the colour, feasting and culture of territory’s beloved sport.
Dawn had barely broken over Nukunonu, the roosters were crowing, and the church bells were ringing. Already, the island was electric, the excitement growing.
It was another day of war in Tokelau. Well, that’s how some locals described it. It was Egelani vs Amelika (England vs America), the atoll’s two cricket teams.
Cricket is the national sport in Tokelau, a remote New Zealand territory made up of three atolls about 500km north of Samoa, and today is the latest in a month-long tournament.
Every holiday season, the people of Tokelau come together for a seven-round tournament which lasts until the end of January, which is when everyone has to return to work.
Fakaofo and Atafu have their own competitions, but it is Nukunonu where Egelani and Amelika do battle.
All three atolls come together every few years.
“It’s our sport as a community and it’s a time for us to come together and be happy,” said Ioane Tumua, 76, an elder of team Amelika. “Back in the days we would have cricket every day for weeks at a time, but we didn’t have work back then – we mostly lived off the land and it was a simpler time.”
Tokelau has its own style of the game, a hybrid of cricket and kilikiti, without the pomp, white trousers or formality of a British test match, but with as many as 100 players per team, and an island-wide feast instead of a tea break.
The tournament is an annual tradition, and most of the country takes part. The atolls are a multi-day boat journey from anywhere else in the world, so there’s little escape. That means everybody goes all in well before the first ball is bowled.
The day starts with mass at 6am sharp, children running to Whinagalo Paia Cathedral, elbowing each other and jeering. “Nice day for a paint,” they’d say. (Members of the losing team are doused in a ‘paint’ of flour mixed with water).
After mass, they all get to work preparing the after-match feast at the umu. A young man still sleeping on a mattress on a verandah in the morning breeze is rattled awake by his cousins, impatiently waiting for him to get ready.
“We have to grate the coconuts, hurry!” they said, before rushing to join the aunties, who had already been working since before dawn. It’s not long before he’s thrown an old-style coconut grater, and told to get cracking.
At the umu, the adults hurriedly finish their last-minute chores, preparing and chopping vegetables, while others dealt to the fish the men had caught the day before. They lowered the pots down onto the hot glowing rocks, before the men raced home to get themselves ready.
On Tokelau – population 1450 – cricket is serious business. Per-capita, the fervour around it could outdo India. First introduced here by British missionaries in the late 1800s, the names Egelani and Amelika were first adopted after World War II, and they’ve stuck around since.
“Nukunonu was halved in two to make the teams,” said Tumua. “The North end of the island was Egelani and the South was Amelika.”
At one stage, Tumua said, there was also team ‘Peletania,’ after Britain, and ‘Niuhila,’ after New Zealand. But it’s Egelani and Amelika that have stuck.
By 8.30am, Egelani had gathered as a sea of red, wearing their bright shirts and rose-patterned sarongs, children at the front waving tall flags. They started by marching to local priest Father Penehe’s house for a blessing.
The sound of drums, chanting and footsteps echoed through the palm trees and across the island as Egelani marched. “Half one, two!” the captain cried as they stepped along.
“Right turn!” he screeched again, as they turned towards the women at the umu. “SALUTE!” They raised their hands. “Left turn!” he cried once more, “Forward march!” to St Peter’s pitch, where Amelika was already waiting.
The teams stood face to face, and the elders opened by offering their wisdom and tips, encouraging them to value peace.
“There have been games in the past [that] do not end because something happens that ruins the peace,” Tumua said. “So we stop the game fix the problem because we are a community altogether and our peace and harmony will always be priority.”
On the bridge that connects Nukunonu’s two strips of land (Fale and Motuhaga), 23-year-old Lupe Tionisio straightened his head garland as he ran towards the ground, late.
Amelika’s Kirita Etuale won Woman of the Match. Photo: RNZ / Elena Pasilio
“I was late because I [had] to grate coconuts with the boys in the umu,” Tionisio said. “I rushed home to get ready while Egelani marched.”
Tionisio moved to Tokelau from Australia in late 2019. He’d never been involved with community events there, he said, but on Nukunonu – land area 5.5 square km – there was little escape from the cricket.
“I think of my late grandfather, Tioni, and how he was so involved to village events, especially cricket, and I feel inspired to get in there and join,” he said. “It makes me feel closer to the community and him.”
The St Peter’s field is not so much an oval as it is a concrete strip in an open area amongst houses and palm trees, with no boundary. The wickets, instead of three stumps and bails, is a wooden board.
In Tokelau cricket, there are four positions: batter, pitcher, fielders and runners. The pitcher hurls the ball down to the batter, who’ll swing and try to hit it. The runners will then do the running for the batter, accumulating as many as they can while the fielders scramble to return the ball to the pitcher.
“The pressure is a lot when you’re running,” said Tionisio. “And the team is shouting at you to run faster.”
The game is judged by four men – two from each team – who act as umpires. But often, these men find themselves disagreeing and bickering about who was out or not. Their decision is final, if they ever agree.
Each side’s innings takes about four hours, and the number of players is in the dozens. The women and men of each team will sing and dance as the game plays out. While the rules of Tokelau cricket differ from most other forms, sledging and mockery is a thing here, too.
Part way through the game a 15-year-old walked to the pitch for the first time (In this tournament, players must at least 15, although most Tokelauans swing a bat from an early age). He tested his swing as the bowler prepared, then it was time for the real thing.
With the loud crack of bat meeting ball, the runners took off at full speed, as the ball sailed over the palm trees, disappearing behind Amelika’s umu building. Amelika’s fielders had a search on their hands, fossicking to find it.
So’o Kueva, 31, a member of Team Amelika, said game days were special for her family, often with bets among members.
“Come cricket day, we usually get up early and clean our house, get the kids ready and make sure they have food as the crickets are a whole day event,” she said.
But at the end of the day, Egelani just couldn’t match the 400 set by Amelika, even if Tionisio did win Best Fielder for a stunning catch. “I thought [it] was going to smack me in the face because it was spinning all the way to me – and I caught it,” he said.
And as the losing team, it was time for Egelani to endure some ritual humiliation. By game’s end, two buckets of flour paint were sitting ready, flies hovering around it. The losing team lined up and waited for their names to be called.
“I still have paint in my hair from the paint last week, its stuck in there and now I’m looking for clippers to cut my hair,” Tionisio laughed as he braced for another.
“Face your team and say, ‘Egelagi, I looooove Amelika’,” ordered one Amelika member. As everyone laughed, Tumua Pasilio, 50, the Egelani vice-president turned to his howling team and opened his arms, struggling to keep a straight face.
Another man who this year switched from Amelika to join his wife’s Egelani team stepped forward and shouted, “Egelani! I love my wife,” as St Peter’s field melted into fits of laughter.
Before long, the drums were beating again as the teams marched to their fale. It was time to raise the umu and make up for all the running. It was time for a feast.
As the sun set on the ocean side of Nukunonu and the moon started to shine, the festivities continued well into the night. The dancing, the singing, the laughing, the feasting.
“Some cricket rules have changed since my youth days and the cricket pitch has moved four times in my lifetime,” said Ioane Tumua, the elder.