Treasure Island: The rise of Vanuatu women in the cricketing world

As the Island nation make their mark in the ongoing T20 WC qualifiers, a look at the journey of the players and how far they have come.
Vanuatu Women's cricket team.
Vanuatu Women's cricket team.Photo | ICC

Melissa Fare did not have it in her to stay up and watch the entire match as her Vanuatu teammates defeated Zimbabwe at the ICC T20 World Cup Qualifier in Abu Dhabi on Thursday. Having represented Vanuatu in 13 T20Is, Fare, who is currently studying in Adelaide, was on cloud nine when she woke up in Adelaide to the news of her side beating the full-member nation on their global qualifiers debut.

“I woke up this morning, sat on my bed, and cried a little bit. I would have been a mess if I was watching it live,” she told this daily. “I couldn’t stop smiling. I was telling everyone about it today. I can imagine the emotions that were going on there with the team,” she adds.

Women's cricket started on the island in 2012 and the team, which is mostly made up of players who are seasonal workers in Australia, has made it to the global WC qualifiers in itself is the biggest achievement for them.

"What people fail to realise is that the Vanuatu women's team is very young. 2012 is not too long ago. It's just only 12 years of the team being together. It was important for the women in Vanuatu because they didn't get a lot of opportunities to play. None of them gets paid to play cricket. They do training in their own free time. They're not making lucrative careers out of it. So it's just purely for the love and passion of the sport. To see that passion getting rewarded means so much."

Fare remembers what the situation was over the years, where like every amateur team, Vanuatu spent most of the time training rather than actually playing the game. For many such teams, the time between two games could be weeks or months. Vanuatu women used to wait for two years, just to participate in one regional tournament. "We used to play cricket once every two years at the East Asia and Pacific tournaments. Between those two years, it will be just training. Training every day of the week, just to play in a 10-day tournament. They have done it consistently," she added.

This situation changed in the East Asia and Pacific regional qualifiers, where hosts Vanuatu won all six matches, including the one against Papua New Guinea, one of the strongest teams in the region. Vanuatu were not the runaway favourites to win the regional qualifiers, but their undefeated run made sure they were knocking on another opportunity, this time at the global level. "It took some time for the girls to realize what was happening when we won the EAP qualifier to make it to the global qualifier," Fare remembers it vividly as one of the broadcasters for the regional tournament.

That win changed the way people looked at women's cricket in the island. The game found new voices and column inches in the local newspapers. The win against Zimbabwe also found mentions in the news and all over social media. For a football-mad country, this much support for cricket was unexpected a few years ago. "Starting from last year, the EAP qualifiers, I have never seen the women's team being put so much on the back page of the newspaper. Today as well, there are so many social media posts and so much support for the team. People who have never watched cricket in their lives feel the pride that the girls showed on the field. Now, what this means for cricket is that people are now paying more attention to cricket as a sport. Our national sport is football, but now people are paying a lot more attention and the fact that it's the women's team that is bringing all this attention to cricket is even more inspiring," Fare mentioned.

In all the attention and fanfare that has come along from all over the world, there is one person who Fare believes is at the core of this team. Their captain Selina Solman, who has been there since day 1.

"Selina is important. Selina and Rachel (Andrew) started cricket training together with the boys and then got brought into the women's system when it started. Since her debut in 2015 in Japan, she has been vital to the team and it's also the reason why she is the captain. Selina is important because the team probably would have fallen apart without her when there weren't any coaches or anyone to keep the team together."

"She has also been important in growing the sport on other islands too. If you look at the team, Lizzing Enoch, was part of a program that Selina started. We did a cyclone relief drive where we put this idea to run a women's tournament in Vanuatu on Espiritu Santo, the largest island in Vanuatu. So we took the entire national women's team there. It was COVID. We couldn't go anywhere else and Lizzing was identified from there. I think a lot of the girls that are in that circle have been able to stay in cricket because of the commitment and the passion that Selina has for the team," Fare said.

Along with Solman and Andrews, there is 28-year-old Nasimana Navaika in the team, who took four wickets against Zimbabwe. "She is like the glue that keeps it all together. She's quiet, but her presence is known in the field. Nasimana played football before she went into cricket. She had to take a break from cricket because she had a little boy and she's come back to cricket and she's still got it."

However, Fare has a soft corner for 17-year-old Vanessa Vira, whom she has seen play cricket since she was just a kid. "Vanessa started playing cricket with me when she was eight years old. The uniforms didn't fit her. We used to put the uniform on her, it looked like a dress, but she has always been very talented. She would go out there a little bit nervous but the big girls would be like we don't want to bowl fast and then you bowl to her and she would just play it beautifully," Fare reminisces.

From the most experienced player in the team to the youngest one, their passion has kept them fighting to play the game they love the most. That passion and vision from someone like Tim Cutler, CEO of Vanuatu Cricket, and Rodney Prestia, CEO of I Comply Labour and Agricultural Compliance, has helped these players to stay in the game. Under their work contract now, the players can work in Australia for nine months picking fruits, where the company has provided the nets and other facilities to practice.

"Getting any employment is hard considering that a lot of girls who play have not gone through the whole system of high school. It's difficult for them to get jobs and be women as well. They are expected to stay at home. But their passion is cricket. Having the opportunity to continue to play cricket is something that is not possible in Vanuatu. They are able to practice in Australia where there are good facilities and good competition is working well for them. They are managing it well because they have a good contract with the company that they're working for."

It wasn't just a win that gave Vanuatu two points in the World Cup qualifier. It was much more than that. It was a validation for all the work the likes of Solman and Andrew have put in. It was an incentive for the likes of Vira to stay in the game. It was a chance for someone like Navaika to showcase what she can do at the next level. And they have all done it with flying colours. However, this is not the end for the squad.

To quote Fare, "This is the beginning of what Vanuatu can achieve as a cricket team."

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The New Indian Express