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World class cricketer

Josefa Makaba
Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On November 20, 1997, Fiji cricketer Petero Kubunavanua passed away. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the short cricketing career of the fierce looking man from Ovalau who fielded barefoot in a traditional 'sulu' skirt, and featured on the stamp issued to commemorate the centenary of cricket in Fiji in 1974.

Cricket and Philately

On November 14, a special edition postage stamp was unveiled on the occasion of Sachin Tendulkar's 200th and final Test match at Wankhede. The maestro thus joined a select band of cricketers whose images have been turned over, licked, pasted and pummelled onto envelopes before being dropped into post-boxes.

Strangely, that exclusive club of cricketers on stamps includes the little known Fijian Petero Kubunavanua, whose image on a 1974 stamp showed him unleashing one of his spear like throws while attired in a traditional skirt.

Cricket's association with philately had long been considered an yawning gap that tormented the assiduous collector of both stamps and cricketana. During the first few years of the 20th century, the enthusiastic adherents of this noble game found to their consternation that the Olympics and other sporting disciplines like football were already featured on stamps. Most of them bristled in vehement indignation. To open the game's account by hook or by crook, some voices even suggested that during the Athens Olympic of 1906 Apollo was actually bowling round arm medium pace rather than throwing a discus in the official Greek stamp.

The last straw was perhaps dealt when on the eve of the World War II, United States Postal Service produced a stamp which showed a group of boys playing baseball on a sandlot.

Frustrations continued. A stamp of Iberia in 1956 did carry the image of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, but that did not count as the stadium had found its place in the postal world as the main venue of the Olympic Games. It did not satisfy the diehard cricketana collectors.

Finally, 23 years after the humiliation suffered to baseball, the great game of cricket stumbled into the world of postage. In 1962, a scene of cricketing action featured for the first time on a stamp issued from the unlikely quarters of Cape Verde Islands. Surprising, because it was a Portuguese colony 500 miles off the West African coast, whose cricketing activity - according to Wisden — was largely confined to chirping in the hearth.

However, once the dam was broken, envelopes rushed around the world carrying pictures of the game. Pakistan issued two stamps that same year and more countries followed suit. Collectors lovingly pored over their albums with cricketing stamps sticking shoulder to shoulder with the philately sections of other sports.

They found their place alongside proud exhibits of Roman silver coins, Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty, giant silkworm moths, Chinese matchboxes from the era of the Boxer Revolution, first edition erotica from the seventeenth century and all such paraphernalia the curious collecting souls are generally interested in.

Later, postmarks with cricketing connections were discovered dating to the 19th century. Three envelopes were found with the name of Young America Cricket Club of Germantown, Philadelphia, printed in the top left hand corner, postmarked 1886. The Young America Cricket Club was founded in 1855 and took on Richard Daft's touring English professionals in 1879. It later merged with Germantown CC in 1889.

The first cricketer to feature on a stamp was the great Garry Sobers when Barbados gained independence in 1966. He was to reappear in two stamps issued in 1977 which depicted the ceremony at the Bridgetown Racecourse where the champion all-rounder was touched on the shoulder by a sword, after which the Queen asked him to arise as Sir Garfield.

In between, a Ceylonese stamp had appeared carrying the image of Galle in 1967, long before it was a Test match centre. The 19th century South African captain, Sir William Milton, was witnessed on a Rhodesian stamp in1969. One from Sharjah, issued in 1972, depicted an unnamed cricketer with a baseball stance, which would have left him obviously vulnerable to a half-decent yorker. WG Grace followed in a British stamp of 1973, and in the same year India carried KS Ranjitsinhji.

Don Bradman had to wait till 1976 before appearing anonymously on a piece of South African postage.

However, immediately after Grace and Ranji, and two years before Bradman, it was the turn of the hero of our story, Petero Kubunavanua.

The fielder in a skirt

Fiji had already loosely featured in the world of philately-cricketana with the pleasant Albert Park of Suva appearing on stamps in 1942 and again in 1954. But, then, the cricketing connection of the ground was not really that robust.

However, 1974 marked the centenary of Fijian cricket. And to celebrate it a commemorative stamp was issued.

On it appeared Kubunavanua, attired in the traditional sulu skirt, sending in one of his trademark throws from the outfield.

Born in 1922, Kubunavanua did not know at the time of the centenary that he would go down in history as a First-Class cricketer.

A dashing left handed batsman and a fantastic fielder, he toured New Zealand in 1947-48. One of his teammates was IL Bula, the First-Class cricketer with the longest name in history.

During the tour, as also throughout his career, Kubunavanua delighted crowds by patrolling the outfield barefoot, bringing off spectacular saves, his searing throws reaching the wicketkeeper like rockets on the full, while his knee-length sulu twirled up in the frenzy of action. He could also keep wickets with gusto.

On that trip, Kubunavanua scored an unbeaten 31 against Canterbury, was stumped in both innings for six and seven against Otago, and scored 11 and 33 not out in the historic win against Auckland.

Three decades later, these three matches were granted First-Class status. In another match against South Canterbury, he hit 49 not out — his highest score at the top grade.

Kubunavanua also had a fine solo voice and performed in concert halls on the tour. He was an impressive sight as well, with a ferocious countenance under bush like hair.

In the World War II, Kubunavanua fought the Japanese in the Solomon Islands. Following that, he served in Malaya. It was during one of the state matches there that he performed his other legendary act.

Fielding at square leg, Kubunavanua was irritated by a swallow flying around him. His hand flashed out like lightning and the bird was caught. It was put away in his sulu pocket for the rest of the session.

Stamping the moments

After the Fijian contribution to cricketana, other great cricketing men and occasions did start appearing regularly on postage.

The West Indian triumph in the inaugural World Cup in 1975 was commemorated in a stamp. As mentioned earlier, Don Bradman was seen on the corners of envelopes from 1976. The same year saw Viv Richards and Andy Roberts on the Antiguan postage.

A delectable set of half dozen were issued for the Centenary Test at Melbourne in 1977, and another for the Centenary of the First Test in England in 1980.

In 1982, the centenary of Ashes saw a pre-stamped envelope from Australia.

In 1980, Sir Frank Worrell was seen on the postage of Turks and Caicos Islands, but was misspelt 'Worrel'. Victor Trumper appeared in the philatelic form in Australia in 1981.

But, it was that man from Fiji, fielding in a skirt and without boots, who beat the greatness of Bradman, Richards, Trumper, Worrell and Roberts and preceded all these legends to the world of postage.

Kubunavanua passed away on November 20, 1997.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)