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Fiji's cricket hero

Cricketcountry
Sunday, December 29, 2013

Without a doubt Ilikena Lasarusa Talebulamaineiilikenamainavaleniveivakabulaimainakulalakebalau has the longest surname for any first-class cricketer. The surname literally means "returned alive from Nakula hospital at Lakeba Island in the Lau group". To the relief of statisticians and scorers all over the world he did not mind if his name was abbreviated to IL Bula. He was also the greatest cricketer Fiji has ever produced.

Bula had earned a name for his huge sixes. In his prime, he was a treat to watch. On his two tours of New Zealand he impressed the cricketers and the media. In fact, Bula impressed the hosts to such an extent with his amazing six-hitting skills on the 1947-48 tour that their board contemplated including him in New Zealand's upcoming tour of England (1949).

Philip Snow, Bula's first first-class captain, later wrote in Cricket Heroes: "Straightening up somewhat from a rather crouching stance, he (Bula) would half pull, half drive the most guileful spinner in one fluent, powerful, majestic motion clear over the stand. No glimmer of satisfaction on his face, no trace of response to the acclamation of the crowd, no comment."

Bula's nonchalance was famous. Snow wrote: "He (Bula) would flick some dust off his bare feet or peer at his battered bat. With his great stretches forward, his shin-high sulu (white skirt) would float out above the top of his pads: he would tuck it back and prepare to deal wholesomely with the next ball — if possible, over the head and upstretched hands of the extra boundary fielder just put there."

Only nine of Bula's matches have been classified as first-class (all of which were played in New Zealand). He had scored 702 runs in them at 41.29 with two hundreds. It might have been more impressive had he played his cricket in another country. He was also an excellent fielder — one of the greatest Fiji has produced.

Early days

Enele Ma'afu'otu'itonga (usually referred to as Enele Ma'afu), the Tongan prince, was also a self-proclaimed Fijian leader. Bula was Ma'afu's great-great-grand-nephew. He was born in Tubou in Lakeba, Lau, Fiji. Bula was, like most other Lauans, a part-Fijian and a part-Tongan.

Bula had received limited coaching in his early days, mostly from Viliame Tuinaceva Logavatu, an accomplished but uncoached player. He was later coached by Ratu ('Chief' in Fijian) Edward Cakobau, an all-rounder who had played for Auckland and in Oxford Trials.

The first New Zealand tour

The earliest documented match in which Bula played was on the New Zealand tour against Northland at Whangarei, scoring five and one not out. In his next match — against Waikato at Hamilton — Bula scored 77 (with eight fours and four sixes) to give Fiji an 81-run lead. Chasing 67 in the fourth innings he scored 53 not out to guide his country to a nine-wicket victory in only 44 balls.

Bula had become extremely popular for his batting. He was hunted for autographs — which was an experience in itself. Snow wrote: "In the first two matches of the tour he gave his autograph in his habitual elegant copperplate. But he soon realised that if he continued to do this there would be time for little else on this tour."

As a token of appreciation the Waikato Cricket Association presented him with a ball inscribed in silver from the District of Waikato for two of the hardest-hit innings they have witnessed. The award was presented, of all places, on a railway platform. Unfortunately it got stolen in a hotel in Auckland.

None of these matches had had first-class status, though. The next match at Eden Park was against a strong Auckland outfit. The hosts won by a huge margin, and Bula was the only batsman who fought gracefully, with 44 and 36 as Fiji crashed to a 168-run defeat.

The first defining performance came against Wellington at Basin Reserve. Fiji was set a stiff target of 247; Bula came out at the fall of the first wicket with just two on the board; he bludgeoned his way to 88 as Fiji pulled off an upset victory with a single wicket in hand.

In his next first-class match against Walter Hadlee's Canterbury at Christchurch, Bula first grabbed attention of the locals. Canterbury won by a close contest by 36 runs, but Bula top-scored in each innings with 63 and 120 (his maiden first-class hundred; it would also remain his career-best), chasing 354 in the fourth innings.

Bula also pulled off an exceptional catch off Snow in the match. The batsman was Tony MacGibbon. Snow recollected: "Bula had to run flat out, sulu flying, his bare feet scorching the grass, for yards along the boundary. He took the catch with consummate ease while still rushing down at top speed. He allowed himself a broad beam on his honest, light-brown face."

What also won the hearts of the locals by his after-match performance here. He responded to the crowd's request for South Sea songs. His melodious voice, which retained no exhaustion from the match, made him immensely popular with the New Zealanders.

The match attracted Hadlee's attention. Bula's fourth-innings brilliance had sparked an idea inside Hadlee. It was perhaps triggered by a six that cleared the grandstand roof of Lancester Park (a reasonable distance). He followed Bula's performances throughout the tour.

Bula had scored 1004 runs at 37.18 from 16 matches, first-class and otherwise, from the tour. It was a decent record, but not excellent; however, it must be remembered that Bula had often batted under situations where Fiji were facing a stiff fourth-innings target; to add to that Bula's batting involved a lot of risk and big hits, which prevented him from making huge scores.

Hadlee became keen on including Bula in the squad for New Zealand's 1949 tour of England. Along with Snow he ransacked the rule-books, which said that any cricketer was eligible to play for his country where first-class cricket was played (New Zealand in Bula's case) if no first-class cricket match had been played in the player's native country (Fiji in Bula's case).

The conditions made Bula eligible to play for New Zealand. However, the idea did not materialise since Hadlee thought that it would not go too well with the other cricketers (Bula was, after all, not a New Zealand resident), and Snow also added that Bula was, by nature, too homesick a person for a long tour.

The second New Zealand tour

Six years after their impressive performance in New Zealand, Fiji visited them again. Once again Bula sought out Canterbury to pull off his performance of the season. In an outrageous carnage that lasted for less than an hour Bula scored 102 with eight sixes, bringing Lancester Park to its feet.

Defeating the West Indians

West Indies broke their journey en route New Zealand for a single match at Fiji. The squad was a formidable one, but the management decided to rest some of the stars. Even then, the XI included the likes of Garry Sobers, Denis Atkinson, John Goddard, Frank King, Sonny Ramadhin, Alf Valentine, Collie Smith, and Clairmonte Depeiaza.

The Apted brothers (Harry and William) opened, but Atkinson soon accounted for the latter. The hosts also lost H Swann (caught Ramadhin bowled Valentine, no less) as Bula walked out to join Harry Apted. The partnership turned out to be crucial: Apted scored 33 and Bula 27 before Fiji were bowled out for a paltry 91.

Then the miracle happened. Asaeli Driu (four for 26) and Jack Gosling (six for 25) bowled unchanged, skittling out the illustrious tourists for 63 — three more than what Harry Apted and Bula had scored between them. West Indies crashed to a humiliating 28-run defeat.

Final days

Not a lot has been documented of Bula's last matches since they were not of first-class status. However, in a match against Suva at Albert Park, Bula made a whirlwind 59 where he "consistently batted the ball over the Kingsford Smith Pavilion and the Grand Pacific Hotel".

Towards the end of his career he toured New Zealand again, though none of the matches were given first-class status. In the match against Canterbury Bula plundered 118 in 82 balls with 22 fours and a six.

Bula's last recorded match was against King Country at Te Kuiti in 1967-68, where he scored 13. He was a spent force by then, but along with Harry Apted's, his performance was instrumental in Fiji being elected to ICC in 1965.

Post-retirement

A father of five daughters, Bula went on to become a clerk in the Native Lands Commission in Fiji; his profession involved entering names in the landowners' register (we can hope that these names do not include surnames to match his).

In 2005 Bula became the first cricketer to be inducted into Fiji's Hall of Fame (Harry Apted became the second, and so far last, in 2008).

For Bula playing cricket meant joy — something we are forgetting in a one-tracked mission to acquire fame and wealth and forgetting why sport was invented in the first place.

Today's cricket can really do with more of his kind.