Kilikiti in Auckland: not much different from our sport, eh? © Getty Images
Kilikiti in Auckland: not much different from our sport, eh? © Getty Images

It never got the glamour of baseball, but kilikiti (also called kirikiti or kilikihi or kirikihi), has more in common with cricket. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at Samoa’s national sport that is probably as popular in Polynesia as the sport we love so much.

There are two sides, usually consisting of equal numbers. There is a strip, sometimes a cleared patch, sometimes even made of concrete, at the centre of the ground. They call it the pitch. A bowler hurls the ball from one end to the batsman, who is protecting his wicket. Prowling behind the wicket is a wicket-keeper. Scattered across the ground are the fielders, running, yelling, sledging.

The match proceeds on the sun-baked Polynesian islands. Batsmen hit and run. Bowlers keep hurling. They celebrate once stumps are shattered or a fielder pulls off a catch or a run out. And in the end, the team that has scored more runs almost always wins.

And yet, this is not cricket. This is a sport that starts with a mandatory prayer before or after the toss.

Welcome to kilikiti (or, as some insist, kirikiti, or even kilikihi), cricket’s nearest relative. It is almost cricket, and yet it refuses to be cricket. Cricket, for example, has two bowlers operating, one from each end. Kilikiti involves two wicketkeepers as well, one from each end.

There is a catch here: if a batsman misses a ball, the wicketkeeper catches it, and immediately bowls at the batsman at the other end. This means that the batsman has to be on his toes on a perpetual basis. Of course, “if the batsman is a bit fat he can appoint a fitter man to run for him,” as Nick Squires of BBC found out from an Apelu Meneua of Tuvalu.

The name, of course, has its root in cricket. Rod Curtis wrote in The Age: “Over the years, ‘cricket’ has become ‘kilikiti’, which, if you drink seven coconut shells filled with kava root juice and say it quickly, sounds like cricket anyway. Because you can’t actually move your tongue.”

Pate, the bat, is different, with a triangular cross-section. It can be up to a metre in length, and are brightly coloured (the batsman usually owns the pate, and uses the colour of his choice). The stumps are “chest-high”. A kilikiti player typically wears a lava-lava (which is different from the Fijian sulu and has more in common with the Indian lungi).

The ball is made of extremely durable rubber wrapped in pandanus. The Wikipedia definition runs thus: “Pandanus is a genus of monocots. They are palm-like, dioecious trees and shrubs native to the Old World tropics and subtropics.”

The concept of a boundary is rare, due to the incredible number of fielders (we will come to that later). Some matches even do not involve boundaries, while others award two (baseball, anyone?) to batsmen who can clear defined boundaries.

One must remember here that in the matches that do not involve boundaries, the ball can go anywhere — from a treetop to a water body to a bedroom. In an interview with ESPNCricinfo Mark Greatbatch attributed Ross Taylor’s big-hitting ability to his kilikiti days. Taylor’s mother is Samoan.

But kilikiti is simply not cricket with a twist. The biggest difference lies in the mood in which the sport is played. Kilikiti is usually a village versus village affair. There is no restriction on the number of fielders, and neither is there any on the gender or age of cricketers. Do not be surprised if you see a 70-year old man bowls to a girl of 12 who can barely hold on to her kilikiti pate.

Most significantly, kilikiti is about fun. When a village visits another, the onus is on the host to provide with the food. There have been instances (mentioned by Charlie Connelly in Elk Stopped Play) where the hosts have forfeited matches because they could not arrange for sufficient food. Having said that, kilikiti exists in professional form as well.

A sketch depicting kirikiti in Fiji on Illustrated London News, June 15, 1922. Photo Courtesy: Amazon.
A sketch depicting kirikiti in Fiji on Illustrated London News, June 15, 1922. Photo Courtesy: Amazon.

Lape and Faiaoga

Kilikiti also involves the lape, a local word for cheerleaders. Unlike most other sports, the lape can belong to two categories. The first group sings and dances to support their batsmen. Once their side is bowled out, the other group takes over, ridiculing the outgoing opposition batsman after every dismissal.

Sledging, of course, is a part of most sports, but seldom is there a designated sledging leader for a team. The faiaoga carries a whistle. While the usual sledging goes on while a batsman is at the crease, every dismissal is celebrated with the faiaoga following the batsman, playing his whistle, his teammates mocking the batsman with all sorts of movements and dances, often in tandem with the lape.

History and geography

The early days of kilikiti are somewhat shrouded in obscurity. Some credit the earliest English settlers in the Polynesian Islands. Some credit London Missionary Society. However, it is unanimously accepted that the sport was introduced in Polynesia by the Englishmen some time during the 1800s.

The locals — in Samoa and Cook Islands and elsewhere — caught on to the great sport and moulded it their way. Unlike Australia and New Zealand (and even Fiji and Papua New Guinea), the smaller Polynesian islands gave the sport a distinct local tang.

Kilikiti seems to have spread almost simultaneously in multiple islands. Pukapuka in Cook Islands is certainly one of the earliest places where the sport was adopted. One must remember that  almost the entire population of Pukapuka, named Dangerous Islands (the reefs make it not the most navigable of options) was  wiped away by a cyclone over four centuries back, leaving behind 15 men and two women, which meant that relationships are not quite conventional. Despite the inaccessibility, Pukapuka caught up with cricket earlier than most, and kilikiti spread like wildfire.

Let us pause for a moment here. The spreading of anything in Cook Islands is not as simple as one thinks. Though the area is a mere 259 square kilometres, the 15 islands span about 1.8 million square kilometres on the Pacific: it was nigh-impossible for people of one island to convey or preach something to another.

This was where the Pukapukans came in. As Connelly claims, all great Cook Islands kilikiti players have been of Pukapukan descent (remember, they have exactly two female ancestors, which probably speaks a lot about genetics).

If Pukapuka is the home of kilikiti, no country has embraced the sport more than Samoa (and American Samoa), where it is the national sport. Kilikiti had started in Samoa in 1884. William B Churchwood, then British Consul of Samoa, wrote: “The village of Apia Samoa was seized with a most frantic desire to fathom the mysteries of the game, and to become proficient in its practice.”

This was a curious incident, for Samoans did not take to cricket despite Churchwood’s efforts from 1881 to 1883. The Guardian cites the fierce rivalry with Tonga as a reason: since Tongans had taken to cricket somewhat seriously, Samoans had to come up with alternative to prove they were superior.

CHB Pridham gave an excellent description of 19th-century Samoan kilikiti in The Charm of Cricket Past and Present: “The wicketkeeper stands close to the wicket, which consists of three rods fixed close together without bails, with about four long-stops behind him. Then come the batsmen — six of them (three for each end — one to bat and the other two to act as running relays). The bowling is all throwing — very hard and straight. The striker tries to make every ball into a full-pitch, and hits his hardest at everything with no idea of defensive play. The pitch is about twenty yards long. The scorers use a pin and a banana leaf. Barracking is not of the Australian model, but consists of pious invocations of the Deity.”

The New Zealand Kilikiti Association, Inc. (NZKA) website wrote of the early days of Samoan kilikiti: “With historical warfare amongst the villages disappearing from the local ‘activities’, kilikiti seemed a good replacement for village rivalry. In those early days in Samoa games often lasted several days and just like today’s youth anything to get out of ‘chores’ was just the excuse needed as all the village men and women would take part in the games.”

The Samoans took things a bit too far. When Samoa was a German protectorate (1900 — 1914) they had to order a village pule nu’u (mayor) to stop the sport, for the Samoan youth were ignoring their “tasks” like doing dishes and mowing lawns.

A kilikiti fielder in Tokelau. Apart from being a fielder, this man plays the biscuit tin with drumsticks once a batsman is dismissed. Photo Courtesy: Judith Huntsman
A kilikiti fielder in Tokelau. Apart from being a fielder, this man plays the biscuit tin with drumsticks once a batsman is dismissed. Photo Courtesy: Judith Huntsman

Wisden mentions that Samoan kilikiti is under constant threat from “wild women” (nothing erotic about them: they are the local name for cyclones), when the main ground in Apia, the capital, is used as a relief base. It also receives tough competition from what the locals refer to as “English cricket”.

Nowhere is Kilikiti played as seriously as in Samoa. The Samoan professionals were usually paid their canoe fare along with the traditional mats (besides being expensive, these are also objects of great honour). Some players spent months at the same place, acting as mercenaries from village to village. It is rumoured that at one time they even married in every village!

However, the most spectacular feature of Samoan kilikiti has to be the pate, which can measure to over four feet (1.22 metres): Mohammad Irfan, where are you?

Sir Arthur Francis Grimble had captained Chigwell School and Magdalene College in cricket. He had once played for MCC against Hertfordshire, scoring a mere 2. He joined the Colonial Office, spent a significant part of his life in Kiribati, learnt Gilbertese (the local language, for Kiribati was a local take on the surname of Captain Thomas Gilbert).

He also penned down the excellent A Pattern of Islands (certainly a recommended read). Here is a passage: “The marching crowd paraded around the village of its chosen enemies with taunts and brandished pates until these emerged to accept the challenge.”

Grimble also mentions a conversation with an elder of the Sun Clan: “We old men take joy in watching the kirikiti of our grandsons, because it is a fighting between factions which makes the fighters love each other.” Grimble added: “I doubt if anyone of more sophisticated culture has ever summed up the spiritual value of cricket in more telling words than him.”

In Tokelau: A Historical Ethnography, Judith Huntsman and Antony Hooper wrote: “There is an open space [in every Tokelau village] known everywhere as te melae kilikiti (the cricket field) for Tokelau’s favourite community sport. In both Atafu and Fakaofo the concrete pitch is set roughly in the centre of an open area right within the village with the field of play extending beyond obstructions like houses, churches and trees to the surrounding reef and lagoon waters.”

The book also mentions the etymology of the word melae: “[It is] a word which was used for sacred precincts in pre-European times. A game of kilikiti is referred to as a taua (battle, war) and a player is not ‘out’ but mate (dead)”.

Barring Cook Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Kiribati, and Tokelau, the sport has also spread to Tuvalu, Tonga, New Caledonia, Niue, Solomon Islands, and more. Expatriates have carried the sport to New Zealand and Australia, and even to Hawaii.

The NZKA revolution: new rules, and more

NZKA was established in 1998. An annual tournament, Supercific Kilikiti, was started in 1998-99 with Waitakere Athletic Sports Stadium, Henderson (later Waitakere Douglas Sports Field) as the home ground. Unfortunately, after the first five seasons the ground was closed for renovation, and NZKA could use it only from 2010-11.

NZKA played a stellar role in forming the first organised rules of the sport. They gave kilikiti a bigger stage on March 3, 2000 when a 30-minute kilikiti exhibition match was played during the dinner interval of a One-Day International (ODI) between Australia and New Zealand at Eden Park.

NZKA also introduced the concept of separate teams for men and women. Some may argue this took a lot of charm out of kilikiti, but it was probably essential for the sport to rise to the next level. They also defined the dimensions of a kilikiti ground.

Kilikiti Grounds dimensions, as defined by NZKA. Photo Courtesy: NZKA website
Kilikiti Grounds dimensions, as defined by NZKA. Photo Courtesy: NZKA website

The attire was also restricted: though the lava-lava remained, one cannot play with a bare torso anymore. “Normal shoes or gym shoes with socks” are allowed (but optional, for many still play barefoot). Additionally, fours and sixes were introduced.

Drugs were not tolerated, and a NZ$500 fine was imposed on anyone taking field under influence of alcohol. That may sound normal, but there is more to the rule: “If the player is unable to pay the team shall be held responsible for this payment. The player shall not be able to take part in any future tournament / match organised by the NZKA until payment is made in full. The team shall be suspended from further participation in tournaments / matches if after two weeks the fine still remains unpaid.”

Most significantly, NZKA introduced Kilikiti World Cup.

World Cups

The inaugural Kilikiti World Cup, organised by NZKA, was hosted by New Zealand in 2001. Thanks to Xpresstrac, there was $10,000 at stake. The matches were played at Waitakere Athletic Sports Stadium over a seven-day-span.

For once, there had to be rules in place: the matches were 20-a-side, and the first team could bat for 30 minutes or be bowled out, whichever happened earlier. The second team would have exactly the same number of balls faced by the first team to chase down the target. LBWs were also included.

Barring New Zealand KBlacks (the hosts), the other teams were America Samoa Chiefs, Australia AussieRoos, Cook Islands All Stars, Niue Rock, Tokelau Hurricanes, and USA Hollywood Boys. The smaller nations like Niue and Tokelau, which have a significant proportion of their population based in New Zealand, allowed the expatriates in their time.

Despite the enthusiasm and expertise of the old days, Cook Islands finished last in the World Cup. Niue came sixth, Tokelau fifth, USA fourth, and Australia third, which meant that American Samoa faced New Zealand in the best-of-three final. New Zealand and American Samoa were tied 1-1 after the first two matches.

New Zealand raced to 106 from the 72 balls they faced, and American Samoa were bowled out in 64 balls. Keti Sannrivi of New Zealand was named the most valuable player.

Two years later Parrs Park, West Coast Road, Glen Eden hosted the second World Cup, for Waitakere Stadium was being renovated. This time Samoa Pusiula participated instead of the American Samoans, while Tuvalu 9 Tribes became an eighth team. New Zealand flattened Australia 3-0 in the final to retain the title.

In between the two World Cups, NZKA also organised a five-nation (under floodlights, too!) championship at Hutt Recreation Ground. The hosts competed with Australia, Tokelau, Niue, and Cook Islands.

What does the future hold?

New Zealand, of course, have been working tirelessly towards the improvement of kilikiti. The Auckland Cricket Kilikiti Big Bash has become an annual affair, though the fours and sixes give contemporary kilikiti the feel of cricket (read Twenty20).

Unfortunately, Kilikiti Samoa President Lemauga Fa’amotu Fiso (an active player at 69), is not happy with the state of the sport in the country. Even at 67 he led Tosua, Lotofaga. Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, Samoan Prime Minister, has expressed that kilikiti is not essential for the development of Samoa. He preferred cricket to kilikiti.

“That is the Prime Minister’s opinion. What we know is that our families living in New Zealand and Australia have developed networks with other people through the game of kilikiti. Kilikiti is for any age. It is for the enjoyment of women and men. It shouldn’t be a thing of the past but something for us to hold on to for the future and appreciate,” Fiso told in an interview with Samoa Observer. He also found support in Lua Solo, captain of Posiulai.

Though kilikiti continues to be the national sport, the last tournament was organised in 2006. The death-knell came in 2009, when the tournament was replaced by a cricket fixture.

The Samoan expatriates in Melbourne, however, are making a conscious effort in keeping the sport alive. Tapa Taliki, a member of Hume Boys Kilikiti Team, told ABC: “We just want to make sure that the Samoan kilikiti is always alive, especially for the old people who have a vast knowledge of the game to pass it down to the young generations because it’s a national game, and it’s a cultural game in Samoa. It’s very important for everyone to keep on playing and keep on passing the knowledge, even if we are living in New Zealand or Australia or any other country in the world.”

Maybe there is still hope.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)