Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara    Getty Images
Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara Getty Images

Not all nations have their cricket captains as Prime Ministers, but His Excellency The Right Honourable Ratu Sir Kamisese Kapaiwai Tuimacilai Mara, CF, GCMG, KBE, born May 13, 1920, fitted that bill. Mara toured New Zealand with a Fijian side and led Fiji to a famous win over West Indies. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a man often hailed as the Founding Father of Fiji.

Fijian paradise

Albert Park, Suva. The match against Fiji was supposed to be a cakewalk for Denis Atkinson s West Indians: what chance did the hosts have against a side that boasted of Everton Weekes (who did not play the match), John Goddard, Sonny Ramadhin, Alf Valentine, Clairmonte Depeiaza, Atkinson and those two talented youngsters called Collie Smith and Garry Sobers?

Leading the home side was one Kamisese Mara, who had been nominated to the Legislative Council the year before. This was one of the five seats reserved for ethnic Fijians (of the other 31, five were reserved for Indians and five for minorities, while the Colonial Governor would appoint the other 16).

As things turned out, Fiji folded quickly for 91. Opening batting with his brother, the wicketkeeper William, Harry Apted scored 33 of these. IL Bula, the man they called the Fijian Bradman, scored another 27, while one Patrick Raddock got 12.

Note: Ilikena Lasarusa Talebulamaineiilikenamainavaleniveivakabulaimainakulalakebalau thankfully had the sense to abbreviate his name to IL Bula. The name literally translates to returned alive from Nankula Hospital at Lakeba Island in the Lau Group , though the history behind the name is not very clear.

Batting at No. 8, Mara was caught off Smith for a duck. Things did not look good. It was a one-day, one-innings match, and the West Indians wanted to wrap things up as soon as possible.

Nobody gave Fiji a serious chance, especially after openers Hammond Furlonge and Alfred Binns scored 16 apiece. Mara opened bowling but took himself off after a while, inspired by a blinding flash of insight . The left-handed Asaeli Driu and the right-handed Jack Gosling then persisted, and once the openers fell, a collapse followed.

The Fijians took three brilliant catches in one over from Gosling, sending back Atkinson, Depeiaza, and Smith in one over. Then Fiji claimed the big wicket, for which it is only pertinent to quote Mara from The Pacific Way: A Memoir: One of the batsmen, on his first tour, smacked a delivery at full force towards Harry Swann a rather indifferent fielder who had been tucked away as far out of sight as possible. He very sensibly turned away, and the ball hit him with a resounding smack on his behind. Clutching at his injured part, he found the ball in his hand, and instead of a cry of pain, shouted How s that! Out it was, and that was that. The batsman was the great Garry Sobers later Sir Garfield Sobers.

West Indies were bowled out for 63, Driu taking 4 for 26 and Gosling 6 for 25. In typical style, Mara explained the probable causes of his side s historic win: They [West Indies] had been a fortnight at sea … Perhaps it is only fair to add that West Indies batted after a superb Fijian lunch … Fortunately for us, Weekes did not play … I am sorry they did not bat better, for I had seen them during their victorious tour of England and knew what the spectators had missed, and so on.

Of course, there were celebrations that went way into the night: they danced the meke and drank vagona, for under Kamisese Mara Fiji had managed to pull off the unthinkable.

Of willow and leather

Kamisese Kapaiwai Tuimacilai Mara, to give his full name, could be genuinely quick, sending them down from an imposing frame of 6 feet 5 inches. Writing for Wisden, however, Philip Snow referred to him as the fastest Fijian of the era.

His 13 recorded matches fetched him 42 wickets at 18.11, though only 2 of these (both on Fiji s New Zealand tour of 1953-54, where he was vice-captain to Raddock) were given First-Class status. He also averaged 14.38 with bat, and could hit the ball extremely hard a trait he had perhaps inherited from his father. Snow later told that Mara s father hit him for the highest six he had seen vanishing into the sky to descend vertically into a 70-foot coconut palm s crown .

Fijian cricket was in a curious state when Philip Snow (brother of CP Snow) first arrived in the country from Leicestershire, in 1938. Snow would play a significant role in Fijian cricket, holding posts as administrator for the next 58 years.

Of course, cricket was already there (often played in sulu and barefoot), but it was ruled mostly by quotas. There were three distinct divisions, the Fijians, the Indians, and the others. Snow changed all that (he had the authority: Fiji gained Independence in 1970). Despite much opposition, Snow founded the Suva Cricket Association, the first multiracial sporting body. Things changed.

By 1939 the Central Medical Samoan side consisted of (to quote Snow from Wisden) three Tongans, two British Samoans, a Rotuman, three Gilbertese, an Ellice Islander, two Solomon Islanders and five Fijians including our hero, Kamisese Mara. As was expected, they defeated every team in the nation.

Note: Rotuma is a Fijian island, while Gilbertese is a term used to refer to inhabitants of Kiribati.

Mara, eldest of 16 children of Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba III, went to Queen Victoria School and later to Marist Brothers High School and Lau Provincial School the school that also produced Bula.

Ratu Edward Cakobau, Mara s headmaster at Lau Provincial, was good enough to play a Plunket Shield match for Auckland. Mara admitted that we all tried to emulate him [Cakobau], not only in cricket, rugby, and boxing, but also in style.

Note: For the uninitiated, the word Ratu means chief . It is a title held by Fijian nobility, and is often hereditary.

Mara later went to Sacred Heart College, Auckland before studying medicine at University of Otago. An excellent high jumper who specialised in the Western Roll, he even ended up breaking the New Zealand Universities record. But more importantly, he also played cricket.

Mara was selected to play for Otago, in a Second-Class match against Southland. Sent to open, he decided to curb his natural aggressive instinct. The result was not to his liking: When the first ball came, I watched it very carefully as it pitched on the leg, and I continued to follow it with a watchful eye as it passed my bat and hit my off-stump. He was relegated to 12th man in Otago s next match, against Canterbury. He did not play for Otago again, though by this time he had developed a bond with Walter Hadlee.

Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, Mara s great-uncle and supreme chieftain of Fiji, had by then marked Mara as his successor. Mara was pulled out of medical studies and sent to England, where he studied history at Wadham College, Oxford till 1949. This meant that he missed out on Fiji s New Zealand tour of 1947-48 but then, there are sacrifices potential founding fathers of nations need to make.

He found a mention in The Weekly News (Otago) just before he left for Oxford: Since he went to the Otago Universities in 1942, this tall, lithe Fijian has been one of the leading field athletes in his province … This year he cleared 6ft in the high jump … He was a promising fast bowler and hard-hitting batsman at cricket.

Mara pursued both cricket and athletics in Oxford. Unfortunately, a knee operation deprived him of both blues. However, he played for Oxford Authentics, for whom he wreaked havoc. Cutting down on pace, he still managed to take 41 wickets at an astonishing 7.61.

There was cricket once he returned home, the highest point of which was the 1953-54 tour of New Zealand. Mara took 4 for 23 against Poverty Bay, 2 for 21 and 3 for 16 against Rangitikei, and 3 for 15 and 4 for 29 against Marlborough in consecutive matches.

Then came the First-Class debut, against his old team Otago. Fiji were bowled out for 206, but with 4 for 77 Mara made sure he kept the lead to 45. Then Fiji got to 240, leaving Otago to score 196.

The Fijians put up a valiant effort. Mara (3 for 57) and leg-spinner Maurice Fenn (5 for 64) reduced Otago to 162 for 8. They bowled 55.2 of the 71.2 overs, but could not prevent captain Lankford Smith and Frank Cameron (a Test cricketer) to pull off a 2-wicket win.

His other First-Class match was against Canterbury. Here he walked out at 179 for 6 and smashed 44, taking Fiji to 238. He also took a wicket with his first over but did not bowl anymore. Fiji lost again, this time by 2 wickets as well.

Mara did not play another match on the tour, finishing with 35 wickets at an excellent average of 16.31.

The other innings

While he sacrificed on cricket, Ratu Mara had somewhat bigger things to take care of. He rose swiftly through the ranks: in 1959 he was appointed to the Executive Council of Fiji; five years later he became a part of the Great Council of Chiefs; and when UK introduced the Westminster Cabinet system in Fiji in 1967, Mara was appointed their first Chief Minister.

But the greatest moment came when Mara was appointed Fiji s first Prime Minister after Fiji became independent on October 10, 1970 a post he held till he was displaced by Dr Timoci Bavadra in 1987 following two military coups. The newly formed government fell in a month s time, and Mara was reappointed later that year.

Mara was elected as one of two Vice-Presidents when Fiji became a republic in 1992; when Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, the first President, made himself unavailable due to ailments, Ratu Mara stepped in as acting President; he became Fiji s second President when Ganilau passed away in 1994.

The 2000 coup d tat and beyond

On May 19, 2000, one George Speight made his way inside the Parliament and kidnapped several parliamentarians including Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, holding them hostage for 56 days. Speight announced himself Prime Minister and asked Ratu Mara to resign as President. He resigned ten days later.

Speight, arrested on July 27, was charged with treason: he is currently serving life imprisonment. On November 15 the Fijian Supreme Court ordered Mara be reinstated as President, but Mara made it clear that he did not want a comeback.

Ratu Mara spent his last days at Lakeba. He remained a member of the Great Council of Chiefs. He passed away at Suva Private Hospital on April 18, 2004. He was 83. The three-day funeral was attended by an estimate of two hundred thousand people.

Independent Fiji remembers Ratu Mara as her Founding Father.