Port Vila: Four of the game’s Pacific members begin their path to the USA and the West Indies for the 2024 T20 World Cup, via the East Asia-Pacific Qualifier A in Vanuatu.
The hosts welcome Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands in Port Vila for a double round-robin tournament, with the winner of the week-long tournament progressing to regional qualifiers next year.
Joining the Philippines, PNG and the winner of the B Qualifier from next month’s tournament in Japan, teams are effectively two steps from the tournament proper.
In a world first, the tournament is to be played on a hybrid pitch in Port Vila, emulating the ‘true’ feel of a turf wicket with a synthetic mix to keep a wicket together. The wicket comprises of Gabba turf from Brisbane, stitched together with synthetic grass as a substitute for a conventional turf wicket which would likely not hold withstand the city’s humid conditions. So close to the Pacific Ocean, the spot is also susceptible to damage from crabs and other wildlife.
Vanuatu come into the tournament as favourites, with the hosts fresh off their 50-over Challenge League leg in Canada. The side claimed victory over Malaysia on the trip, and sit fifth on the League A table of the competition.
In T20I circles, Vanuatu are ranked 47th on the ICC Rankings, with the other three teams yet to meet the minimum match threshold to enter the list. It would be remiss to rule out any of the challenging sides though, with all boasting individual talent to make a serious push.
The hosts welcome back captain Patrick Matautaava, who missed the Challenge League leg due to visa issues, though the all-rounder was forced to overcome a number of hurdles returning to his homeland for the upcoming Qualifier. Taking almost 90 hours to make his way back from Denmark where he was playing club cricket, Matautaava’s travel complications meant a redirected path to Vanuatu via Fiji, only reaching Port Vila with thanks to the same flight that carried the crew on the 2022 T20 World Cup Trophy Tour.
The Cook Islands, comprising roughly a half/half split of players either from the Islands or based in New Zealand, have prepared by playing an Auckland Maori side. The side tinkered in three hit outs, and come into the tournament quietly confident of making an impression.
New Zealand domestic player Ma’Ara Ave heads the Cook Islands side, and has played all three formats for Central Districts, though joins all his teammates as debutants in T20I cricket, with the tournament the first the side has competed with international status. The last international cricket of any kind for the men’s team was almost eight years ago at the ICC East Asia-Pacific Trophy in Lismore, well before the decision to award status to every Associate Member in 2018.
Fiji are a team also making their first T20I appearances with status at the tournament, with a handful of players graduating from the Under-19 team that historically qualified for the World Cup in 2016. Jone Wesele leads the team, and says the side’s focus is on its batting to give the bowling corps a score to defend.
Samoa do have T20I history to their name, by virtue of appearing at the 2019 Pacific Games cricket tournament on home soil, where they claimed a bronze medal, beating out New Caledonia. Matches against the New Caledonians didn’t go towards T20I stats, though matches against Vanuatu and the winners PNG did.
The Samoans were forced into a couple of late shuffles with skipper Sean Solia missing the tournament after finding his name on the New Zealand A squad list for their tour of India. Fast-bowler Jimmy Baker, well established on the New Zealand domestic scene, takes the reins with Dom Michael acting as deputy. Benjamin Mailata was another late withdrawal from the squad, and the side had no time to find a replacement.
Regardless of the late shuffles, the side still boasts individual quality. Australian fans may recognise former state and BBL cricketer Michael, who teams up with brother Andrew in the side, while there are wraps on young quick Caleb Jasmat, who returns from the UK after a stint for Marehay Cricket Club in the Derbyshire League.
Vanuatu take on Fiji in the first match on Friday morning local time, with Cook Islands meeting Samoa in the day one afternoon fixture.
All the matches are live and free to watch on ICC.tv.
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