Ross Taylor played his last game for the Black Caps against Bangladesh in January, after a stellar 16-year career on the world stage — but there was a noticeable absence of Pasifika cheering for this world-class Pacific sportsman, writes James Nokise.
He’s here to put that right.
Most Sāmoans in New Zealand play cricket. It’s one of our favourite games. The whole family gets involved, and there’s a fun community spirit. We just don’t necessarily play English cricket. We play kilikiti, Sāmoan cricket.
Kilikiti is what happens when Indigenous people remix a colonial sport so that it makes sense. Why would anyone stand around in long clothes, pads and a helmet in 30-degree heat and 80 percent humidity? Why bowl a hard leather ball that can maim someone when a rubber ball bounces better and hurts less? Why have wooden wickets that fall apart, when large metal ones don’t break and make a clearer noise? And why cheer and politely clap at someone getting out when your whole team can do a choreographed dance?
Frankly, the Pacific version of cricket is such a better spectator sport that it’s easy to see how another country (looking at you, England) might be “inspired” to use the best parts of it for the popular 20/20 version that revolutionised the international game.
Very, very few Sāmoans have played English cricket at a professional level. There are a lot of reasons for this: social, economic, and sometimes political. But the question of aptitude — and if you grew up in Australia and New Zealand in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was that question — has long been laid to rest, primarily (but not solely) because of one man.
That’s Ross Taylor.
We need to talk more about Ross Taylor. Or, more precisely, Pasifika need to start talking about Luteru Ross Poutoa Lote Taylor.
In this time of decolonisation, when Aotearoa’s Pacific diaspora seeks to uplift examples of brown excellence, here is a man who took the most colonial of the British Empire’s games, mastered it, and displayed examples of dominance that, had he been a rugby player, would have had him in countless Powerade and Weetbix commercials.
He’s still made millions of dollars, though, and played to millions of fans. A lot of that has been done overseas. But while playing at home, he’s been consistently one of the best in the world.
When he finally hung up his Black Cap in January, it wasn’t just the end of one of the greatest New Zealand sporting careers, but also one of the greatest Pacific sporting careers of all time.
If that seems like hyperbole, then consider that Keven Mealamu was an All Black for 13 years, Michael Jones played international rugby for 12 years, and Steven Adams is currently nine years into his NBA Career.
Luteru, known to teammates as “Rosco”, played cricket for New Zealand for 16 years. He scored 18,173 runs for New Zealand, hit 40 centuries and 93 half centuries for New Zealand, took 348 catches (third all-time best in the world) for New Zealand, and bowled three very unexpected wickets, including the very last one of his final match against Bangladesh in January.
A video of his one-day international 181 not-out against England should be in the Pacific section of Te Papa with the title: “That’s what you get!”
He leaves the game with many records, much respect, but perhaps a slightly underwhelming amount of acclaim.
By general consensus, the five greatest cricket players in New Zealand history are Bert Sutcliffe, Richard Hadlee, Martin Crowe, Daniel Vettori, and Kane Williamson. If you were to pick a top New Zealand test cricket XI of all time, these five are a shoo-in.
The next six gets a bit complicated and is really where fans of the sport will argue the most. These are the kind of intense discussions — of absolutely no interest to non-fans — that fill the time between sparse moments of interest in test cricket.
What may surprise some is that, for all his achievements, Luteru isn’t always part of those conversations. He has the talent, and the numbers, for sure. Martin Crowe was his mentor, and his partnerships with Williamson were the foundation on which the Black Caps built their current success. So, what’s the issue?
It surely can’t be about race because cricket is a world game. India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and the West Indies have produced absolute titans of the sport. Then again, there’s being brown in the rest of the world — and being brown in Aotearoa. You don’t have to be a cricket player to know the loneliness of being one of the few non-white faces in a New Zealand room.
To be fair, many cricket fans did trumpet his retirement. Cricket is much more multicultural at the grassroots levels than higher up.
What was noticeable, though, was an absence of Pasifika cheering.
This is one of the world’s top Pacific athletes, retiring after a long career, and our people reacted like he’d got four School C passes. Not even five. He comes from Masterton, second only to Tokoroa as a rural ‘Nesian hub, and he’s given back to that community and to his people back in Sāmoa. He just doesn’t talk about it, because he’s quiet and humble and his mother raised him right.
Perhaps no feat, or its lack of fanfare at home, sums up the underwhelming appreciation for Luteru than his highest test cricket score of 290. It is the third highest score in New Zealand history and the highest score by a New Zealand batsman overseas.
He accomplished this in Perth in 2015 against our great cricketing nemesis of Australia. And, to this day, Luteru’s 290 remains the highest score by any overseas batsman against Australia in Australia.
The WACA (Western Australia Cricket Ground), where he accomplished this milestone, was at the time a world-renowned fast, baking-hot pitch, perfect for an Australian pace bowling attack.
“You can be quite frightening there as a bowling unit,” says Mitchell Johnson, the Australian cricket legend whose demolition of the English and South African cricket teams over the summer of 2014 made him a cult hero within the sport.
As is the antipodean way, Mitchell and I had been introduced by a mutual friend a few weeks after Ross Taylor’s retirement. That 2015 Perth test was also his last match, so I asked him to put Luteru’s achievement in context.
“When I first played at the WACA,” he told me, “you had cracks all the way down it, so, as a batsman, there’s always that fear when you go there. And as a bowler, you’re always really excited.”
The Australian attack that Ross Taylor faced included Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood and Nathan Lyon, a world champion quartet. Johnson, Starc, and Hazelwood were all capable of bowling over 150kph. On day three of the test, Starc sent down a terrifying 160kph delivery, one of the fastest balls ever bowled.
“It can be a pretty scary place for a batsman. Very intimidating. And, also, the crowd as well. I mean, they are very vocal there and very much behind their team — and I think they serve full-strength beer there, or they used to anyway. When it’s a very hot day, it gets up to 40 degrees there, and it can get quite vocal later in the day. So there’s always that intimidation factor of the WACA.”
Perth heat is not like anything in New Zealand. It is a dry, hammering, heavy layer that sits on a person like a blanket as soon as they leave the safety of an air-conditioned building. Ross Taylor stood out in that heat, fully dressed in cricket whites and pads, for a total of almost nine and a half hours.
“He played a lot of straight drives in that match that were pretty good to watch, actually. You’d bowl a really good ball and it’s like he just drove you down the ground. It wasn’t big foot movement — it was just the hand-eye coordination that he had.”
When he finally succumbed, it was as much due to his own fatigue as anything else. The shot he got out to was his trademark slog-sweep — and that particular shot is an interesting one for a Sāmoan from New Zealand to use, because it’s straight out of kilikiti.
With respect to his Masterton batting coach, Dermot Payton, and Ross Taylor’s own background in hockey, when Luteru swings low and wide to launch a ball for six, he might as well be channelling one of his aunties from Saoluafata.
“He was a competitor, that’s for sure, but he always had a smile on his face and enjoyed playing the game,” recalls Johnson. “You could never faze him. I tried to sledge him a few times, tried to rile him up a little bit, tried to take him off his game. But he was always a good spirit.”
Which makes perfect sense, because international sports sledging has nothing on the banter of Pacific kids from the Wairarapa.
“And off the field, he was just a genuine good bloke. Easy to sit around and have a chat to, and always interested in you as a person when you sat with him. He wasn’t about anything else.”
Luteru Ross Taylor was the first and still only Pacific captain of the New Zealand cricket team, and his tenure is the only controversy of his whole career. There’s no drugs, no boozy partying, no weird political statements, or random assault charges. He got fired in a badly-handled, embarrassing way, which is a very Pacific experience in Aotearoa.
But he did his country, and his community, proud. For 16 years, when the Black Caps took the field, when New Zealand co-hosted the Cricket World Cup, when they finally became the top test-playing team in the world, Pacific people could point at the bro in the number 3 jersey and tell our mates: “Hey, that’s my cousin! Honest!”
When we speak of our great sporting legends like Michael, Jonah, Tana, Beatrice, Bernice, Val, and Steven, let’s not forget Masterton’s favourite son.
James Nokise (Sāmoan, Welsh) is an award-winning stand-up comedian and writer. He was nominated for the Billy T Award in 2005 and 2006 and won the Fred Award for best New Zealand show for God Damn Fancy Man in 2019. His TV and theatre writing credits include Pulp Comedy, 7 Days, 7 Days of Sport, and Wellington’s most popular satire theatre series, Public Service Announcements, which he created.
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