No gear, no worries for budding cricket stars

At the indoor cricket centre in Papatoetoe, nine girls from Holy Cross Catholic School are chattering, laughing and slamming balls into the white netting.

They are young - 11 and 12 years old – but tall, with long ponytails swinging lazily as they run. 

It’s the day before the Auckland intermediate girls cricket championships, where they will defend the title they won last year. When they took everyone by surprise.

These girls don’t own their own cricket bats, pads, gloves or helmets. Last year they were given second-hand spiked shoes from the White Ferns to wear at the nationals in Christchurch, where they finished runners-up. Most had never been on a plane before.

But what these girls do have, in spades, is raw talent,  a natural eye - and a coach who they can relate to.

Regina Lili’i, who isn’t much taller than these girls, is leading them through a final training. They listen to Lili’i because they know she’s been in their shoes. “And she knows what she’s talking about,” says Holy Cross team member Reikura Boyd.

Lili’i is the captain of both the Samoan women’s and the New Zealand indoor women’s cricket teams. The 32-year-old is also a rock in the Auckland Hearts side.

Born in Apia, she grew up not far from here, and went to Nga Iwi School in Mangere. The youngest of eight siblings, she started playing cricket in the backyard with her brother when she was 10, and had to play in the boys team at school.

Lili’i remembers being embarrassed when she first turned up to play for the Auckland under-17 girls team, not knowing she had to wear cricket whites. “I was the only girl playing in shorts,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t meant to be there.”

She remembers the girls from private schools who had their own gear bags.

“I would turn up without any gear, and I wouldn’t have my parents come and watch me, because they were busy with the other kids and work. My sisters were dropping me off and picking me up,” she says.

But she kept turning up. Because even though at first she felt she might not belong, she wanted to prove she was as good as any of the others. Because she loved cricket just as much, or maybe more, than they did.

Today, she wants these girls to know that they do belong, and that they can make a valid career in sport. 

“There are so many talented young Pacific Island and Maori girls, who just don’t get the support to play cricket. It’s about letting them know that not owning any gear is not a barrier to playing the sport. And I also want them to understand that there are pretty cool pathways now for girls to make a career from cricket.”

Just as she has. 

A tough sport to love

Cricket is a hard game to learn to love, Lili’i admits. “There’s a lot of standing around when you’re a kid. And it’s so technical, which makes it a hard game to grasp. So it’s good to see glimpses of these girls’ enjoyment when they’re out there.”

Lili’i’s passion for cricket was sparked by one of her brothers in their south Auckland backyard. She remembers summers lying on her bed, listening to test and one-dayers on a transistor radio and writing down the scores.

At Marcellin College, she “scrambled together” a girls’ cricket team with her sister and cousin. “The coach took the three of us to an Auckland under-17 trial and we all made the team,” she says. She was the only one to continue playing after the first season.

“I wanted it badly enough to keep going. Even when I felt out of place, I wanted to prove myself, that I was just as good as anyone else.”

She calls herself a late bloomer, first making the Auckland Hearts side at 25. A right-handed batter and medium-pace bowler, she’s also a talented fielder.

Last year she led the New Zealand indoor cricket team at the world championships in Dubai, where they finished third (Australia has won the world title every year since it began in 1998).

Next year is a big year for Samoan cricket, Lili'i says, with the East Asia Pacific tournament and the South Pacific Games at home. 

Lili’i had never thought she could make a living from cricket. She spent six years working in billing operations for a large corporate: “And I remember staring out the window thinking 'what I am doing? This isn’t me'."

So she took a break and spent a year living in Japan, playing and coaching cricket, and taking on the odd nannying or publishing job. “When I came back, I knew I didn’t want to sit behind a desk again,” she says.

That’s when her local Papatoetoe cricket club took her on as their premier women’s coach, and head of a programme to get more young girls playing cricket.

Lili’i works in schools across south Auckland, the likes of Alfriston College, McAuley and Papatoetoe high schools. Four of her team-mates from the Samoan women’s national team come out to New Zealand each summer, and help her work with the girls.

Regina Lili'i runs through a final training session with the Holy Cross School cricket team before they play at the Auckland intermediate champs. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

In a couple of weeks, Lili’i is holding a tournament – six-a-side with soft balls - for south Auckland’s intermediate and high school girls.

“I’m really enjoying trying to build a girls cricket community and watching them progress,” she says. “There’s really good talent out here, but it’s raw.”

Her under-15 Papatoetoe team, who finished first equal in their grade last season, were chosen to meet the White Ferns, presenting the players with pounamu before they left for the World T20Is in the West Indies. As part of an ANZ grassroots cricket programme, “On Your Team”, they also received a new team kit and playing gear.

“[Getting new gear] means so much to them, and it has a significant impact on team morale,” Lili’i says.

For White Ferns record-breaker Suzie Bates, meeting the young Papatoetoe players made her "realise why we play the game, and essentially what it’s all about".

Fending off outside pressures

The Holy Cross girls again made the final of this year’s Auckland intermediate schools championships, but this time lost to Remuera Intermediate. “The girls still enjoyed themselves, and we’ll be back next year,” Lili’i says.

Keeping the girls enjoying cricket is Lili’i’s main challenge. Most of them play a number of sports – rugby and netball in winter; tag, touch and softball in summer.

Holy Cross are lucky – their school has a van to take them to games. Transport can be the deciding factor in whether a school turns up to a competition.

Reikura Boyd, who was part last year's team who finished second to Christchurch decile 9 school Heaton Normal at the national intermediate champs, isn’t sure whether she will continue to play cricket at high school next year. It's a toss-up with softball and netball.

“But I really like the team-work in cricket. Being part of a team, always talking on the field and supporting each other,” she says.

Lili’i will keep encouraging those girls. She’s expanding her leadership through Aktive’s HERA – Everyday Goddess project, which aims to empower 10-18 year old girls to be active. She’s been to leadership workshops and had coach developer training so she can help other women cricket coaches in south Auckland.

“HERA has helped a lot with funding our coaching through schools, especially for young girls in the Samoan and Indian communities,” she says.

“It’s about trying to get these girls active. There’s too much technology and naughty food around; they’re not outside playing backyard cricket like I used to do. It’s about educating the parents, too. It’s unlikely they’ll support it, if they’re not active or don’t understand what pathways sports provide for girls now.”

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