On a chilly spring September morning we departed Auckland International Airport for a week of 31 degrees - which many sladoleds later we would gratefully learn was the cool season in Apia - to encounter our toughest opponents yet.
Several of our players hadn't met each other before and it was a pleasure to reacquaint ourselves with our youngster Danyn Stewart [below] who flew in from Brisbane to join us.
Thankfully our hosts were charmed by our eagerness to adopt the local customs and it was a genuine pleasure for us to finally meet in person Stella, Geoffrey and all the people that make Samoa International Cricket tick over an outdoor BBQ on a balmy evening by the field.
The match was a morning T20 and this would be out first experience of playing on the number one ground at Tuanaimato Sports Complex, the main home of cricket on the island of Upolu with a stunning backdrop of rainforested hills and a historic church.
With Daniel Marsic making his NZ Croatia captaincy debut in this match, we agreed to bat first and put a total of 221 on the tins. All our braca got a start with first drop James Banicevich leading the way with 36 off 23 before Christy O'Brien (33 off 21) and NZ Indoor rep Stacy Hyndman (65 off 22, below) took control with some spirited boundary hunting in the latter half of our innings.
Christy O'Brien [below] was meanwhile our designated keeper and soon took the first of his many grabs on tour, and a stumping off Ryan Majstrovic.
After dismissing Samoa Women inside the allotted overs, we invited Samoa Women to keep batting through and then broke into a two-hour coaching session led by Reece, Dan Marsic, Christy and Hayden Robinson who are all NZC certified coaches, providing drills, observations and a net in the late afternoon heat. Two key areas had been identified accessing different areas of the ground while batting and wicketkeeping skills work and it was a pleasure to see the enthusiasm from talented sportswomen eager to become the best they can be.
We were still acclimatising and a little rusty in the field with all bar Danyn (Australia) and Josh Fisher (UK off season) coming straight out of a New Zealand winter and preseason indoor training. Again it was very hot (for us!) and humid through the day - 30 or 31 degrees before the wind picked up and the cloud cover arrived in the late afternoon.
The Under 19s had worked out a plan around the good lengths to bowl which saw them make early in-roads and tested the NZ Croatia top order. Samoa U19 had won the toss and elected to bowl, quickly exploiting some predominant uneven bounce and rumours of a ridged crack in the concrete underneath the artificial surface. The odd ball could keep very low or shoot up to shoulder height or higher, but regardless it was clear the U19 bowlers certainly had the skills to exploit it. They backed it up with their dynamic energy in the field, and great arms.
The U19s batted their allotted overs in reply but at 113/9 were well short after a team effort with the ball from NZ Croatia, Christy O'Brien once again in the thick of the action behind the stumps. Spin was prevalent - Rory O'Brien, Ryan Majstrovic and Darron Goodwin taking 5 wickets among them.
Multitalented Ryan (would it be seam? spin?) also pouched three outfield catches and Christy did very well in the heat not letting many byes through at all - in fact, the previous day he had only conceded a solitary bye which was very impressive, hitting the ground running!
We reflected with the U19 team afterwards and presented certificates - to the fielder, batsman and bowler of the day, and provided an opportunity for them to ask questions.
After a short recovery break we were up against Vailele who arrived well presented in their club uniforms and fired up to take us on and defend their territory! They quickly showed why they are the top club on the island, with a good mix of experience and youth and great camaraderie in their side.
drop a catch, had great arms and were a well drilled, organised team that had us on our toes. Ready to play. Supporting each other and constantly communicating in the field - we quickly learnt that a call of lua ("rua" in Maori) was the signal for two synchronised claps from everyone in the field. And yet, respectful after that initial moment of elation whenever a wicket fell. We couldn't have asked for a better warm-up ahead of our three matches against Samoa Men.
We were also up against some aggressive hitting. After having had our next opponents 36/3, Vailele number four Feliti - a big, powerful batsman - blasted an unbeaten 78 not out, including the biggest six of the tour, off Goodie - Reece Young even reckoned it was one of the biggest sixes he has ever seen in his career, over backward square. Last we heard, the ball was still on its way to Croatia. Feliti hit six sixes and three of them off consecutive balls at the end of the innings.
This was our first game in Samoa against the very impressive Samoa men's international side and our first game with a Kookaburra ball, and it backfired on us as they got so excited with a new international cricket cherry that it was the Bodyline series all over again!
We felt we were in the Caribbean in the late 90s facing the Windies attack, helmets being hit and bombs going off like the Croatia world war.
It set the scene for three tough matches and woke up a few of the lads who were brought back to earth that this was going to be a hard-fought series.
Joey's prematch talk had been all about how Samoa was not used to being in the field for 50 overs, and how to use that to our advantage.
By seven minutes past one, NZ Croatia was all out for 75 in the space of 36 overs!
Also of note was James Banicevich run out without facing a ball - the first time it had ever happened to the batsman in his cricket career, and symptomatic of the luck that had been plaguing him to date on tour. For Samoa, Naamanu their left-arm veteran was impressive - consistent with both bat and ball, while Leiato chimed in with a useful 3-19 off six and Lester the left-arm spinner delivered a fine spell of 2-9 off 10 including four maidens.
Joey ran back to the resort from the ground and was chased home by the local dogs to cap off a challenging day.
With Sunday being a day of rest across Samoa, we had the whole day off to contemplate NZ Croatia's first loss on tour and how to avoid any future ones. The boys were all really looking forward to a day off after a busy few days of cricket in the heat. The majority of the group headed off in the van over the Cross-Island Road to the opposite coast, a journey of about an hour and a half in normal circumstances that was escalated somewhat by a brake situation that saw us broken down on the far side of the island in an empty village (everyone at church) bar some local children peering at us palagi through the windows, wondering what we were doing parked up and sitting on the corner of their front lawn???
Miraculously just when it seemed all hope was lost and we would be stuck on the far side of nowhere for days to come, it was discovered that Reece Young was mechanical and all that was required was to take the lid off and let it cool down. After that Youngy did all the driving, getting us all the way to Samoa's famous To Sua lava swimming hole which features a unique tidal current - you descend a steep, high ladder to the swimming hole and then hold on to ropes to avoid being sucked through the underwater caves to the surf beyond! For our fearless lads this provided the perfect opportunity to further refine the bombs and salmons we had been fervently practising in the resort's infinity pool every afternoon.
With the one-dayer not quite a distant memory we were fired up to get one back, and it had really
got the juices going for our final day of cricket on the Monday - a T20 doubleheader against the Samoan men's team.
This turned out to be the big media occasion with both Samoa's TV1 and TV3 stations turning up to film and Joey [below] and Reece being interviewed for the Samoa Observer. Fortunately Joey would have ample time to attend to his media duties after being bowled chopping on early doors in our dig in the first T20, having a little trouble seeing the ball with the eager cameraman standing inside the rope behind the bowler to capture this exciting moment. Rumour has it the ball also didn't bounce.
Chasing 149 for 8, Reece Young started well up front, he was fired up and concentrated before being caught for 37 off his 24.
Pushing Josh Fisher ahead of Dan Marsic as a pinch hitter proved a stroke of genius by captain Yovich who after all had to do something on tour at some stage. We had a good game of cricket on our hands by then, even stevens until Fish and Rory a.k.a. Roy O'Brien found the boundaries with some hefty blows and consecutive sixes from Fish.
Things didn't get off to a great start, however, with Youngy being given to an LBW decision that pitched outside leg. We did know to beware of being hit of the pads at all times, understanding that umpire development is a big focus for Samoan cricket and grateful for the wonderful and dedicated volunteers who officiated.
He gave himself more time, too, and he showed he was busier than in the preceeding games, working the ball nicely and capitalising on anything short or overpitched. He looked classic and
in control, determined to get a good innings in this last opportunity and take it.
And yet again he was supported by Stacy Hyndman (21 batting at three), who was positive throughout, and a little cameo by Dan Marsic at six which created some nice momentum for the back end of the innings at run-a-ball pace. We reached 142/8 - and would need every one of those runs in what turned out to be an absolute thriller to finish.
Samoa had the game for the taking, but losing wickets rattled their composure and, despite having plenty of time left to find the winning runs, made a panicky bolt for the line that saw them all out for 140 - a nerve-wracking one-run win to NZ Croatia!
A tight match, a nervous affair and an elusive last wicket that had threatened not to fall until Fish tried a slower ball that was skied to keeper Christy. Good cricket smarts were used with pace taken off the ball which bamboozled the Samoa lower order batsmen. Leiato had hit four sixes in a row, all straight - scoring 28 off 10 balls - but was out. All they had needed was patience.
We were adaptable while Samoa's standard exceeded our expectations. Their hospitality was also second to none and we thoroughly recommend Samoa as a destination for your own sports group.
We would like to see more emerging Samoan cricketers exposed to New Zealand cricket through placement in clubs back here in NZ - they offer a lot in return. Full credit to Samoa: you gave us a serious run for our money and we can't wait to return for a rematch Usos!
As Dan Marsic captured so well in his closing speech at the farewells, we also discovered just how much we have in common, through the great game of cricket.
Continued tours (from cricketing nations) supporting Samoa are integral towards providing an opportunity to nurture and foster cricket across all levels on the island, helping build towards high performance. Tourism is a key as well, therefore a collaborative approach helps connect and support this collective initiative.
From the NZ Croatia Cricket Club's perspective and experience we can only commend the development and progress of the game of cricket across the Samoan community.
Fa'afetai lava, to all our new friends. Well done to all those involved with leading SICA - you should be extremely proud of your efforts and the continued progress, team!
And to our lads.......Hrvatska!
NZ CROATIA SQUAD