AS Twenty20 cricket continues to grow in popularity in Australia, with the prospect of an even bigger Big Bash League next season, is it time for the best players from the Pacific to be given their chance to show what they can do.
Certainly Vanuatu’s Patrick Matautaava is putting forward a strong case after a stellar year which culminated in him being chosen as one of the 11 best cricketers in the world, outside the Test playing nations.
The all-rounder is currently playing Victorian Premier Cricket for Essendon in Melbourne, and more than holding his own against opponents like Australia’s Glenn Maxwell, who turns out for his club Fitzroy Doncaster when he is not on state or international duty.
Certainly Matautaava has some staunch advocates, particularly after two match-winning innings for his country in South Africa last September,that secured promotion for Vanuatu on the World Cricket League ladder.
His biggest fan is his national coach, Shane Deitz, who scored nearly 4,000 first-class runs for South Australia, and happens to be a former teammate of ex-Australian Test fast bowler Jason Gillespie, who has just coached the Adelaide Strikes to the 2018 Big Bash title.
“I’m trying to get some interest developed,” Deitz said.
“He’s definitely got the skill set and the ability to play at that level.
“If he could get into a Big Bash squad, and just get an opportunity, I’m confident he would perform well.”
Matautaava’s coach at Essendon, Mitch Johnston, also believes the ni-Vanuatu player would be well worth a punt.
“Pat’s come to Australia looking to develop his cricket, and with each season he’s got better and better, to the point where he felt it was time to pursue Premier Cricket and test himself against the best players,” Johnston said.
“It’s been a real interesting journey for Pat. Victorian Premier Cricket is often regarded as the toughest and best club cricket in the world, so for Pat to step into that level and hold his own is brilliant.”
Former Australian One Day International player of the year, Clint McKay, is mentoring Matautaava at Essendon.
He knew little about the player when he first met him, but he came with a great reputation and McKay says he has lived up that.
“Coming to Premier Cricket, he’s found out just how good he is, and he’s playing to the best possible standard he can at the moment,” McKay said.
“He’s been pivotal in some of our wins across all formats this season. It’s a great foundation for him — he can keep on improving his skills and who knows where he could end up.”
In the past, two of Papua New Guinea’s leading players, batsman Assad Vala and all-rounder CJ Amini, have secured rookie contracts with Big Bash franchises.
But while those deals allowed them to get a flavour of the professional game, they weren’t allowed to play, other than as an injury replacement for a teammate, and that opportunity never came along.
One of the stars of the Adelaide Strikers’ successful Big Bash campaign was the Afghan spinner Rashid Khan, who at 19 has just become the youngest player ever to top the ICC Twenty20 rankings.
Until last year, when they were unexpectedly granted Test Match status, Afghanistan, like Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, were an associate cricketing nation, so with Khan blazing a trail, the door may have opened for other players from the lower ranks to follow.
Matautaava has done his case no harm by being chosen in the associates team of the year — the only player from tier five to make the list, alongside one from tier three and nine from tier two.
“When my coach, Shane Deitz, told me, I couldn’t believe it. Then I started getting messages from my family back in Vanuatu saying how proud they were,” Matautaava said.
“It’s a fantastic achievement for Patrick,” Deitz said.
“It just shows the standard of his play. In the World Cricket League competition last year he pretty much got us promoted single-handedly.
“He was an easy choice as player of the tournament. He was the best player there by far.”
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a young player from the Pacific who was actually thinking of giving up cricket and taking on seasonal work in Australia to raise money for his family.
But the turning point came when he smashed 139 not out against the strongly fancied German team to turn his fortunes and those of his team around.
“A miracle happened to me that day,” Matautaava said.
“It was my first century for my country, and when I reached 100, I looked up to the sky and thanked my late father. Every time I played cricket he was there to watch me.
“At that moment I was just overcome by emotion and it was then that I changed my mind about fruit picking because I had to stick with cricket.”
And no-one is arguing with that decision in Vanuatu, with another World Cricket League tournament on the horizon, or at Essendon where Matautaava continues to impress.
It’s now just a question of a Twenty20 franchise taking a chance and giving one of the best players in the Pacific a shot at the big time.
“The next step for me is the Big Bash,” Matautaava said.
“I want to keep performing and put myself out there, and maybe one day I’ll get that contract.”
– Richard Ewart