The Self-Fielding Cricket Ground
In Hawkes Bay, just off the main road between Napier and Wairoa, or more accurately between Whirinaki and Tutira and only a short distance from the crest of the Devil’s Elbow hill, some 400 metres above sea level, is a cricket pitch, nestled in a gully. If you were passing and happened to notice it, you might well have wondered what it was doing there or, indeed, what it even was. It’s still there, albeit looking a little bit sorry for itself. You can glimpse it looking down from State Highway Two although the pitch has been let go and the road edges are overgrown.
The lot of land inland from the main road was divided up after World War One for farm ballots which were held for interested returned servicemen wanting to make a go of farming. The countryside, however, is rolling and steep; the rainfall twice that of the coast a few short miles away is around 150 centimetres; and on the ridges themselves, the wind has been measured at 174 Km / hour. It was never the easiest place to farm. As happened elsewhere, not all new settlers or their farms survived, but for those that did and put down roots there was an already a community spirit forged by a common adversary – the land.
Looking for a distraction, no doubt, the newly arrived settlers set aside a gully where they installed a concrete cricket pitch and a pavilion for their local recreation and socializing. This was the start of the Kaiwaka Cricket Club
The ground itself is situated at the bottom of a gully so that fielders (the few that were needed) can stand a little way up the slope and wait for gravity to do their work for them. Of course, the run of the ball down the slope, after it had been carted up the hillside by some agrarian sparring of willow and leather could be interrupted by clumps of tussock or rabbit holes, allowing time to run a boundary’s worth or more, but patience meant that legs were saved and strong arms unnecessary.
By the mid-twenties it appeared that the cricket season was attracting teams from around the district. Families still remember it as a day out and there are plenty of reminiscences of family members who played on the ground.
In April, 1930, in tragic circumstances, mention was made of a group of cricketers from Eskdale and on their way to Kaiwaka, who assisted in a tragedy at Lone Rock near Tangoio where four people died in the heavy seas. Ironically the lagoon at Tangoio and the jagged rocks at the foot of Lone Rock that inflicted such terrible injuries in league with the pounding waves are buried in beach gravel, the result of the Hawkes Bay Earthquake, which ten months later uplifted the whole area by over two metres.
More recently there was an account of how a mother working as a nurse on the American hospital ships that came into Napier during the Korean war, that told of some American patients who convalesced at the Red and White house just up the road from the cricket pitch and who learned to play cricket, joining in with the locals, although Americans and cricket were and remain an unlikely match.
Another recollection was that the pitch had been registered from the 1940s or early 50s as an official pitch by the New Zealand Cricket Council of the time though that status may have lapsed now. Locals who played on it were at pains to say that it was not just any old country hick cricket pitch, and that ‘you dressed appropriately in whites and in proper footwear as well, not a gumboots and tee shirts’and that you ‘were honoured too, if the pitch allowed your game to proceed’
For years, passing bus drivers used to point it out on their journeys between Wairoa and Napier and tell passengers that it was the smallest cricket ground in the world and that there was a photo of it in the Lord’s Club house (although when I rang Lords, they couldn’t locate it). Many memories abound amongst those who played there. One was of a father who took his sons there to play in the 1980s. The boundary was halfway up the hill that measured about forty metres if it had been flat. On the day, he hit twelve sixes with the ball just rolling accommodatingly back down the hill.
Most important of all, it was a place where farmers and their families from around the district were able to gather from the toil of farm work. The hill country north of Napier is a remote and challenging place to farm and no doubt it provided a welcome respite. For others, it was quite simply the social event of the year!