When Fiji toured New Zealand in the 1977-78 season, it ended an association that stretched back to 1895 when a Fijian cricket side first visited, playing eight provincial sides from Invercargill to Auckland. The relationship between the two nations on the cricket field peaked following World War II, with Fiji touring in 1947-48, 1953-54, 1961-62, and 1967-68.
Throughout the majority of these tours, Fiji were a force to be reckoned with and many games went down to the wire. In February 1895, they beat Nelson by 3 wickets as Wilikonisoni Tuivanuavou claimed 10 for 51. Later, on that same tour, they beat Taranaki by 2 wickets with Tuivanuavou again taking 10.
On their return in 1948, they claimed their biggest scalps, defeating a Wellington side that included names like Tindill, Vance, and Mooney by a single wicket. That 1948 side was among the best Fijian sides ever to play, emphasised by a 115-run win over an Auckland team featuring Bert Sutcliffe. Fiji became something of a bogey side for Auckland – they beat them by 6 wickets in 1954.
Fiji’s 1967-68 tour to New Zealand was their most extensive as they played 25 matches in a little under two months. It also continued their trend of winning the tight ones as they saw victories by 3, 2, and 1 wickets in different games.
Among all of these tours, and all the results, one Fijian batsman stood out among his teammates, going down in history as one of the greatest players the island nation has produced: Ilikena Lasarusa Talebulamainavaleniveivakabulaimainakulalakebalau.
Born on the 15th of November 1921 in Fiji’s Lau Islands, Ilikena (known as IL Bula through most of his playing career) often features in records based on the sheer weight of letters in his name. In a cricket career for Fiji that spanned 20 years and nine First-Class appearances, he deserves much more. That fact is emphasised by a First-Class batting average above 41 with two centuries, both against Canterbury.
When the Fijian team arrived in New Zealand in 1948 they were well-received, with their reception committee often including ex-servicemen they played with and against at home during the war. Their uniform made headlines as well, with cricket’s traditional blazer paired with the Fijian sulu and bare feet.
The match against Canterbury at Lancaster Park was the ninth of a tour that had been going for less than a month. Aside from a heavy defeat to Auckland, the Fijians had proven their strength, largely led by their bowlers who had already taken ten 5-wicket bags on the tour. Canterbury, however, were led by Walter Hadlee and could count internationals Gordon Leggat, Brun Smith, and Tony MacGibbon among their squad. Although Otago won the Plunket Shield that season, this Canterbury side would claim it the next.
The internationals led the way after Canterbury batted first; Leggat and MacGibbon both passed 50 while Hadlee would make 102. With 421 runs on the board, Hadlee declared the innings closed at the end of the first day. Fiji’s reply started well, with a stand of 57 for the first wicket, but of the six batsmen to pass 20, only Ilikena could pass 50, making 63. His name would come to be mentioned around the city, following in the footsteps of Albert Trott at Lord’s, when he hit four sixes clean over the Lancaster Park pavilion. Their English-born captain, PA Snow, played the sheet anchor role, making 28 in 135 minutes, as Fiji’s innings finished 145 runs shy of Canterbury’s tally.
The home team’s second innings also suffered from batsmen being unable to carry on after making a start, falling to 108 for 6 before a 75-run eighth wicket stand between Peter O’Malley and Leggat helped push them towards a declaration. With time left in the final day for around 80 overs, Fiji’s target for victory was 355.
Batting at four, Ilikena came in with the score at just 7. What followed was a somewhat slow innings by his standards, but his trademark power was still evident. In a little under two and a half hours, Ilikena endeared himself to the Lancaster Park faithful as he hit 120, including fourteen fours and two sixes. The local newspaper remarked that his innings was, paraphrased by Snow, “one of the most satisfying exhibitions of batting ever seen.”
When Ilikena fell with the score at 241 for 8, the crowd had been entertained but perhaps thought the game would wind down and leave Canterbury with a comfortable win. However, the ninth wicket stand between Albert Wendt and Petero Kubunavanua added another 69 runs before MacGibbon closed out the innings with the last two wickets. Canterbury winning an entertaining game by 36 runs in the face of an unlikely run chase.
Throughout the tour, the Fijian team were popular wherever they went but Ilikena was something else, winning immense respect from opponents and crowds alike for his batting prowess. His tour tally surpassed 1000 runs and led to Walter Hadlee investigating the possibility of including him in New Zealand’s 1949 tour to the United Kingdom. All of this success after he was the last man to be selected to the tour, added a week before departure at the behest of Snow.
Through the opening eleven games of the 1954 tour, Ilikena hit three 50s, but they were interspersed with ducks and single figure scores. When the tour arrived at Lancaster Park, the legend of Ilikena’s hitting would’ve no doubt remained in the mind of many cricket fans, but they also may have felt his star was on the wane. In one of many of the times that Snow would later write about Ilikena, he recalls that he was very much a different man on this tour, having being affected immensely by the death of his brother in 1951.
Against Canterbury, Fiji batted first and were dismissed for 238 in 66 overs with Ilikena making just 18. Canterbury’s reply was built on West Indian, and soon to be New Zealand, wicketkeeper, Sammy Guillen’s magnificent 197 as the declared at 366 for 7. Needing a big innings in reply, Fiji found two heroes who each scored 102: William Apted and Ilikena Bula.
With 226 required, the Fijian bowlers regularly claimed wickets as the Cantabrians fell to 184 for 8. They had, however, kept some of their powder dry with first innings star, Guillen, coming in at 10. In partnership with Brian Haworth, Guillen knocked off the remaining runs and Canterbury scrapped to another narrow win over the tourists.
Ilikena Bula returned to New Zealand for two more tours and, although the January 1962 match against Canterbury saw the hosts most comprehensive win over Fiji, he would add another century against the red and black province. His second innings’ 118 was scored in 82 minutes and included 94 runs in boundaries. He managed four 50s on that tour but, as usual, he had saved his best for Lancaster Park.
Six years later he made his last visit to the garden city as Fiji again pushed Canterbury all the way, the hosts winning by just 33 runs. Having hit a century in each of his last three outings against Canterbury, another triple figure score here may have finally seen him play in a winning side. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, a second innings duck his sign off at Lancaster Park. His legacy at the ground exceeded that final innings, however: through four tours to New Zealand, Ilikena hit 445 runs there at an average of more than 55 runs per innings. His opponents often including past, present, and future New Zealand representatives and many of them noted the talent and power of the man.
Much of what we know of Ilikena’s feats comes from the writings of PA Snow. While the Englishman often makes references that are typically short-sighted and aligned with the colonial attitudes of the time, it is evident that he held Ilikena in great esteem. He wrote about him in John Kay’s book for the Cricket Writers Club, Cricket Heroes. In those pages, the achievements of Ilikena sit alongside names that have become a part of cricket, like Jack Hobbs, CB Fry, Hedley Verity, and others.
Whatever the source, there are characteristics of Ilikena which were universally described: he was renowned as a superb batsman who had his own unique stroke – a straight pull which was the source of many of his sixes, his footwork was exceptional – as it would have to be when you were batting in bare feet, and he was exceedingly humble.
These facts, and the smile which was often evident on his face while playing, made him a fan favourite wherever he went. Snow writes of crowds chanting “Bula” as the team left many of towns around New Zealand.
Cover photo: Members of the Poverty Bay and Fijian teams pose for a photo after their March 1948 match in Gisborne. The match was drawn after future-Test representative, Geoff Rabone hit a century for Poverty Bay and Ilikena Bula responded with 84 for Fiji. Michael Barbour Collection, nzcricketmuseum.co.nz