Jamal Vira was feeling a mix of nerves and excitement in his first outing in the Vanuatu T10 Blast. The Vanuatu Cricket Association (VCA) had ambitious plans to broadcast and livestream the tournament, and the men’s team wicket-keeper, who turned out for Ifira Sharks in the debut edition of the T10 competition, knew thousands of cricket fans around the world were watching him play in the beautiful Pacific islands. But he wasn’t used to playing to an audience on TV and online, nor were his teammates, and the Sharks were bowled out for 35 in 7.1 overs in Port Vila.
“There was immense pressure and that was evident from our very first match, which we struggled in,” Vira said. “Knowing that a lot of people are going to be watching was definitely stuck in our minds. Most of our players, including national players, have not been under that kind of spotlight, which was quite nerve-racking.”
Meanwhile, there were nerves off the field too. Four cameras had been set up to capture the action: one each behind the bowler’s arm at each end, one square to follow the ball, and one for interviews, toss and the crowd. But the local broadcaster didn’t actually have much experience broadcasting cricket before and were under pressure too. Before the start of the tournament, they had watched YouTube videos of matches as VCA officials described how they wanted the broadcast to look. They had all made several preparatory trips to the ground to visualise how the action might unfold and how best to capture it.
Organisers also found after day 1 of the competition that they would need a boost in internet speed. Besides, issues connecting the live scoring to the livestream meant Melissa Fare, VCA marketing manager, found herself sitting in the broadcast bus entering the scores manually onto the live stream.
But the challenges were overcome by tenacity and lessons were quickly learnt. Over the next four weeks in May and June 2020, everyone from the players to the organisers and broadcasters came together to pull off a ground-breaking tournament. Vira’s team, the Sharks, shrugged off their poor start and went on to win the title. And VCA could be proud of a tournament that was viewed on dozens of YouTube streams, had a reach of 16 million on just their Facebook page and prompted around a million fan engagements. All this from a country whose population is just over 300,000.
“It was exciting because we were able to showcase the sport that we all love and play to our friends and families, who would not have been able to watch us play otherwise and that provided comfort to a lot of us,” said Vira. “At the end of the day, we were all happy that we were bringing awareness to cricket as a sport in Vanuatu and to the potential of Associate cricket.”
The T10 Blast was not the first tournament where VCA raised their fan engagement game. Earlier, in March 2020, the grand final of the Women’s T20 Super League and a 10-over men’s exhibition match were streamed globally via Facebook and broadcast on the local Television Blong Vanuatu. Since this took place at a time when sports around the world was at a standstill, it came as a source of succour to hungry fans and was featured in news outlets from New York to Pakistan.
The women’s final attracted 350,000 views online and reached a remarkable 793 million with the help of ICC media channels, confirming to VCA that there was a huge audience for Associate cricket. It laid the foundation for the Vanuatu T10 Blast.
Together, the broadcast captured the imagination of the world and has won VCA the Digital Fan Engagement Initiative of the Year honour at the ICC Global Development Awards 2020.
Importantly, the digital initiative had significant real-world effects. As a direct result of the broadcast of the women’s match and the efforts of the women’s team, four new teams have been formed on islands that previously didn’t have women’s cricket.
Members of the Vanuatu women’s national team used the TV exposure to travel to the islands of Santo and Malekula. The islands had already seen some cyclone relief work done by VCA and the Association were keen to continue to support women, children and people living with a disability who remained vulnerable after the disaster. Cricket provided a safe environment for the people to express themselves.
In the two islands, the players found women and girls wanting to try cricket after watching that T20 final, even as their families were encouraged by how the sport can be a positive, safe space. Fifty women, the youngest at 15 and the oldest at around 50, joined the national team in training over two months. Almost 70% of them had been inspired by the broadcast. Even as the new entrants went through intense training, funds were raised through BBQs, a raffle and sponsorship. A four-team T20 competition – the first of its kind in Santo – was held.
Two participants were found to be good enough to join a national training camp, and the Santo Women’s T20 Super League is now set to be an annual affair.
Selina Solman, Vanuatu captain, was encouraged by what she saw. “This goes to show that women’s cricket is gaining more traction and growing in Vanuatu and that provides huge motivation for the women’s team to continue pushing the growth of women’s cricket in our country,” she said.
“To experience the joy that cricket brings to people, especially women and girls, who are playing the sport for the very first time is truly an experience that our staff will not forget,” added Fare, who led and facilitated the Santo initiative. “Sport is a weapon for positive change and we will continue to play our part to make a difference in our communities.”
Photo file Vanuatu Cricket Association