As women's cricket enjoys unprecedented growth in popularity and participation, Vanuatu has emerged as an unlikely new frontier for the sport. In a country where soccer is king, cricket is making impressive inroads and inspiring a new generation of young sportswomen.
While the sun sets over Port Vila on a Tuesday afternoon, Vanuatu's next generation of female cricketers are being put through their paces by current members of the women's national team. Not that the established players are a great deal older.
While the keenest of the bright young hopefuls are 10 and 11-year-old sisters, two of the leading lights of the national squad, Melissa Fare and Judy Avok, are just 20 and 23 respectively.
Having recently recorded their first win in international cricket, defeating hosts Japan in the ICC regional World Cup qualifiers, Vanuatu's women's team has returned home energised to spread the cricket gospel.
"The number of people playing cricket in Vanuatu is growing," explains Melissa, who only took up the sport in 2016 to improve symptoms of a chronic muscle problem — she made her international debut within 12 months.
"Cricket is sometimes seen as a man's sport, but we're starting to prove people wrong and now more women are becoming interested. We've got a lot of new girls coming to train and play."
Overlooking Independence Park are the headquarters of the Vanuatu Cricket Association (VCA). From this office, a small team led by general manager Pierre Chilia is firmly focussed on getting more ni-Vanuatu women into cricket through a range of development and outreach programs supported by the Australian Government's Pacific Sports Partnerships.
Judy and Melissa are both full-time staff at VCA, which is striving to employ more of the country's female cricketers.
Their most notable achievements to date include the rapid growth of schoolgirls' competitions and the open-age Women's T20 competition.
Melissa captains one of the newer clubs, Paama Sharks, who are taking on the APT Dolphins that weekend.
As Port Vila's main cricket pitches are being used for men's matches, the women's clash takes place a short drive out of town at an equestrian club. While horse riders saddle up next door, Melissa leads her team's warm-up. Vanessa and her 11-year-old sister, Maeva, appear set to take the field.
"We just have to make sure they don't field inside the 30 metres."
The Dolphins win the toss and elect to bat. The Sharks' attack takes a while to get going until Melissa recovers from a flurry of wides to take the first wicket. But the stars of this show are the Vira sisters.
Vanessa bowls four overs for 11 runs, taking two wickets, while Maeva takes two wickets from three overs, conceding 13 runs.
The Dolphins set the Sharks a total of 96 to win. Maeva opens the batting with Judy, holding her own for four overs before being caught out. Melissa comes in to bat and the boundaries start flowing. Vanessa keeps an excited eye on the scoresheet as Melissa and Judy's partnership brings home the victory.
The young Vira sisters have surprised everyone with a sporting maturity beyond their years, but it seems cricket is in the family. Their older brother is in Vanuatu's U19 squad, and these girls also appear destined for representative honours.
"I want to play for the national team," giggles Maeva, while a shy Vanessa agrees.
"I was so impressed with them today," admits a visibly excited Melissa.
"I'm excited to see where they go in the future, and hopefully I'll get to play alongside them for Vanuatu."
This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
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