In a week where both the Silver Ferns and White Ferns seek revenge over their Caribbean rivals, their encounters on opposite sides of the globe just become more and more curious.
If you’re a sportswoman wearing the silver fern and facing a team from the Caribbean right now, it pays to be prepared for the unexpected. The improbable. And the just plain bizarre.
Take the Silver Ferns. It wasn’t until yesterday afternoon they could confidently say they’d be playing the Commonwealth Games silver medallists, Jamaica, tonight – after a chain reaction of troubles for the Sunshine Girls.
Netball New Zealand has been determined this Taini Jamison Trophy series – albeit an abbreviated one – goes ahead, as an important step in the Silver Ferns’ long-game plan to defend the World Cup next year.
They would never go as far as handing over top-level Kiwi players to help fill the Jamaican bench, after the visitors arrived in Auckland with the bare minimum seven athletes on Monday. Illegibility rules would have turned the two tests into friendlies.
But Netball NZ say they’ve been “incredibly supportive” in helping Jamaica to cast a net as far as Australia to find Jamaican netballers to come to their rescue.
Now there will be 10 players lining up to sing ‘Jamaica, Land We Love’ in front of a sold-out Eventfinda Stadium in the first of two tests tonight.
The first to answer the call was Adelaide nurse Carla Borrego, on a hospital shift when she got the invitation. Borrego is not just any fill-in. The prolific shooter starred for Jamaica at the 2003 World Cup and helped the Adelaide Thunderbirds to two ANZ Championship titles before retiring in 2016.
And then on the morning of the first test, former Jamaican shooting sensation Romelda Aiken-George (who’s just had her first child) was named in the squad, alongside Jamaican coach Connie Francis – another of the legendary Sunshine Girls – who’s put herself on the bench as player/coach.
And then you take the White Ferns.
The first ODI against the West Indies in Antigua yesterday had an almost farcical ending when the two umpires whipped off the bails – with New Zealand still seeking 10 runs off the final 12 balls for the win.
At the crease ready to face the next over, White Ferns star allrounder Melie Kerr was as bewildered as anyone on and off the field when the game was concluded prematurely – and it wasn’t certain who’d won.
“There was a little bit of confusion; the umpires kind of just said ‘time’ because of the light and I wasn’t really too sure what was going on,” Kerr, three runs short of a half century, said afterwards.
But White Ferns captain Sophie Devine strode out into the middle clutching a sheet of paper to show West Indies captain Hayley Matthews that New Zealand had been declared victors by five runs – thanks to the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern mathematical formulation.
It’s been an interesting tour so far for the New Zealanders, after the first match on Saturday was postponed by Tropical Storm Fiona, which dumped heavy rain on Antigua – then turned into a hurricane causing devastation in Puerto Rico.
The start of yesterday’s game was delayed – despite clear blue skies – as match officials decided the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium pitch was too soggy.
Nevertheless, the White Ferns – looking for revenge after losing to the Windies at the World Cup opener in Tauranga back in March – came out one-up in the eight-match tour, with the second ODI (of three) on Friday.
Now it’s up to the Silver Ferns to do the same in Auckland tonight.
Had all gone to plan, and the full Jamaican squad who slammed the Ferns by 16 goals at the Commonwealth Games six weeks ago arrived in New Zealand – and on time – it may have been a tougher challenge.
The last time they played here, in 2018, Jamaica shocked the Ferns with back-to-back victories, taking out the Taini Jamison Trophy. And this time, the Silver Ferns are without some of their most experienced players – Gina Crampton, Shannon Saunders, Karin Burger and Jane Watson.
But since the plan has seriously unravelled over the past week, the Silver Ferns are now the favourites in this truncated test series.
It’s been a frustrating week which will hurt Netball New Zealand financially – forced to cancel two almost sold-old tests at Hamilton’s Globox Arena last weekend and find another venue in Auckland (the second test is at Bruce Pulman Arena in Papakura on Thursday).
But if you’re trying to put a positive spin on it, no one enjoys a twist in the tail as much as Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua. She prepares for all scenarios, it seems, and that’s why it was so important this series went ahead.
Netball NZ CEO, Jennie Wyllie, explains. “We know Noels always has a bigger plan, and that was evident at the conclusion of the Commonwealth Games,” she says, referring to the play-off for bronze, when the Ferns found their rhythm and beat defending champions England.
“Every part of the programme is engineered within an inch of its life for the value it will add. And that’s why maintaining the momentum we have from the Commonwealth Games is so important. We have to take these opportunities to test ourselves against them.”
When the Jamaicans last week named an almost unrecognisable team – missing all but three of those who’d just put up a valiant fight against the champion Australians in the Games final in Birmingham – it looked disappointing.
Things only got worse from there – with Jamaican passports stuck in Washington DC, visas held up, ongoing logistical nightmares to get the team here, and then only seven players actually arriving on Monday.
But again, Wyllie looks at the bright side.
“None of [what’s happened] is ideal – but we really want to play this team,” she says. “They have a style we need to play before we meet them at the Netball World Cup. And there’s still a bit of hurt from the Commonwealth Games.
“Sport is a fickle thing – anyone is just one injury away from not being in the team. So we need to have a good look at this new up-and-coming roster of Jamaican players, who could be at the World Cup next year.”
The last four years – from the review into the Silver Ferns’ dire performance in 2018, and the havoc the global pandemic wreaked on the sport – have helped Netball NZ to deal with the dilemmas of the past week.
“We have around us a group who’ve learned to be agile, flexible, think differently and problem solve,” Wyllie says. “We’ve been able to reach this point through really focused problem solving because we’ve been here before. We’ve done this continuously over the last few years.
“When we signed the contract with Jamaica back in June, we never anticipated the level of challenges that we’ve faced. But you can only control the things you can control, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Jamaica’s assistant coach on this tour, Annette Daley, told NZME the team’s visa delays and failure to get five more players out of Jamaica had been out of their control, but they were trying not to get anxious over it. They’ve also trained for these kind of “what if” scenarios.
“It is how you manage those situations that are important and those are areas that we are working on with the ladies,” she said.
Back in Antigua, the White Ferns didn’t get too apprehensive waiting another three-and-a-half hours for their series – 3 ODIs, 5 T20s – to finally get underway. Despite clear skies, a wet pitch reduced yesterday’s game to 35 overs a piece.
“It was a weird finish, and it’s been a bit of a weird day as well, waiting around while it’s sunny. But I guess that’s cricket,” Kerr said afterwards.
When they were out in the middle, it was a tight battle especially when the White Ferns’ required run rate hovered around a run a ball towards the end of their innings.
New Zealand’s bowling attack had limited the West Indies to 168 for 7, with Jess Kerr and Fran Jonas taking two wickets each.
The White Ferns then came out strongly – Devine and Suzie Bates setting the team up well, with Bates departing for a well-made 51 – her 29th ODI half-century.
After a couple of Kiwi wickets falling cheaply, Melie Kerr (47* off 67 balls) and Brooke Halliday were conferring on how to play the final two overs, with conditions getting dark quickly and the White Ferns needing 10 off the final 12 deliveries.
Then the umpires called the game off. “Brooke seemed to know that we had won the game… I wasn’t quite sure, the West Indies thought they’d won,” Kerr says.
“I think we set up the game nicely and it wasn’t the easiest wicket to play on, but with 10 runs to get off 12 balls, you back yourself to do that… We won’t know what would have happened, but I guess if we were out there, we would have backed ourselves to.”