Cricket: NZ Croatia hunting home win

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Sunday March 16 looms as D-Day for New Zealand Croatia in their determination to rack up their first win on New Zealand soil this summer - but it won’t be easy. The star-studded club of Kiwi Croatian cricketers is taking on the vastly experienced tribe of seasoned campaigners that is the Cobham Club at Whangarei’s Cobham Oval, and while the match is officially slated as a ‘festival Twenty20", the number of Northlanders, Croatians and first-class cricketers in the side means no quarter will be given.

The season finale will feature at least six first-class and nine Northland legends, as well as a sweep of players who have represented Croatia at international ICC level in Europe - and with free admission, New Zealand Croatia captain John Vujnovich says they’re looking forward to turning on a "fun but serious" spectacle for the Whangarei public.

"It’s going to be a special occasion bringing together, for the first time, two sides that each have strong lineages and deep pride in the north," says Vujnovich. "We’re also about playing very competitive cricket - we know that Cobham are very tough and seldom lose, so with the calibre of players on each side it’s going to be a great tussle."

New Zealand Croatia’s star power includes allrounder Joseph Yovich who says the ‘Harlem Globetrotters-style side’ is all fired up for their much-wanted first home win, having been unbeaten abroad during the 2013 winter. "We’ve had some agonisingly close finishes this summer in New Zealand, including a last-ball defeat against Northern Maori. We know Cobham have got some great names from the past, but we’re hoping with it being T20 it’s going to be the triumph of youthful energy over experience!"

Kiwi-Croatian and Northern Knights allrounder Anton Devcich, who captained the NZ XI against India at the same ground in February, was set to add his white ball punch the match - until he was picked for the Blackcaps’ World Twenty20 Championship in Bangladesh this month. Says Vujnovich, "Devvy is trying hard to make his New Zealand Croatia debut, but we’ve had to allow the Blackcaps first dibs…"

New Zealand’s Croatian kauri gum-digging heritage means many in the side have strong familial ties to the north, which was a focal point for the colonial industry. Besides Yovich, their line-up includes Whangarei scions, brothers Adrian and Dominic Smith-Hodgson; Kaipara’s Matt Vujcich, Auckland Aces representative Dušan Hakaraia and Auckland A reps Craig Borich, Vujnovich and his brother Paul. Adrian Smith-Hodgson will make his New Zealand Croatia debut at Cobham and proud local Yovich says he is looking forward to seeing the team come together at the highly regarded first-class and international venue, where the pavilion is based on Lord’s - Yovich himself contributed to the design as an architectural drawing grad. "We’ll impress our Auckland boys, I’m sure, with what we’ve got up here in the north!"

He’s also keen to hear from more players of Kiwi Croatian descent to add the club’s roster - the latest addition being Northland’s Cody Andrews, whose grandfather provided a Croatian link. The team will be making its second international tour this winter to the Pacific Islands to assist with cricket’s development.

John Vujnovich: "It feels very much like one big family, this team, with us all playing for each other and a lot of pride in what it means to be representing Kiwi Croatians.

"For the older players among us, it’s also all about creating experiences and high standards to help develop the up-and-comers both in our own team and our opponents’. We give them exposure to touring and to testing themselves both alongside and against some very experienced, accomplished players in a competitive environment - for some that’s a hard-nosed style they may not have stepped into and up to before."

It’s a sentiment shared by members of the Cobham Club, well known for fostering the local game around Northland since the Whangarei-based club’s formation in the 1970s. Cobham’s line-up will be captained by Northland and ND legend Barry Cooper. He will have at his disposal Ross Kneebone, Dean Potter, Tim Anderson, Darron Goodwin, Brett Robinson, Murray Coop, Richard Johnstone, Bert Horner - all of whom have played first-class or Northland rep cricket; and Northland Cricket Association general manager Warren Marr, who played Hawke Cup cricket for Wanganui. Cobham’s 2014 scholarship recipient Ian Page, a younger Northland and ND A cap, completes the line-up.

The Twenty20 game will start at 1pm with spectators welcome to bring a picnic to send off summer on the Cobham Oval embankments.