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Papua New Guinea: Village cricket to World Cup

Behind Papua New Guinea's rise as an Associate member, there is a strong local connect with cricket. With 300,000 kids playing the sport at the school level, interest is bound to increase

Published: 19th October 2021 12:33 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd October 2021 04:21 PM   |  A+A-

Papua New Guinea Cricket team

Papua New Guinea Cricket team (Photo | ICC)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Hanuabada, In English, it literally translates to 'Big Village'. If there was a sporting equivalent, it would be called 'Cricket Dream'. Tim Anderson, who has been to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, more times than he can remember, paints a pretty picture when he describes Hanuabada. "It (the village) extends over the ocean," he says. "Lot of fisherfolk, all the houses, they extend over the ocean. It's a bit like the Maldives in that regard." If Maldives is the most well known of tourism destinations, Hanuabada is fast becoming the starting point to understand one of sport's modern fairytales come to fruition: the rise of the Papua New Guinea's cricket team.

When Assad Vala walked out for the toss against Oman on Sunday, PNG became the 24th country or region to take part in a men's ICC World Cup event. Ever since they qualified in 2019, PNG's rise has been well documented. What was it like before the cameras arrived? What was it like back in the early 2000s? This was when Anderson was ICC's regional development officer for East Asia Pacific (he became global development head before leaving the organisation a few years ago). "The first time I went to PNG was 20 years ago. Wouldn't say cricket was unrecognisable then but a lot has changed. Even if the passion and enthusiasm were there, they didn't have any formal youth development. They didn't have a turf ground or a national coach." It was so bad Anderson, Australia's one-time Under-19 skipper, doubled up as a 'pseudo national coach'. "Even though I was an ICC employee, I sort of was a pseudo coach," he remembers. "Now, they have a full coaching staff, including high performance for men's and the women's." That change did not happen overnight. It's been long, pain-staking and heart-breaking. First, a brief peek into the history as to what makes their story that bit extra special. Just around the time of their independence from Australia (September 1975), Clive Lloyd's West Indies touched down in Port Moresby to play a few one-day games. The country became one of the first to host the inaugural men's world champions. What this tells you is that cricket has always been an integral part of the culture. The why is easy to deduce. "Up until the 1970s, Australia had a very big role to play in running the country and cricket sort of became part of the culture," Anderson says. Australian historian, Gideon Haigh, in 'Second XI: Cricket in its outposts', noted: "Inspired by PNG hosting its first rugby league international against a Lions team en route to fulfilling World Cup away fixtures in Australia and New Zealand, the PNGCBC (country's cricket board) invited Clive Lloyd’s West Indians to play two one-day games on their way to the 1975-76 Worrell Trophy series. "After the first ball from Andy Roberts soared from the concrete wicket at Moresby’s Murray Stadium over the keeper’s head, the visitors settled mainly for bowling part-timers. But a new cricket nation had arrived." That nation, Haigh wrote, 'Cricketers henceforward would be home- grown, if initially still led by a post-colonial elite'. They have been around for the last four decades duking it out in the ICC Trophy (an erstwhile qualifying tournament for the 50- over World Cup) apart from competing in other competitions. They really came into the fore as a powerhouse of Associate cricket the last decade or so. They even managed to secure ODI status in 2014 before signing their players on full-time contracts. In the last decade alone, they finished eighth in qualifying tournaments for two T20 World Cups (the top six qualify). In 2019 though, they bucked that trend to advance.

When a story like PNG presents itself to the wider world, the media wants to capture that. Even taking that into consideration, Greg Campbell, the current Chief Executive of the cricket board, says it's been a busy time, satisfying all media engagements. Campbell reckons they have done the most media among all teams in the group stage. At some level, that's not a surprise. Apart from Anderson, not many are as intimately versed with the PNG story as Campbell, who has been attached to the board for more than a decade now. And some of his stories capture the country's rise. "10 years ago, these players were still swapping gear when playing matches... that's stuff that's taken for granted by most other sides." They also purchased a bus and hired a few drivers for the express purpose of having reliable transport in a country not known for transport facilities (you either have to fly or canoe your way to go from one place to another because of the geography). "We bought a bus so we could pick up all the players to train," Campbell, who played four Tests for Australia, says. "The transport in PNG isn't great and sometimes not safe (Port Moresby does have a moniker of being an unsafe place to visit). We hired three drivers and bought a bus so that we could go around taking players to train. "We also have a chef so that the players are eating properly. It's a very professional set-up. All the players are full-time and that's been the case for the last six-seven years." One of the other big victories for Campbell and the PNG board is instituting an aggressive youth policy. "I have been there for a good 12 years," he says. "There were people before me who laid out the platform and we have continued to grow. There are now 300,000 children playing cricket in schools." To also cash in on the interest right now, the PNG government have installed giant screens throughout the country hoping to inspire many more to take up the sport. Saying all that, Campbell readily accepts the team were underprepared heading into the tournament. "We have not played a game for some 675 days." The current tour, though, is the costliest they have ever undertaken in their nascent cricketing history. "This tour has cost us a fortune. Probably more than we have ever spent on a tour," Campbell reveals. He also credits both the ICC as well as PNG government for chipping in with some money to keep the dream going.

The side's best-laid plans were hit less than two weeks before the first match against Oman. During their set of warm-up games, three players lost their parents to Covid-19 in the space of a day. Players were given time and space to grieve but all of them knew 'what was ahead of them', according to Campbell. There was no question of travelling back for the funerals but players were given time and space to grieve. As the conversation moves to a happier topic, Campbell is also keen to talk about the most unique of places in PNG: Hanuabada. "Still trying to work why it is the way it is (when it comes to its cricketing culture)," he says. "They do run a programme for 5-12 year old kids. You can easily say that 2-3000 kids will play cricket there. They dress up in those India, Australia uniforms... they end up having their own rules. You hit into the ocean, it's a six. You hit it inside a house, it's out. Most of our players end up coming from there. For the ones who come from Port Moresby, they end up living in the village." Anderson, whose job had required to travel to far-flung places to spread the game, is of the opinion that Hanuabada is one-of-its-kind on planet Earth. "I have travelled a lot, worked a lot in cricket... and I have never seen anything like it." 



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