For all practical purposes, the Super 12 starting October 23 would make a fair start to the T20 World Cup. But for the five associate nations who want to enter the major leagues, their tournament starts a week earlier with Round 1. It is the only window in which he has to showcase his progress over many years in the inner-circle of cricket’s elite.
One of the first to try to make the big stage is Papua New Guinea. The southwestern Pacific Islands are essentially a rugby country. But they are a rare ICC ally to have built their own cricket team with a completely indigenous playing pool. With the paucity of resources and means, adding weight to one’s favor through immigrant cricketers or semi-retired international players of origin has been a common trend among Associate Countries. But PNG has resisted that temptation, except in one instance when former England wicketkeeper Geraint Jones of PNG origin played for them five years ago.
The entire PNG National Squad is a product of their school programs where cricket is played with plastic equipment. Their captain Asad Valla, a 34-year-old all-rounder, worked as a cricket coordinator at a ground event before getting a contract to play in 2014. “Cricket has given us a lot. Some of our boys will drop out of school,” he recalls on a Zoom call.
Today, 16 men, 13 women and 10 rookie PNG cricketers have national contracts. “The contract money is nowhere close to that of the top teams, but a lot better than your average salary working another at PNG,” says Greg Campbell, CEO of PNG, former Australia international cricket.
When Campbell first came to PNG, he didn’t have turf wickets. Now, synthetic wickets are a thing of the past, at least for the national team. The team going for the World Cup has all the basic support staff ranging from head coach, batting coach, bowling coach and physio. They have also hired a team chef.
The majority of people in PNG lead a rural life; Urbanization has been slow. Most of the people in the PNG cricket team come from Hanuabada, a coastal village on the outskirts of the capital, Port Moresby. Some others live a three-and-a-half hour drive from where they train. “PNG has 23 provinces. We are in 11 of them where we now have 300,000 kids playing cricket,” Campbell says. “It is difficult to get to some places because there are no roads in the highlands.”
PNG U19 are ranked 15th in the world and have now played in 9 out of 10 World Cups. The women’s team is ranked 16th. Cricketers play rugby in the off season. Assad also played Australian rules football when he was young. He credits his mother for making him a cricketer. “She wanted me to play cricket as it is a non-contact sport. Mothers always want to take care of the child,” he says.
Asad bats with the left hand and bowls off spin. Almost everyone in the PNG team can bat and bowl. “We have fast medium bowlers, spinners and batsmen. They do everything,” Campbell explains. “It suits T20 cricket.”
With the team making its first World Cup debut, the focus of the CEO is to ensure that people back home can watch the national team live. “Pay TV PNG is very expensive for the people. We are dealing with free stations, sometimes we pay them to show our games on TV,” he says. “The World Cup will be telecast. You can see 20 people in a house, but all of them will be yearning here and there to watch the World Cup.
The pandemic has disrupted the best plans of most teams. But for PNG, he feared it would sabotage all his hard work. “We doubted whether we were ever going to play our first World Cup,” says Assad. The Covid disruptions for PNG were so intense that they went 760 odd days without a match being played. They lost their coaching staff, which included head coach Joe Dawes, formerly India’s bowling coach. Plans to play top league cricket with Australian home teams went for a toss due to travel restrictions.
But overcoming many hurdles to get here, they don’t want to complain. “We are less prepared but best prepared where we are,” Campbell says. “We have got two hashtags for the World Cup. One says #backthebarras. And the other internally, which says #noexcuses.”
They hope to register a win in their group comprising Bangladesh, Scotland and Oman in Round 1. This would be a way to get their hashtags trending on the virtual world.