After A Grim Twist, PNG Aim To Put Smiles On Faces

Cricket News By TODAYLIVESCORE.INFO - After a grim twist, PNG aim to put smiles on faces. Papua New Guinea have qualified for the T20 WC for the first time.

After A Grim Twist, PNG Aim To Put Smiles On FacesPapua New Guinea have qualified for the T20 WC for the first time.

“You know, these guys, before we came to Oman, hadn't played the game of cricket at this level for 674 days, and that is due to something that no one saw coming… the pandemic,” says PNG cricket's CEO, Greg Campbell. In 2019, Papua New Guinea qualified for the T20 WC for the first time. Unfortunately, in this uncertain world, the Covid-19 pandemic put a spanner in their works, with the Barramundis devoid of opportunities to play matches against other countries.

The rustiness among the players could be seen during PNG's recent ODI versus the USA. In that game, Jaskaran Malhotra hogged the limelight for clubbing six sixes in an over. The game also witnessed PNG giving Malhotra numerous reprieves. Even in the warm-up match played between Sri Lanka and PNG a few days back, they grassed a few chances. For a side that prides itself on its fielding, it was a chastening experience.

Ahead of PNG's historic World Cup game versus Oman, Campbell believes the players have ‘addressed inconsistency' and are ready to give their 100 percent. “It has been addressed (inconsistency) by the players themselves and it comes back to how much cricket you play. We couldn't get them out of the country because they were classed in the red zone and we couldn't get anyone in. That is no excuse. It is a bit like you playing golf. If you don't play golf for a few years and (then) you go and play, you're going to be very rusty and that is what happened to these guys. They pride themselves on their fielding, it is just that they haven't done at this level for two and a half years which has affected them. But they are closing the gap, like I said they are more disappointed than our coaching staff or the management about how they are fielding.

“I saw the last couple of games and they fielded better. Maybe even against Sri Lanka – just two days ago – we kept them to (about) 150. Mahela Jaywardene was there and came and spoke to the boys about how they play. And said that all he picked up was they haven't played enough at this level… we probably dropped three catches again. So instead of keeping them to 130, they got 160. Even when we batted, it was just not playing enough at this level. We think in the next 2-3 days.. we had a couple of days off, we had a travel day, they had a few meetings, they have taken upon themselves through the captain to talk about tomorrow is a historic day and they want to put a 100 percent out there… whether it is a win or loss or whatever, they want to improve on the areas in the last eight weeks they haven't improved on and one of them was fielding because they are a good fielding team.”

Despite the obstacles the players have faced in the last couple of years, Campbell expects them to play with a ‘smile on their faces' in the world cup. To capsulise the kind of camaraderie in the set-up, the PNG CEO turns the pages back to the T20 WC qualifiers where he says Ian Bishop made an observation: “‘These guys play the right away, they play for fun, they play hard, but they play in a great spirit.'” He also adds, “You probably know I was lucky enough to play for Australia and Tasmania and I thought Australia celebrated the wickets. They reminded me of the West Indies in the early days, but the way they play the game is for fun. They have smiles on their faces and they do celebrate. Probably not as much now because of the Covid, but they love a wicket, they love enjoying each other's company. They are always smiling, whether they have dropped a catch or disappointed, they learn to get over that. They love playing it for their families, their country and you always see a smile on their faces and that is what makes them standout.”

Until the Covid-19 acted as a grim twist, PNG had made steady progress on and off the field. The island country, situated in the South-Western Pacific, had its first taste of the game in the late 18th century in the ‘territory of Papua'. In particular, the Motuan areas of PNG – Hanuabada village – sowed the seeds for the game to grow. Soon the village turned out to be the epicenter of the game, producing most of the national players. Over the last decade, through the efforts of Campbell and others, the game has branched out to other places. As Campbell says, a decade ago, only around 1000 kids played the game in schools and now it has increased exponentially to about 300000.

“HB is situated in the city centre, it is a village, it is right in the middle of the town, 20000 people are living there, most of our cricketers come from three hours away up through the coastal, from different villages and come into the city, that is where they live. So there is a lot of grassroots cricket in there, around the country we have 300000 children playing the game. 10-12 years ago, there were 1000 playing in all schools but that has grown to 300000. Cricket in that village is probably the number one sport, they also play a lot of rugby, a lot of weightlifting coming out of that village.

“They run their own competitions in that village between each other and there is a gentleman called Seura who runs a programme called Liklik Cricket which means cricket for little people and anyone from 5 to 12 years can play in that, and that is run over school holidays and christmas breaks, and they get 1500 to 2000 children playing. Grassroots is quite strong there, it is quite strong around the country, not as big as we want it to be, but we got to build facilities around the country to get from grassroots into pathways.

“That is one of our obstacles but we are breaking down the barriers and getting places to put in wickets. PNG is a strange place, you can't drive from one city to another… when we try to build a wicket in the highlands, they say rugby union or rugby league was born, there is a fair bit of logistics to get stuck up there but we are breaking the barriers in the highlanders… they are starting to play cricket… they are mainly (into) rugby. So we are breaking into areas.”

For over a century, the game was also an amateur sport in the country. Campbell gives an example that illustrates the point. “John Ovia (assistant coach) has been with us now, he has been a former national player, So he has been there where they used to share the cricket gear. He got out, he had to pass his bat and pads and gloves to people.” On their part, the board has been doing its bit to pilot PNG cricket towards a path of professional set-up. One of the landmark steps the board took was to issue contracts to the players. “I have been there since late 2009 and early 2010 and they were amateurs. We had one synthetic wicket… Andy Bichel was the coach at that time, Bill Leane was the CEO, they did an enormous amount of work to change that. But now we have full turf facilities – centre wicket and training facilities.

“And we also in 2015 made a conscious effort to make them full time cricketers – men and women. We used to employ them to do school programmes. So we changed their culture, they are full time cricketers now, that is their job. There are 16 men on contracts, there are 13 women and 10 rookies – which can be even school children, boys and girls, or the ones who have missed out on contracts. So their job is to come to the training. We employed a chef in the last 2-3 years, and he cooks breakfast, dinner and lunch. So they are eating properly. And one of those boys could be feeding 20 people in his house. So make sure the nutrition is going in and they just become more professional in their output of how to play the game. That is where we are today and that is why they have made a world cup and it is just the start.”

For Campbell and others associated with PNG cricket, qualifying for the world cup is a culmination of all the hard work put in over a period of time. And now they would hope for Assad Vala and his team-mates to put all the Covid-related hurdles behind them and lay the foundation stone for more boys and girls to dream about playing the game.

As Campbell says, “This world cup over the next week, especially the month before, kids are interested in cricket and they are putting screens around the country, big screens, so that people can watch the game and they are getting behind it.”

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