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It may not have stolen headlines in the last week or so, but a dedicated contributor to cricket in the Associate world is moving on. Andy Bichel, the former Australia fast bowler, stepped down after two years in a coaching and development role as Papua New Guinea's director of cricket. PNG still has some way to go before joining Ireland and Afghanistan in the top class of Associate teams, but Bichel feels proud of the steps taken in his time at the helm to lift up the standard of cricket in the island nation.
"For Papua New Guinea, when I first went there, getting 30 and two wickets and a catch, that was player of the match," Bichel told ESPNcricinfo. "That's the challenge, to create a performance-based environment because I can't have a whole team of people who get 30 and two wickets and a catch because that just doesn't happen. It doesn't win you a game of cricket. If they get five wickets and a 100, all of a sudden you start to win games of cricket."
At the recent ICC Under-19 World Cup Qualifier in Ireland, PNG captain Christopher Kent showed just how much Bichel's presence had changed the country's approach to cricket. In PNG's seventh match of the tournament, Canada batsman Nitish Kumar scored 150 in a total of 261 for 9 for his side. Kumar's innings was the highest score of the tournament for a few hours before Kent eclipsed it with 166 not out, taking PNG to a four-wicket win.
Introducing a sense of professionalism to PNG's blue-collar style of cricket is a major reason why Bichel says the players have been able to register several noteworthy achievements over a relatively short period of time. The senior team have climbed up to 19 in the world rankings while Kent's efforts as the overall leading run-getter at the U-19 Qualifier played a large part in PNG gaining a spot at the ICC Under-19 World Cup in Australia next year. At the 2009-10 ICC U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, PNG's Raymond Haoda became the first player from an Associate nation to finish as the tournament's leading wicket-taker, taking 15 in six games.
"Anything to do with PNG Cricket now has a professional approach to it," Bichel said. "There's so much passion to play for Papua New Guinea and I think that's fantastic but there's actually now a real standard required for a PNG player and I just think that's the greatest thing. It is performance based. You have to train. That sort of attitude of turning up when you want to is really starting to disappear. All their skill levels are improving week by week."
Perhaps just as important, maintaining a professional approach off the pitch has also received heavy emphasis from Bichel. Things like dealing with the media, nutrition and fitness were things that might have been neglected in the past but have seen a greater attention to detail in the last 24 months.
"The way they present themselves now in public, I think that's a big area that we've improved in. The players' English has improved. We'll have a team dinner [on tour]. We prepare the food for them so therefore they're getting good-quality food. They never used to get that. They used to go off and eat McDonald's. Recovery sessions, ice baths, pool sessions, they all come under that tag of what you have to do to be a PNG player."
Bichel arrived in a place where no turf wickets existed with matches typically played on concrete covered by jute matting. The only time players experienced turf conditions were on overseas tours. But proper infrastructure is now coming into place to give players the opportunity to develop their skills in the right conditions. The country's first ever turf wickets were unveiled just over a year ago at Amini Park and Colts Cricket Ground in Port Moresby; Amini Park now has six training nets.
"Two years ago when I took over before the overseas tour to New Zealand, it was an Under-18 tour but some of the players had never played on grass before," Bichel said. "Now I can honestly say that the minimum number of games any one of our players has played on turf wickets is 30 to 40. Some of the guys have played 200 or 250 games on turf. So that's great for starters. Now they're starting to read wickets. Why does this one turn? Why does this one play slower? Why does this one come onto the bat easier? They're starting to work out all those sorts of things."
Bichel's connections with the Queensland Bulls also opened up doors for many PNG players to grow by getting to train with players of a higher standard. Training sessions at the Gabba and Allan Border Field were routinely organised without cost. Cricket scholarships were awarded last year for 14 players who were sent to Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne to play club cricket in the local grade competitions from September through March.
Not everything can be completed in two years though. One of the things Bichel hopes will happen after he leaves is that the players will continue to absorb a greater sense of tactics in the game, things that he took for granted growing up in Australia that aren't always present in PNG.
"The number one thing at this stage is that cricket awareness develops and that just comes with time," Bichel said. "We all had that awareness from Under-12s or Under-10s in Australia. Cricket awareness includes everything from sliding your bat to reading the game, setting the right field, bowling a particular delivery, being able to play an offspinner or a legspinner. Those sorts of things are probably the number one thing that we need to fast track in a sense but it takes time to learn that."
At the closing ceremony of the U-19 Qualifier in Ireland, the PNG players seized every opportunity to take photos and capture one last memory with Bichel. It was a sign of just how much he means to them and how much he'll be missed. He hopes that Papua New Guinea will continue to build on the foundation he's helped lay for them to succeed.
"I've loved the experience. I've loved the time. I've loved what I've done," Bichel said. "Hopefully I've left a brand and a style of playing the game which is different from what they knew before. Getting 30 and two wickets and a catch was a pretty good game and hopefully now I've given them a vision that the game is not played like that. Hopefully it's that professionalism that we've touched on, but like I said there's so many things to that professionalism. We didn't have a facility. Now we've got a facility so now we can start to play the game."
- By Peter Della Penna, a journalist based in New Jersey
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.