PNG favourites on home soil
The chances for the smaller cricket nations to reach the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka in 2012 have been reduced now that the tournament will again be a 12-team event rather than 16, but there are still two places up for grabs for Associate and Affiliate nations.
Those from the Asia-Pacific region have reached their final stage of qualifying for the global play-off in UAE early next year. Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Japan and hosts Papua New Guinea will take part in a four-day event in Port Moresby to determine which team travels to the Middle East.
Papua New Guinea have sped up the rankings in the last 12 months and now sit at No. 19 in the world, but that success brings with it added pressure of being hosts and favourites.
According to wicketkeeper Jack Vare, preparations have been going exceptionally well for the team, who are coached by Andy Bichel, and they are determined not to waste an opportunity to perform at their peak on the turf wickets of Amini Park and Colts Cricket Ground.
"Representing your country in front of your family and friends is a great honour," Vare said. "It is great to be able to show them the exciting and entertaining brand of cricket the Hebou Barramundis can play and demonstrating the spirit of PNG through the game of cricket. Although there is the added pressure of playing on home soil, I know all the players are excited and looking forward to the tournament."
Fiji are looming as the team most capable of toppling the seemingly invincible PNG. With an extremely busy international schedule ahead for the national team, including the tournament in PNG, the South Pacific Games and then World Cricket League Division 6 in the next three months, preparation has been more important than ever before and allrounder Kitione Tavo was happy with the level the team have reached.
"Training has been good and I think our preparation is going well," Tavo said. "There's a great feeling among the team this year."
Fiji have also been boosted by the return of two players, who have been out of the national side for a number of years. Fast bowler Imran Kahn returns after a six-year absence, teaching in the USA, and Jikoi Kida returns after a stint in Egypt with the Fijian army.
Japan will enter the tournament with new-found confidence after an intense couple of months of training since their last tournament. It has been well documented that Japan performed considerably below the standard they expect of themselves at the recent World Cricket League Division 7 event in Botswana. However coach Chris Ferguson is confident his side can learn from the mistakes made and begin the rebuilding process in PNG.
"That is the nature of international cricket," Ferguson said. "There is always another tournament coming up and you need to respond quickly. We made mistakes in Botswana but the players have reviewed their own performances, been honest with themselves and the team, and have put in a lot of hard work over the past six weeks to rectify the problems that we encountered."
With an average age of under 23, Vanuatu will be the youngest side competing in Port Moresby. After a strong showing at the Regional Under-19 event in February, when they finished second behind PNG, Vanuatu will be hoping their young talent can demonstrate the mental toughness required to match it with the best senior developing countries in the region.
"We are pleased with the progress we are making but understand we are in for some tough battles," captain Andrew Mansale said.
Despite fielding a side with seven players who are 21 years or under, Mansale is confident that his side can compete. "We are expecting all teams to be tough, we have worked very hard with our fitness trainer Brett Wright for 20 weeks now and have been working hard with a special emphasis on running between the wickets and bowling and batting variations."
Samoa are the only Affiliate participating in the ICC EAP Division 1, but that is of little concern to their squad who plan to make a real impact against the four Associate sides.
The Samoan team breezed through Division 2 in April undefeated, and have been preparing in New Zealand to take the next step up. "Samoa will go into the tournament as, no doubt, underdogs," Samoan Cricket general manager Andrew Flynn said. "However members of the team are fit, healthy, ready to compete and will be carrying the pride of Samoa with them."
Former New Zealand bowler Murphy Su'a will coach the side, which despite having a wealth of older more experienced players in their line-up, will need some young talents like Tiafala Alatasi to perform well with the ball if they are to make a genuine impact in Port Moresby.
"If I can limit the runs and do my job, and each of us do our job, we will do well," Alatasi said, who was the leading wicket-taker at the Division 2 event in April.