Papua New Guinea show the Associates the way
"The Associate members could be a hell of a lot worse off."
This glass-half-full view is a refreshing change from all the recent expressions of regret, rancour and outrage over the ICC's decision to trim the next World Cup to just the 10 Full Members.
Bill Leane took up the post of Cricket Papua New Guinea (PNG) chief executive in May 2009, and has lifted cricket in PNG, both domestically and internationally. Leane, who describes himself as a realist, says that without the global rights and India doing well, and the TV income coming into the game, the Associate members could be in more of a pickle than they are. "Some of that money flows through to us."
It would be easy to accuse him of simply kowtowing to the ICC but he's more visionary than that. One-day cricket has traditionally been the bread and butter of the minnows, but Leane is leading the charge to change the programme. Having witnessed Twenty20's potential while working with the Australian Cricketers' Association, he believes it is the way forward for the ICC's Associate and Affiliate Members.
"At the ICC AGM two years ago, PNG moved a motion with unanimous support from the 104 countries to increase the Twenty20 programme," he says. "My dream is to see us follow suit with the world game and have a 32-country Twenty20 World Cup. Twenty20 cricket will be the vehicle for us to grow in the future."
The 2012 World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka will be a more global event than its 50-over equivalent in 2015. The 10 Full Members will be joined by six Associates, plucked from a 16-team qualifier event in the UAE next year. Qualification would be an almighty success for a nation with humble beginnings, but it's certainly not out of the question for PNG.
PNG was admitted to the ICC in 1973 and, discounting the two Test-playing nations to the south, has always been the undoubted powerhouse of Oceania. Cricket was added to the South Pacific Games (the region's premier sporting event) in 1979 and PNG has won every gold medal contested in the discipline. They were notably dominant in the 2007 competition, walloping a total of 527 for 7 against New Caledonia. It remains the highest total in an international one-day match.
More far-reaching international triumphs have proven hard to come by, though. Fixtures have traditionally been rare, although PNG competed gamely at the 1982 ICC Trophy, defeating Bangladesh in the third-place playoff. The talent and passion has always been there, it was just underdeveloped and underfunded.
"For a long period of time, PNG's cricketers have all come out of one village of 20,000 - Hanuabada, a fishing village in Port Moresby," Leane says. "There have been some difficult circumstances over the years. I know in 2002 the Under-19 team went to the World Cup in New Zealand and arrived without equipment and uniforms."
Things have changed in the last couple of years, though. To suggest Leane's arrival has been a fillip for Cricket PNG would be an understatement. It started with the successful headhunting of the former Australia fast bowler Andy Bichel as Cricket PNG's director of coaching. Bichel's management skills and cricket nous have helped trigger a sharp ascent up the ICC's rankings. The Barramundis, as they are colloquially known, earned promotion to the World Cricket League (WCL) Division 2 with a second-place finish in the Division 3 tournament in January this year.
PNG then qualified for the ICC's High Performance Programme with a sterling performance at the six-team Division 2 tournament in Dubai which ended this week. They needed a top-four finish, and ended up third on the points table, with two more victories than fourth-placed Hong Kong. The week included wins over former High Performance members Bermuda and Uganda. The latter was a dramatic one-run triumph, where PNG restricted their opponents to 185 for 9 when they were earlier 106 for 3 in the 26th over. This team has heart.
The on-field success has been made possible due to some impressive off-field development and business acumen. In 2010 PNG ranked first among the ICC's Associates and Affiliates in administration growth. Cricket PNG was well-recognised at the 2010 ICC Development Awards, taking the gongs for "best junior cricket initiative" and "best cricket promotion and marketing programme".
From being centred on Port Moresby, Cricket PNG now has a regional structure, with 10 regions around the country. "Each year we bring in six to eight former Test cricketers and mix them with our best local talent in a televised event, the 'Don't Drink and Drive' Legends T20 Bash, and that's starting to gain a lot of momentum. We're also starting to get local government support."
Commercial support is where Cricket PNG stands above its competitors. PNG was the only team at the recent WCL tournament to feature a sponsor's logo on their playing kit. In official correspondence the side is known as the Hebou Barramundis. Roughly US$1.6 million has been raised from a series of non-conflicting sponsorships.
The national airline, and Bichel's links with Queensland Cricket have helped the team access the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, while Cricket PNG's own patch, Amini Park, was recently overhauled. The nation's first turf wickets were installed, and two cricket fields were converted into a five-ground facility.
Amini Park is the centre of a diverse range of battles for Leane. Port Moresby regularly rates a mention in the Economist's rankings of the world's worst cities to live in, with plenty of crime and many other social problems. Leane describes how it took about six months to clear the ground of about 50 squatters, some living as close as 20 metres from the Cricket PNG office.
"What keeps you grounded is the fact you're working in a sport with such great people," Leane says. Some of those people just achieved extraordinary success in Dubai. The rewards will be mostly financial - more than US$350,000 of extra funding per year over the next two years - but there will also be recognition, not only for the side, but also for individual players.
Raymond Haoda, one of PNG's prized assets, arguably should have already received more acknowledgment than he has. In 2010, the young right-arm quick became the first player from a non-Test playing country to take the most wickets at an Under-19 World Cup.
PNG is bursting with raw talent, like Haoda, according to Greg Campbell, the former Australia bowler and uncle of Ricky Ponting. Campbell is PNG's national operations manager and was head coach for the most recent WCL tournament, with Bichel presently biding his time as the Chennai Super Kings' bowling coach in the IPL.
"Our wicketkeeper, Jack Vare, was with the ACT Comets this season, and there have been a few little rumours that some of the [state] sides might be looking at him," Campbell said. "Lega Siaka just missed out on the squad for Dubai, but he's only 17 and has heaps of ability. We trained at the MCG before coming to Dubai, and a few of the Bushrangers came and had a look. They were already asking a few questions about him, but there's a lot of water to go under the bridge; he has to be a bit more mature."
Australia's domestic competition is the geographically sensible pathway for PNG cricketers, but once the youngsters play a fixture for the national side, they are classed as international players. Campbell is optimistic Cricket Australia will tweak the rule.
For now, Campbell's focus will be on the World Twenty20 global qualifier in the UAE. To reach that event, PNG must first win a regional tournament they are hosting in July, but a boilover is unthinkable after the side's efforts in Dubai. The homecoming will be significant for the players. Most are locals and none are strangers to the land of the unexpected. It will be a great chance for Cricket PNG to advance its corporate cause, and it could well be the side's first step in becoming cricket's next Ireland.