November 7, 2014

The Barramundis' big break

Papua New Guinea have impressed, despite their limited resources and talent. Now, as they head into their first ODI, they're hoping for a brighter future

Papua New Guinea are hoping to participate in A team tournaments in Australia to get more quality match time © Getty Images

On November 8, Papua New Guinea will become the 23rd country to play a one-day international. One Papuan village will be watching especially closely.

Hanuabada is on the northwestern outskirts of the capital Port Moresby. Houses are made of corrugated iron, lifted above the sea by stilts. It has no electricity and safe running water is hard to find. The coastal village is the home of cricket in PNG. Members of the London Missionary Society introduced the town to the sport in the late 19th century, and it has exerted a powerful hold on Hanuabada ever since.

In an essay on Papuan cricket, Gideon Haigh recounts the former Tasmania legspinner John Watt's observations of the sport in the early 1900s. "If you visit any native village about Port Moresby, small boys can always be seen playing cricket right on the water's edge, with material of their own make," Watt wrote. "Every other hit the ball goes into the water, while the two batsmen 'run them out'."

A significant majority of all those who have worn the PNG baggy black have hailed from Hanuabada, which still dominates the national side today.

"They just play on the road, and if you hit one house, you could be out. If you hit that house, it's six," explains Greg Campbell, the former Australia Test player who is now the CEO of Cricket PNG. "They have their own markings on the road, sometimes games are played with back-to-back to stumps. They're just cricket-mad in the village - they grow up in it, they raise money to buy their own uniforms."

While the vitality of Hanuabada is remarkable for a village of 20,000, it also speaks of some of the obstacles cricket faces in PNG. Geography prevents easy transport links: the only way to travel between Port Moresby and Lae, the second largest city, is by air. "With the average wage, a lot of boys and parents can't afford their kids to come from Lae to Port Moresby," Campbell explains. Eighty seven per cent of the population lives in rural areas, and enthusiastic cricketers often endure arduous journeys by boat, bus and foot to play.

Geography was not the only challenge Campbell faced when he arrived in PNG almost four years ago. On the day he arrived, initially as Cricket PNG's operations manager before later becoming CEO, he stayed in a flat that had neither a bed nor electricity. He admits that for the first six months "there was a thought every week I should be out of there, but I always pride myself on not giving in".

As far as the Barramundis have come, they remain hampered by inconsistency and a penchant for collapsing like a 1990s England cricket tribute act

His patience has been vindicated. Four years ago the Barramundis were ranked the 23rd best one-day side in the world. Now they are 16th. In January, they defeated Kenya, Uganda and Namibia in the World Cup Qualifiers. They finished fourth in the tournament, two places short of a World Cup berth, but gained ODI status for the next four years. And, as Campbell notes, while the squad used to "get there at 9.30 for a 9 o'clock training" they now arrive in time.

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In the 1982 ICC Trophy (the qualifier for the World Cup) PNG beat Bangladesh in the third-place playoff, effectively making them the tenth best side in the world. It should have been the Barramundis' springboard, but as Campbell reflects, "there was nothing in the future for them". This was a world without ICC regional officers or any coherent programme for non-Test sides. They essentially existed only to play in the ICC Trophy every four years. When PNG resurfaced in the 1986 ICC Trophy, Netherlands promptly thumped them by 219 runs in their first game.

At least this time PNG have a decent base of fixtures to build on. Their performances in the World Cup Qualifiers ensured their place in the World Cricket League, and even more intriguingly, the Intercontinental Cup. In theory, this offers the winners the prospect of playing in the Test Challenge and earning Test status. In preparation for that, PNG are also playing a three-day game against Hong Kong this month: their first ever multi-day match against another international side.

PNG have some recent experience of multi-day cricket. A couple of years ago, South Australia wanted to form a Premier League to bridge the gap between club and state cricket, and were keen for sides outside of the state to be included. Campbell put together a proposal and successfully lobbied his old Tasmania team-mate Jamie Cox to invite PNG to participate in the inaugural South Australian Premier League in 2013-14. "I guaranteed that we'd be very competitive in the T20 and 50-over games, and said when we start playing the two-day games, it will be a learning curve for us, because our boys have always been set up to play T20 and 50," Campbell explained.

Kids play cricket on the street in Port Moresby © International Cricket Council

So it proved. While PNG found two-day cricket a challenge, struggling to maintain their fielding intensity, they won the T20 competition. Participation in the South Australian Premier League does not come cheap - it involves around 50 days away and costs 380,000 kina (about US $150,000) - but no one disputes its value to PNG cricket. "You can only train so much but actually playing matches is the best way to improve your game and your cricket awareness and mental strength," explains Chris Amini, the current national team captain. "We've come up against some international and first-class players and have learned a lot from them - just watching them go about constructing their innings or their approach to their game and how they prepare themselves."

Links have been cultivated with Australia in other ways. The most obvious is in personnel. Bill Leane was CEO from 2009 to 2011 and did much of the heavy lifting in transforming PNG cricket, including creating an annual Legends Bash tournament, which has hosted Arjuna Ranatunga, Dwaye Bravo, Kemar Roach and numerous Australians. One of Leane's first steps was to appoint Andy Bichel as head coach. Bichel "provided the foundation" for PNG's rise with his relentlessly high standards, according to Chris Amini. Peter Anderson, who was coach until he stepped down this year, is yet another Australian influence.

The Brian Bell Future Stars Programme allows up to 14 players a year to play abroad for up to six months, with Australia by far the most common destination.

Big Bash franchises have also cultivated Papuans: several have been signed, though a Papuan is yet to play a game. Thanks to some smart lobbying from Campbell with Cricket Australia, Papuans might not count as overseas players this year, increasing their chances of being selected. Lega Siaka, a 21-year-old opener from a fishing family in Hanuabada who scored two belligerent centuries in the World Cup Qualifiers in January, will sign for Melbourne Renegades this year.

Links are being established with New Zealand too. Former Test offspinner Dipak Patel was appointed as Papua New Guinea coach in July. He is the first Barramundis coach to live in the country full time and have day-to-day contact with the squad.

On September 1 this year, 16 leading players became full-time cricketers for the first time. PNG are not stopping there: they hope to pay a development squad of around 20 young boys and girls from next year, smoothing the transition to professional cricket. Campbell hopes that "in two or three years' time, we'll have a squad of 25 people that can play in our national team".

An A side is being formed to give the team more depth. Yet Campbell also remains conscious of the need to equip players with jobs beyond cricket. "We can help them with that, whether it's learning to be a mechanic, accountant, driving a truck, working in a bakery, we'll go out and do the player-welfare thing for them."

Increased professionalisation is one by-product of PNG's increased financial clout. Tim Anderson, the ICC's head of global development, praises their "ability to source their own income": the ICC provides under 30% of PNG's income, much less than for many comparable Associates. Cricket PNG has 14 sponsors, reflecting the skill of Campbell and Leane but also cricket's huge national appeal. It survives on around 6.5 million kina a year (about $2.5 million).

"We could build something like the Allan Border Field, just a nice little ground which can hold 10-15,000 people but with great facilities"
Greg Campbell

"We make sure that money goes a long way, and the money we get is tagged for specific projects," Campbell explains. The money is sufficient to fund a significant development operation. Nearly 200,000 children a year participate in the BSP School Kriket program, a sort of Papuan version of Kwik Cricket. "They have a huge junior participation base and are working hard to transition those big numbers into regular hard-ball players," notes Adam Cassidy, the ICC's regional project officer for the region.

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When the Barramundis make their ODI debut, they will do so in Townsville, in Queensland. This reflects one of PNG's most fundamental problems: no ground in the country has yet obtained ODI status. Campbell is optimistic that this will soon change and Amini Park (named after the brother of Chris Amini's grandfather for his Australian Rules prowess) will soon be granted ODI status. It has only acquired turf wickets in the last four years.

"We could build something like the Allan Border Field, just a nice little ground which can hold 10-15,000 people but with great facilities," Campbell believes. "We need to have something concrete that we have an international team coming in, because then you can push the right people in PNG to make it happen." ODIs against the lowest-ranking Full Members would help to convince the Papuan government to invest in a flagship national ground: it is remarkable that the Barramundis' progress to ODI status has come without any direct investment from the government. "It's only an hour and a half from Cairns, so we could look at a Zimbabwe or a Bangladesh coming out to PNG to play," Campbell says. "We want to hold these games in PNG to get crowds in and showcase our players."

One member of the side will not be celebrating his first ODI but his 50th, 3052 days after his 49th. Former England keeper Geraint Jones spent the first six years of his life in Papua New Guinea until the deteriorating security situation led to his parents uprooting from the capital. "It's not got a great reputation, Port Moresby. But from what I understand from the guys it's getting better," he said.

After the end of his England career, Jones began playing for PNG at the start of 2012. His second international career could hardly be more different from his first: he receives only a modest allowance, accommodation and travel fares for playing for the Barramundis. "He doesn't want money," said Campbell. "He wants to give something back, and he enjoys playing." While Jones bats in the middle order, his role is almost akin to that of a player-coach. "Jonesy's there to calm them down and say, 'Right, now, just think through this,'" Campbell explains. "They feed off him big time." The hope is that Jones will be involved in a coaching or ambassadorial capacity in PNG when he eventually retires.

Cricket in PNG is at an intriguing juncture. While rugby league continues to outstrip it in terms of crowds and media attention, cricket is narrowing the gap. It may now even be the biggest participation sport in PNG. Although cricket is strongest in Port Moresby and the surrounding Central Province, it has a genuine cross-class appeal. Thousands of children play Lik Lik cricket in tournaments on roads in Hanuabada every Saturday. Wealthier families like the Aminis have also embraced cricket: both Chris and his brother Charles benefited from spending three years in Melbourne when their father worked for Shell. He himself also played for the Barramundis, and his father, Brian, was the first native Papuan to captain the national team in 1977. With the exception of Jones, the side today is completely made up of indigenous players.

The challenge now is to expand the cricket-playing base beyond Port Moresby and establish an infrastructure to harness PNG's copious talent. Training facilities, including an indoor centre, synthetic nets and more turf wickets are all being developed. Campbell believes Test cricket "could be ten to 15 years away from us, and it might be longer. We're realistic: you've got to have the facilities, you've got to have the set-up to do it in the country. We just want to climb that ladder of the rankings."

Cricket PNG's most pressing aim is to retain ODI status in the next four-year cycle.

As far as the Barramundis have come, they remain hampered by inconsistency and a penchant for collapsing like a 1990s England cricket tribute act. PNG lost a playoff to reach this year's World T20 despite reducing Hong Kong to 19 for 4. "The boys were very disappointed, you saw a few of them had tears," Campbell reflects. "It was a case of probably not knowing how to do it or what to do, when to do it, and just playing some bad shots at certain times." After a sterling start to the World Cup Qualifiers this year, PNG lost their last three matches.

Lega Siaka, a rising PNG star, will soon feature in the Big Bash © ICC

"The boys haven't played enough top-quality cricket to understand that the tour goes from day one to the end of the day," Campbell said. "They start really well, then they have a bit of a downward pattern, and that could be homesickness, so we've got to work on that, and all that comes with experience of playing more and being at the top level." Charles Amini, who was in the Sydney Sixers squad last year, admits: "We have to be smarter for longer periods of time".

PNG's location in the world is also problematic. They are easily the strongest Associate side in the East Asia-Pacific Region. Cricket PNG made overtures to try and join the Asia region - which would also open up the possibility of qualification for the Asia Cup - but are now resigned to staying where they are. Extra emphasis will be put on maximising gains from the geographical proximity to Australia and New Zealand. PNG are lobbying to be included in future A team tournaments in Australia, and the Papuan prime minister, Peter O'Neill, will attend this year's Australia-India Test at the Gabba.

The sense is that more achievements are within tangible reach. Campbell believes that the effect of a Barramundis player thriving in Australian cricket could be transformative. "We just need a boy to crack a KFC Big Bash game, or even a Shield game, and then it's like everything - once you see someone playing on telly, you keep saying, well, I want to play that game." Qualification for a global event could have a similarly galvanising effect on the game, although with the 2019 World Cup reduced to ten teams, making the 2016 World T20 in India is PNG's only realistic chance of doing so this decade.

Cricket has already had a profound impact on Papua New Guinea. "Make a lifestyle for these boys, change their lives that way, make a better life for their family - that's what cricket can do," Campbell asserts. His first night working for PNG, bereft of a bed, now seems an age ago. "I definitely make sure that doesn't happen to anyone else who comes up here to PNG. We've moved on a long way since then." If exactly where the Barramundis go next remains unclear, theirs is a tantalising future.

Tim Wigmore is working on a collaborative book on Associate cricket, out in January 2015

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