Meet Hanuabada's latest flagbearer
With a push to long-off, Lega Siaka made history. On November 9, he became the first Papua New Guinea batsman to score a one-day international century. Within a few weeks he had been signed by the Melbourne Renegades.
Siaka is the "pocket rocket" who has fuelled PNG's cricketing surge. Baby-faced and 5ft 6in, he looks even younger than his 22 years. But his slight physique is no indication of a lack of six-hitting clout. "Power is one thing that for a short guy he's got an incredible amount of. He's hit some of the biggest sixes I've seen, off the front foot and back foot," says his PNG team-mate and former England wicketkeeper Geraint Jones. "They think, 'He's a little guy, let's bounce him', and he's put them out of the park more often than not."
Perhaps the most heartwarming cricketing tale all year has been that of Papua New Guinea. PNG gained ODI status in 2014, and celebrated by becoming the first country ever to win their first two ODIs, when they defeated Hong Kong 2-0 in Australia.
It would not have happened without Siaka. In January, he hit centuries against Kenya and Namibia in the World Cup Qualifiers. And in the second ODI against Hong Kong, his 109, fusing classy late cuts with ferocious pull shots, underpinned PNG's successful chase of 262.
"When I crossed the white line I was feeling a bit nervous. From the start I felt pressure," reflects Siaka. "When the bowlers started running in, I said to myself: 'It's me, I'm going to do the job for PNG.'" That he did, and his team made history in the process.
Siaka embodies PNG's rise. He grew up in Hanuabada, the hub of PNG cricket, where he still lives. It is a fishing village of 20,000 on the north-western outskirts of Port Moresby. Houses here tend to be made from corrugated iron, and lifted above the sea on stilts. The place has produced over half of all the players who have represented PNG.
"My family life is a bit tough," Siaka reflects. His mother could not find work so his father had to support the family. Siaka and his four siblings grew up playing cricket with a tennis ball. He did not face a hard ball until he was 16.
The career he is making from cricket holds out the promise of a better life for Siaka and his family, which includes his young daughter. "I give something to my family to buy food or something like that. I send the money back home and they can survive from that," he says. "My mum and dad are proud of me and they're happy."
While he might not get a chance to play for Melbourne Renegades, Siaka's game will benefit from training alongside Aaron Finch, Tom Cooper, Jesse Ryder and Dwayne Bravo. "I will learn a lot from them."
Siaka's self-belief and range of shots make him one of the most electrifying batting talents beyond the Test world. In nine innings in 50-over cricket for PNG, all in 2014, he has scored three centuries, amassed at a strike rate of 109. "He can play really well off the front and back foot - off side and leg side," Jones says. "Out of a lot of young batsmen I've seen recently - and I'm talking about county cricket as well - he's impressed me the most with his all-round ability."
But Siaka has his eyes set on more than dominating on Associate level 50-over and T20 cricket. He admits that he needs to improve against spin. "One shot I have to improve is the sweep shot", he says. He is also aiming to transfer his form in white-ball cricket to the longest format. "I've never played four-day cricket before but I think it's going to push me forward to become a better player. When you start playing four-day cricket you have to work hard and do the right things," he says. "It teaches you to be strong on the mental side and to keep batting and batting."
PNG have never played a first-class match before. But by dint of their ODI status, they will be included in the Intercontinental Cup from next year - and, in theory, could qualify for the Test Challenge. While that may be unlikely, PNG thrashed Hong Kong in a three-day warm-up match last month, with Siaka scoring a measured 51 in the first innings. The victory suggested that their experience of two-day cricket in the South Australian Premier League has hardened the players. PNG finished bottom of the two-day league last year and are bottom again this season. "We didn't do much," Siaka admits, but the tournament has been critical in giving players their first experience of multi-day cricket.
In T20 cricket, PNG are far more formidable. They won the South Australian Premier League T20 competition last year and, with a one-wicket win in the final, retained their title this month.
For Siaka, T20 is his "favourite format". His penchant for thumping the ball over midwicket, and his improving auxiliary legspin and electric fielding (he scored a spectacular direct hit from mid-off against Hong Kong) make him ideally suited to the format.
Siaka could soon show as much at a global event. While PNG narrowly missed out on qualification for the World Cup, the squad is eyeing the 2016 World T20 as the next step in their development. "I want to play in a World Cup," Siaka says. "When I travel with the boys they've been planning for the World Cup. We have to work harder from here."
In September, the squad became full-time cricketers. For Siaka this means he no longer has to juggle opening the batting for his country with working for Cricket PNG as a groundsman.
Cricket is already established as the second most popular sport in PNG, behind rugby league. "More and more people are playing cricket. Cricket is getting bigger back home," Siaka reflects. The game now has the opportunity to kick on, thanks to PNG's success on the field and an enlightened approach by Cricket Australia and New Zealand Cricket, who have both pledged some of their World Cup proceeds to build over 100 synthetic wickets in the country.
A Papuan forging a successful career with an Australian state would be another landmark moment. As Greg Campbell, the chief executive of Cricket PNG, recently put it: "We just need a boy to crack a KFC Big Bash game, or even a [Sheffield] Shield game, and then it's like everything - once you see someone playing on the telly, you keep saying, 'Well, I want to play that game.'"
The latest product of Hanuabada looks like the most realistic candidate to realise that tantalising prospect and prove that there is no glass ceiling to what a Papuan cricketer can achieve. Siaka offers the promise of being a flagbearer for PNG and the wider Associate world.
Tim Wigmore is working on a collaborative book on Associate cricket, out in January 2015