June 29, 2015

Papua New Guinea take flight

How the team went from a bunch of mentally and physically unfit cricket enthusiasts to winning their maiden first-class game in some style

Beating an established Associate in under three days in your first ever first-class game? Not bad at all © KNCB/Sander Tholen

"First we did it in ODIs, and now in four-day cricket. It was a massive performance. I was speechless. It was a very special day for cricket in Papua New Guinea… " Jack Vare, the PNG captain, is a happy man a day after PNG won their maiden first-class match, beating Netherlands in an Intercontinental Cup game in Amstelveen by five wickets. And justifiably so: a victory on debut against an established Associate team, inside three days, is something to be proud of.

Vare hit the winning runs, a boundary, against chinaman bowler Michael Rippon. Even as the PNG players charged to the middle to celebrate, Vare ran to embrace his partner, vice-captain Assad Vala. There were several people who contributed to the win, but none more than Vala, who scored a determined century in the chase of 305, dealing patiently with uneven bounce on the second day. His 200-run partnership with Mahuru Dai was the backbone of the innings.

The match was a "topsy-turvy" affair, according to PNG coach Dipak Patel, the former New Zealand offspinner. Thirty-two wickets fell on the first two days in conditions favourable to seam bowling.

At the end of it all, Vala, who had batted for four and a half hours, was emotional. "I had some tears. We fought really hard. To get 300 and get a win... I did not want to get out or do anything silly to spoil all the hard work I did. We had a lot of overs, so we just wanted to bat without worrying about the score. We did really well."

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PNG have a come a long way since their initiation into cricket eight years ago. In 2007, when the World Cricket League first began, PNG were in Division Three and finished in third place after losing a semi-final to Uganda by one wicket. They also finished third in Division Three in 2009, this time on net run rate after tying with Uganda and Afghanistan.

When Patel arrived in Port Moresby, PNG's capital, last year, he was in for a shock. "A lot of them did not even understand it was a four-innings game. They just thought it was one innings each. That is how naïve they were," he says.

"The bowlers could bowl probably one and a half spells [in top gear], but when they came back for the third spell, mentally they were drained. They did not know when to switch on and when to switch off so that you are not stretched out mentally"
Dipak Patel, PNG coach

Patel took over from Peter Anderson, the former Queenslander wicketkeeper, who coached PNG till the World Cup Qualifiers last year. Despite finishing two places short of qualification, PNG secured ODI status and went on to record that landmark win in their maiden ODI against Hong Kong in Townsville, Australia. In fact, they won all three matches on that tour - two ODIs and a three-day game.

Adam Cassidy, a former ICC project officer for East Asia Pacific, who has worked with Cricket PNG extensively, has seen the transformation at first-hand. "Their real turning point in terms of maturity has come since they got ODI status," he says.

In both the ODI wins against Hong Kong, they were under pressure at various stages. "The old PNG might have thrown it away but in the last 12 months they have matured and overcome the pressure," Cassidy, who along with his father Barrie has written an illustrated book on cricket in the Pacific, says.

The book, An Ocean of Cricket, begins with a chapter on the village of Hanuabada, the place that has given PNG cricket a majority of its players. The book refers to the village as the soul of PNG cricket and describes vividly why the game is a saviour in a country that is notorious for its high crime rate.

According to Cassidy, PNG are an "exceptional" T20 team. They have won the last two editions of the South Australian T20 Premier League. But progress in the longer formats was slow in the making.

Patel found the players unable to produce sustained effort. "They were very good for 15-20 overs whether batting or bowling, but thereafter they could not process a whole day's cricket. Peter had done a good job to get them to a level, but what I found was I needed to get a lot more structure into their cricket. Basically they have been brought up on T20 cricket only, so a lot of my time is spent explaining to them a lot of processes involved in terms of both bowling and batting over longer periods."

Impressive showings in landmark games is becoming a trademark of this PNG team © ICC

Along with his two assistants, Rarva Dikana (the former PNG captain, who is a high performance manager) and John Obia (also PNG's Under-19 head coach), Patel went about setting scenarios for players in training: batsmen would need to bat for two to three hours at a go, and bowlers would have to work on dot balls and maidens and bowling longer spells. Billy Ame, a 20-year-old, was brought in as strength and conditioning coach. "They were very athletic but lacked the mental and the physical stamina," Patel says.

Another area that needed work, he says, was their eating habits."There is no question about it - they don't eat the right foods to allow them to train for longer periods of time. So we made sure they eat the right foods in the morning, at lunch time, at dinner and in between meals, because their staple diet is totally different to what athletes eat traditionally."

Mental conditioning was another requirement, one that showed during the Netherlands games according to Patel: "The bowlers could bowl probably one and a half spells [in top gear], but when they came back for the third spell, mentally they were drained because they had exerted themselves so much. They did not know how to handle that, as to when to switch on and when to switch off so that you are not stretched out mentally.

"As for the batsmen, the maximum time they can bat is an hour or an hour and ten minutes and after that they get very tired. Physically they are strong enough but mentally they struggle to stay focused for long periods of time."

Patel points out 27-year-old pace bowler Loa Nou, who took six wickets including a five-for in the first innings against Netherlands. "He is a classic example, where he bowled magnificently in the first innings to get five wickets. But when he came back in the second innings he was not that potent purely because of the fact that he was mentally and physically drained."

It was Nou's comeback match. He had been dropped in 2011 and family problems had forced him to leave cricket for a while; in 2012 he lost both his parents and his older sister and was left with two other sisters to take care of. When he was ready for cricket again, he acknowledges he had to work hardest on his fitness: "I lost about 10-12kg. I wanted to make sure I get 100% fit if I had to play for the national team."

"Players come through structured systems in bigger countries. These guys have played street cricket, village cricket, and suddenly they are playing international cricket"
Dipak Patel

Nou bowled nine overs in his first spell in the first innings. "I was getting tired, but it was a very good challenge for us in our first four-day match. I was trying to prove to my team-mates and my coach that I am one of the best," he says.

Patel is confident the players are moving in the right direction and, with time, could surprise stronger opponents more frequently. "People who turn up to watch them will be pleasantly surprised in the quality of cricket they can play. We have come a long way since where we were seven to eight years ago. We are professionals now, our training is more professional, we have scholarships that help us play club cricket in Australia, experienced coaches coming in... "

One obstacle facing PNG's development that Patel can't control is a scarcity of long-form matches. They do not not play their next four-day match till September, when they play Afghanistan in the Intercontinental Cup. Instead, they now go back to the shorter formats, with two recently completed 50-over WCL Championship matches against Netherlands and then the World T20 Qualifiers.

Despite the uphill grind, Patel is happy to pedal along, enjoying the simple joys of working with a small cricketing nation. "A lot of players come through structured systems in bigger countries, whereas these guys have played street cricket, local village cricket, and suddenly they are playing international cricket. The elation and self-belief in their eyes [when they do well], it is wonderful to see. Cricketers who are fresh to international cricket really enjoy the moments."

"We must continue to develop," Vare says. On June 18 last year, his father died. Vare senior was a "secret follower" of cricket, according to his son. A musician, he had been made an MBE for his services to music. A year on, Vare is proud - for PNG, and on behalf of his dad. "It was a special day for my country. And it was special for my family as well. Before I went up to bat, I looked up to the sky: 'Dad, give us luck.' So when I scored the winning runs it was something very special to me."

Patel sums up the team's progress: "What PNG have been able to achieve in a very short space of time is an amazing story. A relatively unknown country, particularly in cricket terms. What they have done is amazing."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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