Reality bites for Nepal and Papua New Guinea
Nepal and Papua New Guinea found out the hard way what life must be like for forage fish on the Great Barrier Reef. Both Under-19 teams from Associate cricket nations were annihilated by Full Members in Townsville: Nepal dismissed for 82 by Australia after conceding 294, and Papua New Guinea all out for 116, which West Indies chased in 11.4 overs.
After the defeat at the Tony Ireland Stadium, Nepal's captain Prithu Baskota spoke of how instructive such matches against tough opponents were, of how their U-19 cricketers had never faced bowlers of Harry Conway and Gurinder Sandhu's speed and ability on such a pitch. The issue, however, is the opportunity to put these lessons into practice against superior teams on a regular basis and master them. Nepal don't have it.
They'll play two more games against England and Ireland, probably compete in the Plate section of the World Cup and go home, where quality competition is scarce. "We don't have such opposition back home obviously, we need to go abroad, to Test playing nations close by," says Baskota. "But we haven't got that opportunity. Hope it comes along in the future."
Pubudu Dassanayake, a former Sri Lanka Test wicketkeeper, is Nepal's coach at U-19 and senior level and he too emphasizes the need for a more competitive and organized cricket structure in the country: at school and club level. He simply wants more tournaments so that his players are training and testing their skills more often.
"When you see this much of opportunity in the country, I want to see us grow a little faster," Dassanayake says. "It's a matter of putting little things in place like schools cricket, club cricket, more tournaments. Nepal can fly."
The situation in Papua New Guinea is not so different. They have been leaders in the East Asia Pacific for years at both Under-19 and senior level, where they are ranked 19th in the world. They have made it to six Under-19 World Cups but never to a senior one. Their head coach Peter Anderson, a former Queensland and South Australia wicketkeeper, believes Papua New Guinea have outgrown their region and need exposure against tougher countries.
"Bangladesh, Afghanistan … we have got to get to that Asian region where we play better cricketers. I think that's the future personally," Anderson says. "That's not being detrimental to those countries [in the East Asia Pacific], they also need help. I think PNG have outgrown the region and we have to step up."
Several Associates struggle to grow in cricket because the local population doesn't take to it. And even if and when they do, the nuts and bolts of the game have to be taught to them. Sides from USA and Canada, for instance, contain a lot of expatriates from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean. Neither Nepal nor Papua New Guinea have that problem.
"I've been in the Associate world for a long time now. Nepal is one of the countries where lots of people watch and follow cricket. The base is there, the interest is there," says Dassanayake. "Whenever the national team plays in Kathmandu, you'll see about 15,000 people watching the match."
The BSP School Kriket Programme managed by Cricket PNG won the ICC award of Best Junior Participation initiative for the last two years. "Cricket's growth is phenomenal, 116,000 children [taking up the game] in the last two years," says Anderson. "They talk about Afghanistan being a real success story. I think PNG is way up there."
Though Nepal is in the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea a collection of islands in the Pacific Ocean, their cricket structures have more similarities. The sport is centered in one city in each nation - Kathmandu in Nepal and Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.
Dassanayake compares the cricket facility at the Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu to the Tony Ireland Stadium - "Nice outfield, decent pavilion, mountains all around" - and says the government of Nepal, the Asian Cricket Council and Cricket Association of Nepal are building grounds in different parts of the country, where facilities and playing experience is sub-standard at present. A goal Dassanayake wants achieved before his one-year contract expires is the setting up of an academy in the capital, where a facility has already been identified.
More than 95% of Papua New Guinea's cricketers come from its capital, and most of them from Hanuabada, a coastal village on its outskirts. That's because the infrastructure - three turf wickets, indoor and outdoor practice facilities, six synthetic nets - is all at Amini Park Sports Complex in Port Moresby. In 2008, there were no turf wickets in Papua New Guinea.
"We've come a long way in a couple of years," says Anderson, who succeeded former Australia bowler Andy Bichel as head coach. "We had a lot of squatters so we had to clear all that off and tidy up the grounds. Gradually, we're getting a really good set up there."
A lot of the internal travel between islands is by air in Papua New Guinea and it is expensive, forming a barrier to entry for talent outside the capital. Most of it never sees the facilities at Port Moresby, where Anderson says Cricket PNG is also working on setting up an academy. And there's below-par infrastructure on other islands because of the costs of transport.
Anderson is also hoping to build a relationship with Queensland Cricket to aid development of his players. "They are really family-orientated people [in PNG] and don't like being away but what I've pushed for is for ten scholarship players to go to the Gold Coast cricket competition, plus four girls," he says. "We've had meetings with Queensland Cricket about one of our players being their 18th contracted player in the KFC big bash."
Most of the cricketers comprising the Nepal and Papua New Guinea senior teams have played U-19 cricket and most of them at the U-19 World Cup in Townsville have come through the age-group structure as well. Dassanayake wants that to change in Nepal. He wants a player at a particular age group to earn his place at the next level and not progress because there's nobody else challenging from outside the age system.
"If someone misses the U-19 right now, it might be hard to get a break at the national level," says Dassanayake. "That has to change and that's why we need more tournaments [so players can come from outside the age-group structure]. When one of these youngsters wants to get into the national team, they should really have to perform to get in, and not because one of the [Nepal] seniors has left that they get a place."
And there lies a difference between the cricket structures in these two countries. Lots of Nepal's cricketers have been and are lost between the ages of 25 and 30 because they have to look outside the game for financial security. While some talent escapes Cricket PNG as well - to work or a laid-back island lifestyle - they have a better structure in place to keep their players. They contract some players and employ more as staff.
"We have 18 contracted players. There is money there," says Anderson. "We employ about 84 staff, and most of them are cricketers. We incorporate them into the system - administration and coaching. So all our guys are actually out on the road coaching throughout Port Moresby."
Nepal have made a small start too. "Cricket Association of Nepal began to pay about 20 players six months ago. It's not a big amount but something we have started," Dassanayake says. "The armed police force has a team and they have hired about 15 cricketers so far. It's a start, but you need to do these things to keep players. Eventually I hope it will grow and we can take care of them better.
"Otherwise there's no way to retain players. They have to look after their life; cricket doesn't bring any money. Some of the players have been playing for the last ten years. They have given those years to the game without thinking about the future."
One of those Nepal cricketers presently giving years to the game is their Under-19 captain Baskota, who's from Kathmandu and began playing the game after watching Ricky Ponting bat on television. He's come through the age-group system and has already played for the national team. Baskota's hoping he won't have to make a hard decision in about five years time.
"I hope the situation changes because I'm just 19 now," Baskota says. "If I see a career in cricket I will love to continue in it. If I don't, I'll have to think about it."
Baskota's immediate target, and that of Dassanayake, is to perform better against England than they did against Australia, then try and win the Plate Championship. Anderson believes Papua New Guinea can go the same distance too.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo