At 19 for 6 in four overs against Kenya on Sunday morning, it appeared to be a case of deja vu for Papua New Guinea. In previous situations in 2013 & 2015 with a chance to qualify for the T20 World Cup, they threw away golden opportunities.
But on this occasion, they kept their cool to rally to a defendable total in an eventual 45-run win that wound up being enough to keep them above Netherlands on net run rate in order to clinch the top spot in Group A and a place in the 2020 T20 World Cup in Australia. PNG captain Assad Vala says it is a credit to the belief borne out of newer players in the squad, unscarred by heartaches at previous qualifiers.
"The belief," Vala said in the post-match press conference when asked what's different about this year's squad. "We're just trying to do the basics. What this group is about, is just working for each other. We just try to play our roles to the best of our abilities. We've got roles given to us by the coach and we're just trying to play them to the best of our ability. We've got a really good, disciplined bowling attack, our fielding has been outstanding lately, but I think the way the character we have shown, the fightback from difficult situations, I'm really proud of the way the boys have done."
In 2013, Papua New Guinea had Hong Kong pinned back at 19 for 4 in the fourth over before letting them off the hook in a playoff match in Abu Dhabi as Babar Hayat, Munir Dar and Mark Chapman took Hong Kong to a defendable total. In 2015, they tripped up against USA on the last day of group play at Malahide when a win would have clinched an automatic berth to India as the group winners. Instead the loss to USA meant Ireland topped the group while PNG were shunted into fourth place after group play and wound up as cannon fodder for Afghanistan, who were smarting after a last-ball loss to Hong Kong in the first qualifier playoff.
But Papua New Guinea have been the dominant team in Group A in 2019, leaving almost no margin for error for such slip-ups to occur again. Their only loss came by four runs to Scotland at ICC Academy when they stumbled after needing nine off the last over. Otherwise, they have run circles around the opposition in oppressive heat thanks to their brilliant fitness and fielding.
Though newer players have helped propel PNG in the field, they have still relied on experienced veterans in key moments. One of the four holdovers from the 2013 & 2015 disappointments along with Vala is Norman Vanua. The allrounder held his nerve after entering at 19 for 6 to come up with a career-best 54 as part of a 77-run stand with Sese Bau. In 2015, PNG didn't record a single half-century at the qualifier in Malahide but contributions like Vanua's made a massive difference in Dubai.
"We knew that if we could get something around 120, we believed we could defend it," Vala said. "It wasn't looking like that until a really good partnership between Norman and Sese. Sese played a really good foil to Norman. He showed us how to play on the wicket, just rotating and waiting for the loose ball. When the loose ball came he got the boundary for us, so I think that's something we can learn from him.[Vanua] He's worked a lot on his batting. He's done the same for us in some of the 50-over matches where he's batted long, so it's not something new for him. He needed to bat long, and that's what he did for us."
PNG's general form was poor coming into the tournament. They had lost eight straight ODIs to start off Cricket World Cup League, two against a combination of Scotland, Oman, Namibia and USA in their first two series held at Aberdeen in August and Florida in September. Overseas betting markets had them listed at 20 to 1 odds to win the T20 World Cup Qualifier, well behind 5/2 favourites Ireland. But they're now just two wins away from ending as tournament champs. Vala says much of the difference in results is down to the team's comfort level in T20 cricket at home in domestic competitions compared to 50-overs.
"The T20 suits the way we play, lot of energy," Vala said. "We don't play a lot 50-over cricket back home. Only time we play 50-over matches is when we go to the World Cricket League. All our club games are based on T20s because of the grounds we have so that's why the boys are probably used to playing the shorter format of the game. It's not an excuse but we just need to keep doing the basics right for a longer period of time in 50-overs."
"I don't know how many qualifiers we've been to. We've come so close on so many occasions. Our ability is good. We can get it done. We believe we can. It's something we've worked really hard for and we're looking forward to it."