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Hotel fires, machetes and second-hand kit: The incredible story of T20 World Cup's ultimate minnows

Assad Vala leads PNG to the T20 World Cup. (Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Expert
13th October, 2021
15
2293 Reads

Papua New Guinea will achieve their dream of playing in the T20 World Cup when they open the tournament against Oman later this week. It’s their first ever qualification for an ICC global tournament and the story of how the Barramundis got there involves hotel fires, humility, fight backs and machetes.

Having missed out on appearing in a World Cup by the slimmest of margins in 2013 and 2015, PNG won five of their six group matches at the Men’s T20 World Cup Qualifier in 2019 and secured qualification to the 2021 World Cup tournament. They ended up losing to the Netherlands in the final but impressed everyone with their all round commitment and startling fitness.

Their performance against Kenya in the qualifying tournament typified their character. A win would secure their place in their first ever World Cup but after four overs they had fallen to 6-19. But not only did they manage to scrap their way to 118, they skittled Kenya for 73 and the celebrations could begin.

The sport of cricket was introduced to the country in the 1900s by missionaries but it wasn’t until 1972 that they had their first match when they took on a touring Australia XI in Port Moresby. A year later they were admitted as an Associate member of the ICC and then in 2014 they secured ODI status.

It’s hard for most to appreciate just how important this achievement was for PNG and their cricket program. As former coach Joe Dawes wrote for AthletesVoice “that was a life-changing moment for a lot of people because of the funding that comes with the status, and what it provides. That was an incredible day.”

The whole 2021 World Cup squad is of Papuan heritage with the vast majority being born and raised near the capital and several members are second or even third generation Barramundi players.

The sport has come a long way from those early days. Vic Williams, bowling coach and cricket consultant, once shared a story of the first Barramundi tour. The players wanted to eat one evening and so instead of trying the restaurant or room service, they lit a fire in their hotel room and started to cook up a meal. It wasn’t an act of Rolling Stones rebellion – they just didn’t know better.

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With budgets extremely limited, the squad aren’t able to be employed as solely players but instead have roles such as ground staff or development coaches. Some of the team have also been able to play in Australia as part of the Brian Bell Scholarship program with captain Assad Vala previously playing for the Brisbane Heat and Lega Siaka joining the Melbourne Renegades.

These sorts of opportunities aren’t valuable purely from a cricket development point of view. For many of the players they allow them to feed their families. As Dawes explained: “The money they’re earning from cricket might be feeding 15-20 people in a household. So cricket isn’t necessarily their main focus; surviving and feeding their families is.”

While, like the richer countries, PNG have dedicated Strength and Conditioning coaches, just getting enough calories aboard the players could be problematic.

“Getting the quality of food up here is difficult, and expensive,” said Dawes. “When you are feeding 12 people you can’t afford to buy 12 rump steaks, so in many cases dinner might be a huge bowl of rice flavoured with tomato sauce or a two-minute noodle satchet.”

And Dawes reveled the assistance he received from players at Adelaide Strikers and Queensland, who donated used cricket kit for him to take back for the team in Port Moresby.

He shares an incredible story about the limited funds in PNG cricket that sets it aside contrast to the multi million dollar deals that so many of the tier one players at the World Cup are used to.

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“We had an issue at the cricket ground where one of the security guys, who probably makes $1.50 an hour, had obviously neglected to pass on his paycheck to the family and they were chasing him around the cricket complex with machetes,” explains Dawes. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t remember seeing that in the brochure.’”

Now that they’ve made it to the World Cup, the Barramundis’ talismanic skipper, Vala, has been a mainstay of the side since 2005 and knows he will need to deliver with both bat and ball if his side are to smake it through to the Super 12s.

They need to come in the top two of their group, up against Bangladesh, Oman and Scotland.

With no out and out pace bowlers amongst their ranks they will have to reply upon their slower bowlers to contain opposition batsmen. When it comes to scoring runs, they’ve got plenty of explosive power from the likes of Vala, Siaka and Tony Ura.

But it’s their fielding and fitness that could really help PNG pick up crucial wins in the opening group stage. They are renowned for their pace and accuracy in the field and have often caused confusion and frustration amongst the batsmen as they try to figure out whether there’s a quick single on or not.

Yet it would be a major surprise if they can advance, having lost their last 16 games in a row in all formats. Vala remains hopeful.

“T20 suits the way we play, lot of energy,” Vala toldESPN CricInfo. “We don’t play a lot 50-over cricket back home. 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.”

Unfortunately PNG have only played one T20 international since late 2019 and that was a warm up game this week for the World Cup against Namibia that they lost by 14 runs.

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But as Vala makes clear, the Barramundis’ game plan has always been about focusing on the basics.

“There are no superstars. We’re a well drilled team, well disciplined, relying upon each other to play their role,” the skipper explained in an ICC interview ahead of the World Cup.

Teams often speak of the strength of their culture but according to Dawes, the Barramundi are on a different level.

“I’ve never before worked with a group of people who are like a big family in the way these guys are,” shared Dawes. “I’ve been in some really good cricket teams over the years but I’ve never seen anything else like this. They share a special bond.”

Vala might be right that there are no world superstars yet in his squad but fans should definitely keep an eye out for CJ Amini and Norman Vanua.

Amini is one of the third generation players in the squad and is an absolute superhero in the field where he consistently pulls off the most amazing catches at backward point. His leg spin will also be important for his side as they look to tie opposition sides down.

Vanua meanwhile is an impressive all rounder. His yorkers are invaluable to PNG at the death of the innings and he has the power to clear the ropes with the bat.

Whatever their results, Dawes makes it clear that his former side will bring some colour and fun to the World Cup.

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“On the field, they’re very noisy because they love playing for their country and each other. They’re always laughing and their celebrations are some of the best I’ve seen,” said Dawes.

It might be their first World Cup, but everyone should expect the Barramundi to leave a lasting impression.

Papua New Guinea T20 World Cup Squad
Assad Vala (c), Charles Amini, Lega Siaka, Norman Vanua, Nosaina Pokana, Kipling Doriga, Tony Ura, Hiri Hiri, Gaudi Toka, Sese Bau, Damien Ravu, Kabua Vagi-Morea, Simon Atai, Jason Kila, Chad Soper, Jack Gardner.

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