64 all out, a total that was then chased down without loss in eight overs, doesn’t make pretty reading. Sill, Papua New Guinea coach Kili Pala has taken something ‘priceless’ away from the game: 15 minutes with Rahul Dravid. At the invitation of the PNG management, the Indian coach spoke to the PNG team in their dressing room after the game.
"We asked him some questions and he shared what he learned during his career, he passed it on to the players, which was really nice of him, and it really encouraged us," Pala said.
"The boys asked him what they did when the situation was tough, if there’s a good bowler, or you get dropped. He said to stick to your routines, which you do when you’re doing well. And hopefully you can get past the tough patch and there is brighter light ahead. He was quite impressed with our young left arm fast bowler who bowled a short ball to the Indian captain and walked right up to him. He talked about how he prepared himself before the game."
PNG may not have been able to put up a strong show against the favourites, but overall, they are a team on the rise. At the 2015 ICC WT20 Qualifier, which decided participation for the WT20 2016 in India, they fell short by one point, despite beating Ireland, the team that eventually qualified. Their women’s team participated in the Qualifying tournament for last year’s ICC Women’s World Cup, having topped the East-Asia Pacific group. And this is their eight appearance in an ICC Under-19 World Cup.
Most impressive though, is the fact that unlike most other associate teams, who feature a lot of players with Asian roots, the PNG side is completely homegrown. So much so, that 90 percent of the team comes from the same village, Hanuabada.
The reason cricket is concentrated there is partly geographical. PNG itself lies just north of Australia, and the country is made up of 600 islands, and has more than 800 languages. And even though the capital, Port Moresby, and the second-largest city, Lae, are on the mainland, there is no roadway connecting the two. The village of Hanuabada, which is close to the capital, is so obscure that it doesn’t even show up on Google Maps. Also, the culture of the country is based heavily around family, meaning players aren’t too keen to move out of their villages.
And yet, the game is spreading in both depth and breadth. "The game has spread to 10 provinces," says Cricket PNG CEO Greg Campbell. Campbell played Test cricket for Australia, and his nephew is one of the country’s cricketing greats, Ricky Ponting. And it’s apparent that Campbell means business. When this writer arrived for the interview with him, he had the team coach Pala, the captain and the manager, all in PGN kit, present and ready to contribute. It felt more like a corporate appointment than a sports interview. And that approach is exactly what has enabled Cricket PNG to grow in his eight-year long term.
"When I moved in there, we just had one synthetic wicket in 2010 or 2009. Now our ground has first-class status. There's six to eight (turf) wickets and the main centre wicket, we're looking to build an academy and an indoor cricket centre in the years to come. Eight years ago, we had 8 staff. Now we have 80."
How did Campbell find the funds to fuel this growth? “Corporate sponsorships”, he says.
"As a business, we're very transparent, very good governance. Any sponsor can ask anything they want. They see us making a difference in PNG to the community and people. In the last couple of years, from what the ICC give us, we actually earn more from our corporate sponsors."
The ‘making a difference’ part is important, because PNG has a high crime rate. Only 13% people live in urban areas, the lowest proportion in the Commonwealth. Which is why Campbell’s strategy, to make cricket “a family sport” is important. Central to that is BSP Kriket, a soft-ball competition that he says now has 2,00,000 participants across the country. For many of the current under-19 squad, that was their first taste of the sport.
PNG cricket now has 16 male players and 10 female players on central contracts. One of their female players, Ravini Oa, recently spent two weeks at the Perth Scorchers as part of the WBBL associate rookie program. Jason Gillespie coached the country for a brief stint last year, and they are in the process of inducting Joe Dawes.
Coach Pala is employed full time, one of the first to come into the Cricket PNG system after his playing career, when he used to balance cricket with a job in a shipping company.
"I used to take three buses just to get to where the field is”, said Pala of his early cricketing days. Now Cricket PNG has a bus of their own, which is ferrying the different teams from the village to the Amini Park, their first-class ground, pretty much the whole day."
"It’s just safer," said Campbell with a chuckle. "The local buses are crowded, sometime you would get out but your kit bag would get left behind."
The TV coverage that the game against India brought was also something that they valued. "Last September, Cricket PNG paid the local TV station to show the games against Scotland live," said Campbell. "The feedback was outstanding. If we keep doing that, spreading the canvas, it will help. People don’t see our players on TV yet. If they start doing that, more people will be inspired."
They may not have turned many heads with what they did on the field, but Campbell has long term plans in place for PNG, right up to 2030. "I go back to the school program; we went to BSP bank with 0 children playing and asked for 70000 kina to buy equipment. They had the vision to come on board and now they are 10-year sponsors. Now we've gone from 0 to 2,00,000 playing.”
For now, PNG will look ahead to the immediate future, their game against Australia. And they will be buoyed by their time learning from one of the greats of the game. "15 minutes of his time was like an hour to us. Hopefully we learned a lot."