Papua New Guinea: Finally ready for the big stage

Scheduled to play their first senior World Cup, the next 12 months may prove to be pivotal for the future of cricket in Papua New Guinea.

Vanua T20 Qualifiers

PNG has flirted with qualification for World tournaments for a while now, narrowly missing out twice for the T20 World Cup (in 2013 and 2015) and once for the ODI World Cup in the 2014 Qualifier. If the Covid-19 pandemic slows down, they should compete in their first senior World Cup next year. Along with that, the Barramundis have at least 28 ODIs lined up over the next 18 months as part of the Cricket World Cup League 2.

Though we cannot assume that all events will go ahead as planned, Papua New Guinea is looking at some exciting times ahead.

Participation in the T20 World Cup

The Barras qualified for the 2020 ICC T20 World Cup on the back of a stellar performance in the 2019 T20 World Cup Qualifier where they finished as the runners-up. Perhaps it is apt that their debut at the “big stage” is due to be in Australia which has served as their second home for cricket development over the years. Even though home advantage counts for very little in the T20 format, they would hope to rely on all the experience they have gained in the country as they look to qualify for the Super 12 stage.

With the announcement of a new qualification pathway by the ICC for the 2021 event, the group stage of the now-postponed 2020 event assumes an even greater significance as the teams who make the Super 12 stage would automatically qualify for the next edition. Although, PNG have already qualified for the Global Qualifiers, they have more than a fair shot at booking their place in advance if we look at how their group stacks up.

Norman Vanua
Norman Vanua celebrates his T20WCQ Hat-Trick against Bermuda (Photo: ICC)

The 2020 group matches were scheduled to be played in Geelong where the likes of Tony Ura, Skipper Assad Vala and Norman Vanua would fancy the short square boundaries. Only time will tell if these matches are played out on the proposed grounds when the event is rescheduled. PNG are placed alongside Sri Lanka, Ireland, and Oman in Group A of the tournament, where they would be playing against Sri Lanka in an international match for the first time. In T20Is, they have a 2-2 win-loss record against Ireland but the last of those matches was over 4 years ago. PNG and Oman are yet to face off in a T20 international, but they have played 4 matches across formats against each other since April 2019. After pulling off a sensational win on the final day of the WCL2 – dubbed the ‘Barramundi Miracle’ by Emerging Cricket, they have come out on the losing side at the T20 Qualifier warm-up game as well as the two ODIs in the CWC League 2.

However, more than the opposition it is the team’s inconsistency and mercurial nature which may hamper their chances in the tournament. Two aspects where they don’t lack consistency is their fielding prowess and the fighting spirit, the latter of which is typified by the Barramundi Miracle and the come from behind victory against Kenya in the T20 World Cup Qualifier.

ODI Fortunes

In contrast to their T20 campaign, last year saw them have a disastrous start to the CWC League 2 where they played 8 matches and lost all of them. Although Assad Vala and his men weren’t favourites at the start of the league as they secured ODI status and a berth in League 2 by the barest of margins, this start has put their hopes of securing a top 3 finish in jeopardy.

In an effort to improve their fortunes in ODIs, CPNG has organized the Isuzu National Cup, a 50-over competition consisting of three teams — Red, Black, and Yellow — of 14 players each, who will play eight games each across four weekends. Assuming the Covid-19 pandemic does not get out of hand in the country, there is every chance that there will be more rounds of 50-over fixtures organised later this year.

Assad Vala, EC Ambassador
Assad Vala has a highest score of 104 thus far during the CWC League 2 (Photo: ICC /Peter Della Penna)

In a piece he penned for Papuan newspaper The National, Head Coach Joe Dawes spoke of his enthusiasm for the tournament.“I am excited about this competition as it will give our players an opportunity to play 50-over cricket which is something that has been missing due to a lack of grounds in PNG.

We can’t wait to see the benefits of our players getting used to the longer format as we head into World Cup qualification in the 50-over format.”

The new domestic tournament would give their batsmen the opportunity to learn the art of batting time in the longer format. The lack of patience through the middle overs was evident in the recent CWC League 2 games where the middle order went for some wild slogs when the runs dried up.

The points table, as it stands, clearly doesn’t do justice to their on-field performances. During the Scottish tri-nation series, the Barras suffered three narrow losses. With a bit of luck and slightly better bowling tactics, they could have ended up on the winning side on all three occasions.

The same issue came to light during the USA leg, where they were unable to get over the line in the first game of the series. Strong performances from Captain Assad Vala and left-arm quick Nosaina Pokana will give them confidence going forward as it is still early days in the league with a possible 28 matches to go and PNG yet to host a series.

Hope despite an Uncertain Calendar

Unfortunately, with the status of ODI Super League hanging in the balance at the moment, there is no clarity whether the qualification pathways will be modified for the 2023 World Cup.

The postponements in CWC League 2 matches after Round 5 could see the calendar for the league getting condensed with fewer gaps in the schedule and teams looking at a busy early-2021. So, PNG would be looking to continue the form they showed in the T20 World Cup Qualifier and translate it into success in the ODI format when cricket resumes.

As the team consists of players entirely of Papuan heritage, they are one of the few Associate nations who escape the often unjust and ill-informed criticism levelled against the emerging world regarding “expatriate” players in the system.

In any case, with the side in the capable hands of Coach Joe Dawes and a fixture list which finally gives them greater exposure, 2021 may turn out to be the year in which we see the Barramundis on the front pages of newspapers.

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