x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Cricket fights for popularity in Papua New Guinea

The country's people love the sport but battle economic and social problems, writes Paul Radley.

Greg Campbell, the Papua New Guinea coach, would be hoping to introduce Ricky Ponting, his nephew, to his team.
Greg Campbell, the Papua New Guinea coach, would be hoping to introduce Ricky Ponting, his nephew, to his team.

The only thing more unusual than the sight of a Papua New Guinea national team playing cricket in the desert has to be the sight of a group of supporters wearing PNG colours there cheering them on. Especially when they are missing Super 15 rugby on the television just to be there.

One of the fans seated in a chair beside the boundary checked his smart phone, then leaned over to his friends and said: "The Force are winning."

Then straight back to the serious business of watching PNG take on the UAE in the ICC World Cricket League Division Two.

"This is probably a third of the PNG expat population of the UAE," an Emirates Airline pilot who came to Dubai Sports City to watch his side after sleeping off the effects of a flight from Sydney said of the group of 15 PNG supporters.

Like their supporters, these cricketers are a long way from home. PNG's lone contribution to cricket to date has been the sort usually consigned to obscure trivia questions.

Geraint Jones, England's Ashes winning wicketkeeper of 2005, was born there, before growing up in Australia.

But their national team players could meet a genuine Ashes legend in the flesh soon.

The former Australia Test player, Greg Campbell, is PNG's national operations manager and assisting with coaching on this tour while Andy Bichel, a former Australia Test bowler, serves as the bowling coach to the Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League.

Campbell also happens to be the uncle of Ricky Ponting, the erstwhile Australia captain.

"I've spoken to him and now he's not captain he might have a bit more time to himself, so he has said he'll try to get over for a weekend," Campbell said.

The idea of Ponting being a role model in a country where cricket is a distant second to rugby in popularity may seem strange to the uninitiated, but not so, according to Campbell.

"They are cricket nuts," he said. "You can ask the little kids out in the villages questions about England or Australia, and they would be able to tell you.

"You can go to any park, the grass will be long and there could be anything in them, but there are kids running around playing cricket."

Competition from rugby is not the lone challenge, according to Bill Leane, the chief executive of PNG cricket, who has overseen the nation's sharp ascent in cricket in the past two years.

On his watch, the national centre for cricket in Port Moresby, the capital, has installed five new cricket fields, as well as turf wickets for the first time.

The synthetic pitch they introduced lasted a day, however, before vandals destroyed it.

"You are also faced with high unemployment, petty crime is at world-highest levels, Australian government safety ratings say don't go there, so there are a lot of challenges in PNG," Leane said.

"That is the bad side. The good side is the people are wonderful, outside of the two per cent who wreck it for everyone else."