x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Papua New Guinea: the little nation that continues to bat above expectations

Beginning today, The National’s sports writers look at some of the unlikely sporting success stories going on in the world. Be it a flourishing where you would not expect it, or an athlete overcoming great challenges to take part, we will be telling their stories over the next five days. First up, Paul Radley on cricket in Papua New Guinea.

Children from the village of Hanuabada play cricket in the streets in Papua New Guinea. Chris Hyde / Getty Images
Children from the village of Hanuabada play cricket in the streets in Papua New Guinea. Chris Hyde / Getty Images

Odd sport, cricket.

It has its roots on the village greens of England where it is still felt by many to be an elitist game for posh kids.

That makes sense, given that the most fundamental tool of the game – the bat – can sell for as much as £450 (Dh2,800) when it is made of English willow.

Yet, cricket still thrives in the most unlikely places. Many of its leading nations, such as Zimbabwe and Bangladesh for example, have majorities of people living in extreme poverty.

Some of the sport’s coming nations, meanwhile, have beaten extraordinary odds.

Afghanistan are one example, who beat one of cricket’s elite nations for the first time earlier this year.

It is just a little more than a decade since a set of refugees returned home with a new sport they had learnt across the border after they had been displaced by war.

The Afghan fairy tale could never be replicated, but there is another nation making rapid strides in cricket despite enjoying less salubrious conditions than the sport’s top brass.

At a tournament in New Zealand this year in which the UAE also excelled, Papua New Guinea earned official one-day international status for the first time.

Some feat given the challenges Papuans face in their homeland. The greatest being high unemployment and a high crime rate.

According to travel advice on www.gov.uk, “there is a high level of serious crime, law and order is poor or very poor in many parts of the country” and “carjacking is an ever present threat”.

The majority of the population live in rural areas, barely connected by a spartan road network. There are estimated to be about 1,000 languages spoken among PNG’s seven million people.

None of which necessarily equates to fertile conditions for spreading cricket, yet its ascent has been marked.

The ICC regard PNG as a major development success story, citing large participation numbers (150,000 in grassroots programmes last year), a strong ability to generate funding beyond ICC subsidies, and stable governance.

“[Australian rules] football, rugby league, union and cricket all drifted up there because of the Australian expatriates taking the game with them,” said Tim Anderson, the ICC’s global development manager.

“But the communities own it now. One of their strengths long term is the fact the indigenous population is exclusively the cricket market.

“There are less expatriates there than there were 30 years ago, but the Australian influence is still there.

“But, apart from [the former England Ashes winner] Geraint Jones, the team is fully indigenous.”

In recent years, the progress of the national team has been overseen by Greg Campbell, a former Test cricketer from Australia whose nephew is Ricky Ponting.

“They are cricket nuts,” Campbell, the general manager of PNG cricket, said when they played a tournament in the UAE.

“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.”

Campbell’s point is borne out in the fact that Will Genia, the Australian rugby star who grew up in PNG, lists Steve Waugh, the former Australia cricket captain, as his sporting hero. He said watching the free-to-air broadcasts of Australia playing the West Indies in Test matches converted him to the sport.

Even the prime minister of PNG, Peter O’Neill, is said to be a big cricket fan. It makes sense that he would be, given the cricket team have become a vehicle through which PNG can express its national esteem.

“The PNG government is a strong supporter of sport and we are particularly proud of the progress cricket is making both domestically and on the international stage,” he said this year.

Also read: PNG’s sporting heroes

The prime minister was speaking at a reception for a group of ICC delegates. The Dubai-based governing body’s president and chief executive were in Port Moresby to promote the next phase in the game’s advance in PNG after ODI status was achieved.

PNG is the darling of the ICC’s development programme for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, their improving results show a tangible return on the investments made in them.

Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, is their financial autonomy. Unlike many associate nations who can only function at a competitive level because of ICC subsidies, PNG do not survive on handouts.

About 70 per cent of PNG cricket’s annual turnover, which is in excess of US$2 million (Dh7.35m), is self-generated.

So the game sustains itself rather than relies on the ICC.

“By virtue of cricket getting more popular in PNG and their national team having more opportunities that will only get better,” Anderson said.

“We think that is really important in terms of their sustainable development.”

PAPUA NEW GUINEA ARE IN GOOD COMPANY

International cricket beyond the Test sphere has done a good line in rags-to-riches stories in recent times. Afghanistan are the sport’s real Cinderella story. They marched up the rankings all the way to the global stage, from the starting point in 2001 of national team trials for refugees returning from Pakistan. At the end of last year they achieved qualification to the 50-over World Cup for the first time, which has brought in about US$1.1 million (Dh4m) in ICC funding.

In March, they had their first win against a Test nation when they defeated Bangladesh in the Asia Cup, before making a third appearance at the World Twenty20. As a sign that they are becoming established at the top level of the game, their age-group team also beat Australia at the Under 19 World Cup in Abu Dhabi. Papua New Guinea are in the chasing pack of nations hoping to repeat the success of the Afghans. This year, though, they lost their coach, the Australian Peter Anderson, after he opted to take up a role at the new Afghanistan national academy in Kabul. “I’ve been in Port Moresby, which is a pretty hairy place. I’m looking forward to it,” Anderson said in an interview on the Asian Cricket Council’s website this year. “It’s a challenge no doubt, but it’s a job I’m going to enjoy being really involved in.”

pradley@thenational.ae

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