Papua New Guinea last featured in junior cricket's biggest tournament in 2014. They qualified for their eighth Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand this year after remaining undefeated in the East Asia Pacific Qualifier 2017 in Samoa. They needed to beat the hosts in the final match, and they did so, by eight wickets.
Between 2014 and now, PNG have benefited from several administrative reforms. Corporate sponsorships have contributed to the development of the game. The number of turf wickets have gone up, and there is cricket being played in three centres now, as compared to just the one five years ago. It's these positives that have brought about a new ray of hope for the side as they are set to compete with the big boys.
"The PNG team management organised a party for the teenagers on the wharf, just around their hotel in Mount Maunganui. For a good two hours, they just sang and danced"
PNG will take on India on Tuesday, and for only the second time in their history, they will be playing on live TV. It will mark a special moment for Hanuabada, a village close to Port Moresby, in particular because as many as 13 members of the current squad come from there. "They're all very excited. This will be the first time an ICC event will be televised back home," says Kila Pala, their former captain, who is now their head coach.
Pala retired 18 months ago, wrapping up a career that began more than a decade ago in the 2004 Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh. "Forget about telecast, nobody even knew we were a cricket team," he laughs. "Today, these boys have an incentive to do well, get noticed and put themselves up for national selection for the World Cup qualifiers in Zimbabwe in March.
The only other occasion the PNG people got to watch their team on live TV was when their board paid the local broadcaster - unheard of in these times of billion-dollar cricket deals - to air the ODI series against Scotland in September. The players are understandably excited, and nervous, but the coach and the CEO are going out of their way to calm the boys and help them enjoy the occasion.
The PNG team management organised a party for the teenagers on the wharf, just around their hotel in Mount Maunganui. For a good two hours, they sang and danced to traditional music and by the end even the quieter members of the team were opening up in a manner never seen before. The overall mood in the camp now is starkly different to how things were after a loss to Zimbabwe in the opening game.
"I don't want them to worry about the results. That's what we've sort of passed on as management," says Greg Campbell, the former Australia fast bowler and current chief executive of Cricket PNG. He took over in 2011. "Let's face it, the next two games are huge - against the two strongest cricket countries in the world. We see this week as a learning curve for us. We're going to see some of the best players in the future for India playing tomorrow, and then we have Australia. These guys have to sit there and watch how they prepare and watch how they go about their game and we'll take some stuff out of that."
"The results are insignificant to us in a way. Yes, we also want to win. We go in there to show how we play our cricket. Don't take away their culture; they are exciting cricketers but they're probably the new baby compared to a 15 or 16-year-olds playing, but they're looking forward to the challenge. They know it's going to be hard but they spoke about it.
"KP (coach) and the boys have been working for close to eight months which is quite a long time in PNG cricket. They've toured Samoa and Australia a couple of times having camps. What I've brought from Australia is, 'you just keep working hard and results will come your way.'"
"Two years ago, they introduced a development contract for the Under-19s that takes care of their studies and also provides them with a monthly stipend for meals and kits."
At present, around 200,000 kids have been enrolled in the country's soft-ball cricket programme, funded by one of Cricket PNG's sponsors - Bank of South Pacific, who have a ten-year deal. Though not enough of them retained an interest in the game as they grew up - the rate of attrition was high till 2014 - things have changed now.
The enthusiasm of the young cricketers in the programme excite Pala and Campbell. When Campbell took over as chief executive of the PNG board, there was just one synthetic wicket. Player contracts were unheard of, but they came into place in 2014, when the team was given ODI status. Two years ago, they introduced a development contract for the Under-19s that takes care of their studies and also provides them with a monthly stipend for meals and kits.
"In four-five years, we will see the real benefits of the programme" Campbell says. "We've started our hard-ball competition and we're about to build 50 synthetic wickets around PNG. It goes around the villages which creates more competition. All that will produce more cricketers - simple as that. In the years to come, we're looking forward but we got to maintain the level our cricket consistently."
Pala is working towards retaining all the eligible players for the next edition of the Under-19 World Cup too, which means they will potentially have two more years in the age-group system as they develop their game. "A lot of these boys want to continue on to the next World Cup. The little left-armer Semo Kamea bowls fast. He just turned 16, so he'll continue for a couple of years. I know India have got a couple of quicks who bowled in the high 140s so his job is to look at them and learn and feed off.
"It's all a learning curve, the whole cricket in PNG is a learning curve but we have come a long way in quite a small time but we know we've got a long way to go. Their culture and love for cricket is passionate and it keeps me going. Hopefully we see one of these boys play for the national side in one or two years."