Papua New Guinea may be first-timers at the T20 World Cup, but captain Assad Vala spoke of their ambition of making it out of the competition's first round and make their appearance in this tournament a habit. At the same time, they want to ensure that people back home, who are suffering from what is being described as the "worst surge" in Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began, have something to smile about.
"It is really a proud moment for me and the boys," Vala said. "It has been a long time coming. We have come so close on so many occasions. We are a couple of days away from playing our first World Cup match. The boys are looking pumped up for the game on Sunday. During this pandemic, it will mean a lot for people back home. We are trying to put a smile on their faces."
PNG will take on co-hosts Oman in the tournament opener on Sunday, a day that Vala, synonymous with PNG's modern-day teams, has been looking forward to. They have had good acclimatisation too, having arrived in the country more than a month ago for a series of camps, WCL matches and friendlies. The mood, understandably, is upbeat.
"To be honest, we believe in ourselves," he said. "We want to play to the best of our abilities. We want to express ourselves. We want to make it to the second round to test ourselves against the best teams in cricket. We don't want this World Cup to be a one-off. We want to keep improving. We want to get the exposure and knowledge against the best teams."
PNG are known in the Associate circuit as nearly men after throwing away good chances to make it into the 2014 and 2016 T20 World Cups. They topped Group A in the 2019 Qualifier tournament to make it into this tournament.
"We got a lot of confidence from the 2019 World Cup qualifiers," he said. "We have played a lot of cricket over the last 18 months. We have got better by playing more matches, particularly the ones we played in Oman and Dubai. It has put us in good stead. On Sunday, we can hit the ground running."
He is among the key players, but so are Norman Vanua and Charles Amini, talented allrounders who have done well for them in the past. Vanua however is nursing a shoulder injury, which Vala is confident will be okay come Sunday.
"We are just resting (Vanua) at the moment. He is a very good allrounder. He played a really good innings against Kenya to get us over the line. I hope he will be ready when the game starts. Charles Amini is the leader of our spin attack. There's a lot of responsibility on him. He is a really good bowler. He can turn the game in all three departments. Hopefully the pitches will help him."
He also paid tribute to Joe Dawes, PNG's former coach who was at the helm when they were awarded ODI status and secured T20 World Cup qualification. But Dawes, also a former India bowling coach, left PNG this March to spend time with his family in the wake of the pandemic. Vala said that Dawes corrected a number of things within the setup, but insisted the team has gelled well with new coach Carl Sandri too.
"I think he brought in a lot of structure to the team," Vala said. "When he first came in, he saw a lot of things were not done properly, so he tried to correct everything. He got us fitter, and in the right state of mind. When we did the little things right, the cricket took care of itself. He played a really big part in getting us to this stage.
"We have a really good coach in Carl Sandri as well. He has been around the Big Bash. He has different ideas. The boys are trying to implement those ideas, they are taking on the challenges, and working with the coaches."
Vala said their new Australian bowling coach Chadd Sayers, who joined in July this year, has also become friendly with the bowling unit. "He is really good. I think the bowlers are enjoying working with him. He played at the highest level for Australia. He is always talking about getting AB de Villiers out. It is a lot of fun, lot of banter with the boys. They are enjoying his company and getting a lot from him."
PNG however know that they have a daunting task at hand, particularly against Bangladesh's quality spin attack coming up this week. But Vala is also quite confident that they will make themselves proud, and wants his teammates to enjoy the moment.
"We will come up against quality spinners. We have been working hard in training. It is just about executing and expressing ourselves. We have to play with flair. We have to enjoy ourselves.
"We pride ourselves on our fielding. We have to play well in other departments too to become an all-round team. It is all about having fun. We want to leave everything in the field but we want to represent our country with a smile in our face."