On the eve of their maiden appearance at a major ICC senior level global tournament, Papua New Guinea appear to be a far cry from the team that in 2019 romped to the final of the qualifiers for the current World Cup to secure one of the six qualifying berths on offer. This September, in their first international matches since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, they have lost ten straight games, eight ODIs and two T20Is (12 games, if you count two unofficial World Cup warm-up matches against Ireland and Sri Lanka).
But if you look at it with the glass-half-full optimism of some members of the team set-up, this is nothing but the best kind of déjà vu. PNG lost eight matches heading into the start of the global qualifier in 2019 before suddenly flipping a switch for the first match of that event and then stringing together five wins in six matches. Head coach Carl Sandri is taking his inspiration from baseball.
"You know the Four Days in October doco?" he says, referring to the film chronicling the Boston Red Sox's historic comeback from 3-0 down to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series in 2004 to win that series, before defeating the St. Louis Cardinals for Boston's first World Series title since 1918. "This will be our three days in October."
PNG only needs three good days in October to advance to the main phase of the T20 World Cup. But those three days seemed a long way off after they spent 676 days between international matches due to the pandemic.
Despite not having any cricket on the field, there was still some activity off of it. Head coach Joe Dawes stepped down last March, saying he wanted to spend more time closer to family in Australia.
There has been something of an Australia and New Zealand coaching pipeline to PNG over the years. Andy Bichel, Peter Anderson, Dipak Patel, Jason Gillespie and Dawes have all featured in coaching roles. Cricket PNG CEO Greg Campbell - who has been with the organisation wearing numerous hats since 2009 - is an Australian import too. And the theme continued with the appointment of Sandri, who had a very brief Big Bash career with Sydney Thunder in 2013 but is better known in the Associate scene as a match-winner for Italy, having made his debut at the 2012 ICC T20 World Cup Qualifier in the UAE.
It was there that he got his first taste of the fighting spirit of PNG's cricket culture, when Italy wound up on the wrong side of a 12-run loss chasing 119.
"We thought we were home and hosed," Sandri said. "Not enough runs for them and we thought we'd walk that in. Michael Di Venuto was playing that game as well, so we thought we had a team to get the job done. Then as soon as you're out there in the heat of the battle, the passion and the spirit of them all, you couldn't hit a ball in a gap without five of them running at it. There was not an easy run to be had out there.
"That's what we're looking for now in our group. I don't think I've seen as many teams play as well as a team as we do in that circumstance.
The majority of the PNG squad is from Hanuabada Village, a conclave on the western side of the capital, Port Moresby. "Having that, growing up together, playing together and spending all that time representing their country, that's the strength that they have," Sandri says. "You could feel that at the time [in 2012] and it can still be felt. You can feel it in the opposition [thinking] that when the team is together, they're gonna be hard to beat. Being involved in that and being part of the Barras family is an amazing experience."
In the rare event that a player is from outside Hanuabada, as is the case with Chad Soper, who was born in Port Moresby but spent a significant chunk of his youth living and playing his developmental cricket in New South Wales, or the captain, Assad Vala, who grew up three and a half hours outside of Port Moresby, committing to a full-time cricket contract means moving to where all the action is. The closeness helps breed a zestful joy for the game that, as Sandri alluded to, most often comes out in their fielding.
"Whatever we do, we just smile," Vala says when asked what he thinks will stand out to people who will be watching PNG play for the first time at a World Cup this Sunday. "We love playing the game. The way we play the game is different. The way we celebrate wickets and the way we run around is something different from all other countries because we love celebrating and we love representing our country."
PNG pride themselves on their fielding, which has a reputation as the best in the Associate world, and at times could be in the conversation as the best in the world period. But their rustiness has put a dent in that reputation in recent times. While USA's Jaskaran Malhotra made headlines for hitting six sixes in the 50th over to raise 173 not out against PNG in an ODI in early September, it was partly courtesy of PNG having dropped him four times, including twice before he passed 20. Campbell says that consistency is the one area where PNG have struggled over the years, especially after prolonged layoffs, but he feels he is seeing encouraging signs in their more recent fixtures, to indicate better results are around the corner.
"The last couple of weeks I see a difference," Campbell says. "While we were in Oman, the hotel had an amphitheatre. We went and watched Cool Runnings and the boys laughed about it and said it was good motivation.
"You just don't know with this group. They can just turn up and do brilliant things and you think, 'How did that happen?' We haven't seen it quite to that potential yet, but it's coming.
"I've seen these guys play for 12 years and deep down, I knew we'd struggle initially. If you're not playing cricket, you don't get any better. But they're getting better and that's why I'm optimistic. The more they're playing the game, the more they're starting to remember and get into gear. It's a bit like an old steam train that takes a long time to get going but once you play consistent cricket with them, they start picking up. Hopefully it happens in this World Cup."
Regardless of whether or not it comes in the form of victories, Campbell says the country's maiden appearance in a world event is almost certain to be transformational for the sport in a country of nine million. Their grassroots programmes have become stronger, he says, since a pair of key events in the middle of the last decade. PNG secured ODI status for the first time with a top-four finish at the 2014 ICC World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand. The extra ICC funding secured in the wake of that achievement helped put their players on full-time contracts, and currently there are a total of 39 fully contracted players (16 men, 13 women and ten Under-19s).
Following their profitable hosting of the 2015 ICC World Cup, Cricket Australia and New Zealand Cricket jointly donated A$200,000 (about US$150,000) to Cricket PNG for infrastructure development. That was matched by another A$200,000 from the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby. It sparked a plan to build 48 synthetic wickets around PNG, in particular for new wickets outside of Port Moresby, where Amini Park holds the only turf wicket in the country. Of the 35 wickets constructed so far, two have been built in Lae, the city with the second biggest population in the country, and a pair in Popondetta, a city of approximately 50,000 people that has been a focal point for women's recruitment.
Campbell says that currently there are 300,000 children playing cricket in the country through PNG's introductory and school programme initiatives, but that the exposure from the World Cup could see that nearly double in the space of five years. Cricket PNG has negotiated a discounted rate with Digicel, the country's TV rights holder, to make World Cup viewing access more affordable. Campbell says viewing parties on big-screen TVs are being organised in Hanuabada.
All of this offers a contrast to the dark times the team has experienced recently, not just in terms of their results. In the span of less than 48 hours last week, three players on the team had one of their parents die: Nosaina Pokana's father, and Kiplin Doriga's and CJ Amini's mothers. Amini's mother was herself a former national women's team captain. If that sounds alarming, sadly it is not entirely unusual in PNG cricket. PNG Women's squad member Kopi John died at 26 in the summer of 2019 after contracting tuberculosis. Many other players over the last decade have had parents die while on tour.
"We actually spoke about this before they left," Campbell says. "In the current [Covid] climate, that might happen. In my 12 years, it does happen a little bit in PNG. I've been away on Under-19 tours where parents have died and you deal with it. So we spoke about that - the possibility that if it happened, they wouldn't be able to get home. We're not sure it was Covid. Some of them said their parents had some underlying factors, but it was a big shock, having three in the space of a day and a half.
"They're a close-knit group. Having [former PNG player and current assistant coach] John Ovia on board and a bit of my experience in 12 years, sitting with CJ [Amini] for six or seven hours that night. There wasn't a lot of conversation but when he wanted to talk, I was there. They watched the funerals last week via Zoom."
If the bereavements weren't enough adversity, their training camp in Oman was disrupted by Tropical Cyclone Shaheen last week, which forced PNG to evacuate their team hotel for 48 hours with nothing but "the clothes on our backs", according to Campbell.
Through it all, they have kept smiles on their faces. You'd never know that this is a team coming off ten straight losses and a trio of family deaths in the squad, judging by the way Vala, Sandri and Campbell have been grinning from ear to ear through their media interactions in the last week, as they tried to find a positive attitude.
"If you can harness that in the right way, as they have shown with qualifying for this World Cup, that's where the challenge is," Sandri said. "If we can harness that natural ability, the athleticism that they can show, if we can put that and some cricket IQ more consistently, if they can improve that, then their natural athletic ability and talent can match any cricketer I've seen.
"They've had that aura about them. When you're batting against them, they're a big family. They're all over you. The pressure by presence is obvious."
Campbell is hoping the players continue to project that on-field family culture of unity and optimism - not to mention world-class fielding and dynamic skills - to the TV cameras broadcasting the tournament around the world when PNG take the field at Al Amerat against co-hosts Oman this weekend. If they can generate a few wins in the rest of group play, which includes matches against Scotland and Bangladesh, they'll have a bigger opportunity to show even more viewers what they're made of, in the next phase of the tournament.
"I'd love them to play their flamboyant way," Campbell says. "To express themselves, show their natural ability, so people sit back at home and say, 'Maybe we should take more notice of PNG. I'm going to watch these guys moving forward.'
"These guys are pretty good from where they come from. They love the game. They play it a different way than what we've seen and they play for enjoyment. That's it. They love the game."