If Papua New Guinea’s efforts to get a game against an Australian team have been stymied by COVID-19, then over the next week they have the chance to vault straight into a World Cup contest with Aaron Finch’s men.
While Australian support for PNG cricket has been substantial, both in terms of supplying respected figures like Andy Bichel and Joe Dawes as coaches, or former Test paceman Greg Campbell as chief executive, it has been strictly in a non-playing sense.
Ahead of the nation’s opening Twenty20 World Cup game against Oman on Sunday night, Campbell said he had reached a verbal agreement with former CA chair Earl Eddings to have an invitational XI play in PNG ahead of last year’s event, originally scheduled for Australia, only for the global pandemic to intervene.
“Before what’s happened over the last 18 months around the world, we had a verbal agreement with the CA chairman to send an XI to PNG last year as part of a warm-up to the World Cup that was going to be in Australia,” Campbell said.
“But I’m still on to them about when we go back home, we need to be able to play you guys, even if it’s second XI cricket, or against New Zealand. They’re our two closest members, and they’re both helping us. That is a goal, but it would be a dream for these guys to get through to the second stage and play Australia.”
That help will doubtless be redoubled should PNG qualify out of their group – also comprising Oman, Bangladesh and Scotland – to reach the Super 12 stage of the Cup. A second-place finish would have the team match wits with Australia, a dream scenario for the team’s skilful captain, Assad Vala.
“These are the players we watch on TV, and it would be a dream to play against them and test ourselves against the best,” he said.
“When I was growing up, the summer of cricket in Australia was always played on TV back home, so we used to watch. In the early 1990s, I was a left-hander growing up, so Allan Border and all the left-handed batsmen were who I liked to watch.
“Then when the games were done I’d go out and try to bat like them. As I got more interested in the game, someone I looked up to was Brian Lara, who caught my eye in the way he played and the runs he scored. He got famous and I followed him everywhere he played.”
The growth of the game in PNG has been enormous over the past decade, to the point that Campbell said the governing body had built up as many as 300,000 school participants. While facilities, funding and better coaching will help further, a fully professional national squad was overdue for Cup qualification, having narrowly missed out twice before.
A strong performance this week will add to what Campbell calls a “fountain” of cricket talent.
“Kids playing the game in schools is one of the biggest programs in PNG,” Campbell said. “It outdoes the rugby, it outdoes soccer, it outdoes everything.
“We’re in 11 of the 22 provinces, we’re looking to build into more of them, but the game is growing and there’s a lot of attention around it for the World Cup. We have a strategic plan for the next four or five years to capitalise on what we’ve got in place now.
“They’re playing it in the streets, they’re playing it on the beaches, and playing it for fun, loving the game. It’s not a chore, they’re enjoying the game, and they’ve got a huge amount of natural ability we can harness. We need more facilities, we need more level two and three coaches, which we’ll get, but in my time here, it shows that the level of interest in the game can be untapped and be a real fountain.”
As for the fostering of a cricket culture, Campbell’s own history has ensured the occasional hard edge to a struggle that extends beyond the field of play to the establishment of a cricket system to compete more regularly on the world stage.
“I had to room with Merv [Hughes] for the whole ’89 Ashes tour, and he used to tell me ‘if you don’t talk to someone on the field today I’m gonna bash you when you get home’,” he laughed.“But it was the era we played in. Assad and the boys sometimes say I’m angry, but that’s all because I care about cricket PNG.”.