PNG cricketers band together for T20 World Cup after family tragedies

Papua New Guinea's cricket team will play its first-ever T20 World Cup match against Oman on Sunday, but the road to the tournament has been difficult, with three players affected personally by COVID-19.

PNG captain Assad Vala, left, with the team's uniform for the World Cup.

PNG captain Assad Vala, left, with the team's uniform for the World Cup. Source: Facebook/Cricket PNG

Papua New Guinea’s cricket captain Assad Vala has faced the biggest test of his leadership in recent weeks. 

His team’s lead-in to the T20 Cricket World Cup tournament was recently hit by tragedy, and he told SBS News how their preparations almost unravelled in the space of just 72 hours.  

"Nosaina Pokana, our opening bowler, has lost a dad to COVID-19. The very next morning CJ Amini lost a mum. And after a training day-night match when we went to the hotel afterwards, Kiplin Doriga our wicketkeeper lost a mother, so it was a really difficult three days for us." 

Kiplin Doriga in a warm-up match.
Source: ICC

As PNG's healthcare system struggles to deal with rising COVID-19 cases, the team is more conscious than ever that a good showing at the tournament might just give the country a vital morale boost.  

Vala said he is proud of how his team has rallied behind his stricken teammates. 

"I think it has brought the players closer and the coaching staff and everyone," he said.

"I think the help they have given to the players has been unbelievable. And it has brought the players together and that is one of our strengths, we are like brothers. We train together every day, we’ve been together for many years now so we stick together no matter what the situation is."

Former Australia test bowler Greg Campbell is the CEO of Cricket PNG and says while rugby league is by far the country’s biggest sport, cricket is growing in importance and popularity.  

Mr Campbell said the country went wild when the PNG team returned home in 2019 after qualifying for the World Cup.  

"When we came through the airport there would have been three to four thousand people in the airport in Moresby to greet these guys, so that’s how much it meant to them to have another team on the world stage,” he said.

“And I know the eight or nine million people in PNG will be watching somewhere, they’ll be cramming into their live streams or their TVs to watch the first couple of games."

Fans gather at Port Moresby airport to welcome the team home after they qualified for World Cup in 2019.
Source: Facebook

PNG cricket has come a long way since their first official match played against Australia in 1972. It became an International Cricket Council (ICC) member a year later.  

The men's team narrowly missed both the 2013 and 2015 T20 World Cups, but this year they'll take their biggest step forward when they line up against Oman in the first match of this year's tournament on Sunday.

Mr Campbell is mindful of just how significant Sunday's game is, not just for PNG cricket but for the entire country.

“We are kicking off the tournament, the world is going to be watching the World Cup. It’s one of the biggest events in the world, one of the top five events in the world so I just want them to stay focused, relax and play their game and I think you’ll see quite a good performance from these guys,” he said.

The Barramundis - or “Barras”, as the team is nicknamed - will carry the hopes of a nation during one of its most challenging periods.

Vala has urged the whole country to share in its most significant achievement.

“Back the Barras. It's a really historic moment for PNG cricket, the first-ever World Cup. And to be playing the first game of the World Cup is a dream come true not just for me, but for everyone in the team and everyone that’s been a part of the team over the years,” he said.

Fans welcome the PNG team home.
Source: Facebook

The journey to Oman has been far from easy, but the shared experiences have strengthened the team's bonds and put the tournament itself into perspective.

It’s this togetherness that Mr Campbell thinks may help PNG make a far bigger impact than some are predicting.

“Our expectations are quite high. We want to get through to the second round and we want to play some full [ICC] members and for the team to show their skills and beat some of the full [ICC] members,” he said.

After Oman, PNG will take on Scotland and Bangladesh in Group B. The top two nations from Group A and B will advance to the Super 12 stage of the tournament, joining the likes of Australia, India,  England and the reigning champions the West Indies. Matches will be played in Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Oman. 

The ICC Men's T20 World Cup begins at 9pm AEDT on Sunday with Oman vs Papua New Guinea.

Published 17 October 2021 at 6:31am, updated 17 October 2021 at 11:23am
By John Baldock
Source: SBS News