The village that built World Cup's fairytale debutants
Belting out their national anthem, the XI selected will go where no Papua New Guinean has before as the nation makes its debut in an ICC World Cup.
Heartbroken by falling at the last hurdle in the previous two T20 World Cup qualifying campaigns, their debut will be as deserving as it is poetic.
Preventing any doubts over their participation at this year's event, Papua New Guinea booked their tickets for the 2021 tournament by virtue of topping a tough Group A in the ICC T20 World Cup Qualifier 2019, eliminating the need to win do-or-die knockout matches.
Watching the Netherlands and Scotland do battle in the last group game from the stands, the Barramundis leapt in celebration upon learning the Dutch, despite victory, would mathematically finish behind them in second on net-run-rate.
"It is really a proud moment for me and the boys," captain Assad Vala said on Thursday. "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."
If there was a competition for the most tight-knit playing group at the tournament, the men known as the Barramundis could probably lay claim to the title already.
A large portion of Papua New Guinea's squad hail from in and around the Hanuabada village, situated on the outskirts of Port Moresby and dubbed the spiritual home of cricket in the country. Those not born and raised in the coastal village, have almost all played cricket at some point there. The senior national playing group has remained largely unchanged over the last decade, with many of the players learning and growing from battle-hardening defeats and soul-searching during their time in international cricket.
As a result, the team of 2021 play their best with their backs to the wall, with no fear of defeat. A team of no fewer than eight all-rounders, Papua New Guinea take cricketing versatility to new levels, with batting options as far down as hard-hitting Norman Vanua, who could well bat at nine.
Preparation has been tricky for the Papua New Guinea boys, with fixtures and action hard to come by since their 2019 qualification. For the most part, members of the squad have had to train in isolation. Urging each other on via a WhatsApp group, the team have kept sharp through competitions on running times and individual gym circuits.
To compensate for the perceived shortcomings, the Barramundis were the first to depart for the tournament, basing themselves in Oman to prepare for their tournament debut, with Cricket World Cup League 2 duties in the sultanate also balanced.
And they are ready to make a splash.
"To be honest, we believe in ourselves," Vala 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.
"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."
Assad Vala (c), Charles Amini, Lega Siaka, Norman Vanua, Nosaina Pokana, Kipling Doriga, Tony Ura, Hiri Hiri, Gaudi Toka, Sese Bau, Damien Ravu, Kabua Vagi-Morea, Simon Atai, Jason Kila, Chad Soper, Jack Gardner.
17 Oct – v Oman
19 Oct – v Scotland
21 Oct – v Bangladesh
Best finish: N/A (Tournament Debut)
The yardstick of the East Asia-Pacific region, it was a case of third time lucky for the Barramundis, who fell one match short in both the 2013 and 2015 qualifiers, losing to Hong Kong and Afghanistan respectively. Papua New Guinea were the first team to reach the tournament proper from the Qualifier, topping Group A.
Look out for
Coming from a renowned cricketing family, Charles has followed the footsteps of his brothers, parents and grandparents to represent Papua New Guinea, though it is the 29-year-old walking into the unchartered territory of a World Cup debut for his country.
A player who should enjoy the conditions at the tournament, the leg-spinning all-rounder will provide his First Round adversaries trouble, featuring in the middle overs with ball and bat. Averaging a tick under 27 with the bat, at a strike rate of 116.71, Amini is cheap with the ball, going at less than six an over in his 25 T20Is.
Picking up wickets in six of Papua New Guinea matches during the qualifier, Amini claimed 1/27 from four overs against future First Round Group B opponents Scotland, and made important contributions batting at four.
Not just the captain of the side, Assad Vala is the linchpin of the team’s batting and will look to unleash at the top of the order.
Averaging 60 for the first wicket at the qualifier with Tony Ura, Vala flew out of the blocks throughout their successful campaign with a strike rate of 121.60, up from his T20I career figure of 107.72.
In the field, the Barramundis have a number of players Vala can throw the ball to, though the embarrassment of riches comes with the responsibility of managing overs and bowlers, of which Vala has passed with flying colours time and time again. He may even deploy his own off-spin. Papua New Guinea’s success in the field will be determined by how well Vala can juggle his options.
Coming in as debutants, the significance of finally punching a ticket for the tournament is not lost on the skipper, leading a team that will fear nobody.
“To be able to finally qualify for one and participate in one of the World Cups is a dream come true for me, and speaking on behalf of all my teammates, it will be an honour for us," he said.
“It’s the pinnacle of cricket, being able to play against the best in the world.”
Oman - 17 October
If Papua New Guinea have aspirations of progressing to the Super 12 phase, they’ll need to hit the ground running against the tournament hosts.
An even match-up when comparing the two sides on paper, the games shapes up as a battle between two strong opening partnerships, with both teams likely to load up with aggression in the Powerplay.