The Papua New Guinea national team, also known as the Barramundis, wrote a new chapter in their cricketing history when they defeated Netherlands by five wickets in their opening Intercontinental Cup match at the VRA Ground in Amstelveen yesterday.
The ongoing edition of the Intercontinental Cup, slated to reach its climax at the end of 2017, is of utmost importance to each of the eight nations taking part as the winner will get an opportunity to become the eleventh Test nation.
Papua New Guinea qualified for the tournament by virtue of becoming a full-fledged ODI nation after finishing fourth in the ICC World Cup qualifiers in New Zealand in 2013-14.
In November last year, the Barramundis created history when they became the first nation to win its first two ODI matches. Facing Hong Kong at the Tony Ireland Stadium, their adopted home ground in Townsville, the spirited East-Asia Pacific champions scored victories by four wickets and three wickets respectively to announce their arrival on the international stage.
A few days after the ODI series, Papua New Guinea had met Hong Kong in a three-day fixture at the same venue. The Barramundis put in a clinical performance to win comprehensively by 133 runs. The top-scorer on that occasion was 27-year-old Assad Vala, who struck a rapid 98 to power his side to 469/7 in the first innings.
Prior to this, the team had no experience of multi-day cricket except for the two-day South Australian Premier League in 2013-14. The team is more suited to the limited-overs formats, but the impressive win in the three-day match against Hong Kong showed that they were willing to learn. As it turned out, it was a harbinger of things to come.
The win over the Dutchmen is historic in more ways than one. This was Papua New Guinea’s maiden first-class match, and by winning it the team has shown that they are as capable in the multi-day format as in the limited-overs formats.
Moreover, it came overseas against a more established team, and that too after playing catch-up for a major part of the game. The final-day catalysts for the victory were Vala and Mahuru Dai, who combined for a 200-run fifth-wicket partnership.
The Barramundis began well on the opening day by bowling the hosts out for 209, with the seamers doing the bulk of the damage. 27-year-old Loa Nou was the pick of them with a handsome return of 5/49. However, the Dutch fast bowlers, led by Timm van der Gugten (6/29), fared even better as they helped bowl out Papua New Guinea for 128 to give their team the lead.
Another encouraging bowling display from the visitors in the second innings saw the Dutch stumble to 17/3 and then 110/7, before the score recovered to 223. Thus in their very first first-class match, the Barramundis required a formidable 305 to win. They ended the third day at 66/2, with the exciting 22-year-old Lega Siaka signalling his intent with a blitzkrieg 49 off 37 balls before getting out.
Siaka’s onslaught stated that Papua New Guinea had decided to approach the chase with a highly positive mindset. There was plenty of time on hand and the pitch was gradually easing out.
On the final day, things were looking dicey when two quick wickets sent the score to 82/4. Another wicket here would have been disastrous. However, Vala and Dai got together and scripted an alliance which will be remembered for long.
Vala, batting from number three, showed his class with a memorable hundred – he remained unbeaten on 124 – while Dai, a composed 31-year-old spin-bowling all-rounder, provided great support before being dismissed for 91.
By this time, only 23 more runs were needed, which were achieved without much ado. It was captain Jack Vare who hit the winning boundary in the 77th over as his side completed a fantastic run chase against the odds.
An overexcited Vare later said that he cannot speak highly enough of the boys because it was a very special day for the team. “We shared a few tears after chatting about the match and it was very mixed emotions,” he said.
Cricket PNG General Manager Greg Campbell, a former Australian international, was also extremely pleased with the win. “Cricket in PNG is on the way up. We’ve now won our first two ODIs and our first I-Cup match ever which is an incredible achievement for everyone involved”, he added.
It is pertinent to note that Papua New Guinea were made an ICC Associate member back in 1973, much before the likes of Ireland (1993) , Scotland (1994), Kenya (1981) and the United Arab Emirates (1990).
It took them over 40 years to finally play a recognised ODI, and if their current form is any indication, they can only get better. Cricketing infrastructure remains an issue, but strong performances will ultimately ensure that more funds pour in.
Papua New Guinea were placed in Division Three of the World Cricket League in 2011, and since then, their climb to the top tier of Associate cricket has been steady. Their current coach is the former New Zealand off-spinner Dipak Patel, who has clearly brought in an admirable level of professionalism to the squad. He was a proud man as he witnessed Vala and Dai maturely steer their team from troubled waters to an island of jubilation.
Patel was all praise for his team’s achievement and rightly so. “You never felt that we were behind the ball – we just needed to, in many ways, with the bat and ball just have a couple of sessions where we could get on top of them.
Today was a classic example: the proof was there that these guys can play the longer form of the game because this is the first time they’ve ever played – let alone a two-day game or three-day game – this is the first time they’ve ever played a four-day game, so when you take that into consideration, it’s a fantastic feat’‘, he said after the match.
The win enabled the Barramundis to pocket 14 points and after the first of seven rounds, they sit third behind Ireland and Namibia, both of whom have 20 points each. The Netherlands earned six points by virtue of gaining the first-innings lead. Papua New Guinea will face Afghanistan in their second match, which will possibly be played during October in the UAE.
They are also part of the 2015-2017 World Cricket League, and they will begin that campaign with a brace of 50-over matches against the Dutch on 22nd and 24th June. Following that, they will head to Ireland for the 2016 World Twenty20 qualifiers. Given their natural flair in playing the limited-overs game, one would expect them to finish in the top six and book a berth in the first round of the tournament proper in India.
Here’s looking forward to a lot more from this immensely talented bunch of cricketers who are no doubt on their way towards becoming the next big success story of the game.
Match Scorecard – http://www.espncricinfo.com/icc-intercontinental-cup-2015-17/engine/match/870879.html