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Brilliant Barramundis on their way up


Papua_New_Guinea_Barramundis_T20I_Cricket_World_Cup_QualifiersThe most heartwarming aspect of the recent men’s T20 World Cup Qualifier in the United Arab Emirates was the performance of Papua New Guinea, who not only booked a berth at next year’s T20 World Cup in Australia, but also marched all the way to the final, where they were beaten by the Netherlands by seven wickets. Led by the astute Assad Vala, the Barramundis set the 14-team tournament alight with their exploits, especially their canny bowling and excellent fielding.

Papua New Guinea’s build-up to the Qualifier was far from convincing, what with a woeful run of eight successive ODI defeats within the space of six weeks at the Cricket World Cup League 2. However, the change in format also changed their fortunes, and they made their intentions clear by starting the Qualifier with a ten-wicket thrashing of Bermuda. Medium pacer Norman Vanua recorded a memorable hat-trick, becoming only the 11th man to achieve the feat in T20Is.

Another powerful performance, this time built around a breathtaking opening stand of 125 between Tony Ura (71) and Vala (48) saw the Barramundis trounce Namibia by 81 runs in their second fixture. Not content with his batting contribution, Vala also captured 3/19 with his off-spin to hasten Namibia’s demise. A four-run defeat to Scotland was but a blip for Papua New Guinea, as the Pacific islanders soon proved through a clinical showing against the Netherlands.

In what was a crucial game in the context of the group standings, the Netherlands were restricted to a middling 126/7 – it would have been even lesser, as the score read 74/7 at one stage. Once again, disciplined bowling and outstanding work in the field underlined the Barramundis’ determination to strengthen their claim to top the group. The dependable duo of Ura and Vala steadily put on 47 in reply, before Sese Bau’s 34* drove his side to a significant five-wicket win.

A dominant 43-run win over Singapore followed, highlighted by a fifth-wicket partnership of 79* between Charles Amini and Kiplin Doriga and a return of 4/18 from seamer Damien Ravu. The last day of the round-robin stage assumed a lot of importance, as both the Netherlands and Papua New Guinea were in contention for finishing as group toppers – the respective group toppers would seal direct qualification for the T20 World Cup, without undergoing the playoffs.

The Barramundis scripted an amazing turnaround in their last group game against Kenya, after staring down the barrel early in their innings. Kenya’s new-ball pair of Lucas Oluoch and debutant Emmanuel Bundi wrought havoc by reducing Papua New Guinea to a dire 19/6 after four overs, at which point Vanua joined Bau in the middle. The duo raised a game-changing stand of 77 that was dominated by Vanua, who scored a gritty 54 out of the eventual total of 118.

Papua New Guinea’s collective resolve was evident from the manner in which they defended the modest total. Kenya seemed to be on course at 40/1 in the sixth over, when Ravu opened the floodgates. Soon after, Vala turned the game on its head, as he struck thrice in as many overs in the course of a stifling spell of 3/7. Left-arm pacer (3/21) Nosaina Pokana made short work of the tail, ensuring that Kenya were bowled out well short of the target for just 73 in the 19th over.

With the job done from their side, the Barramundis now awaited the result of the match between the Netherlands and Scotland, as it would determine the group topper. The Dutch restricted Scotland to 130/8, but needed to chase down the target in 12.3 overs to edge ahead of Papua New Guinea. Much to the jubilation of the ‘Barras’, the Netherlands could post their win only in the 17th over. In a historic moment, Papua New Guinea had finally boarded the T20 World Cup bus.

Hungry for more success, Papua New Guinea produced yet another performance to remember in the semifinal against Namibia. In a now-familiar occurrence, they put up enough runs on the board – Amini (31), Bau (40*) and Vanua (20*) all contributed towards a recovery from 31/3 to 130/5 – before unleashing their bowling and fielding prowess on the slow surface to emerge victorious by 18 runs. Though they lost the final, the Barramundis became the toast of the cricketing world.

Vala led from the front by finishing as Papua New Guinea’s highest run-getter with 197 runs at 28.14, not to mention his ten wickets at 10.10 apiece, while Ura followed closely with a tally of 194 at 27.71. Ravu, with 12 scalps at 9.50, was the highest wicket-taker for his team. It was a complete team effort from the Barramundis, as every player stood up to deliver at some point or the other. Indeed, their electrifying performances indicated the camaraderie within their squad.

Papua New Guinea’s success at the Qualifier came after an agonising miss in the previous edition, in Ireland and Scotland in 2015. They were unbeaten after the first four group games, but lost to Namibia and the United States respectively in their last two games, which cost them direct qualification to the 2016 World T20 (as the T20 World Cup was then known). As it happened, they finished fourth in their group and duly bowed out after losing to Afghanistan in the playoff.

Papua New Guinea have been clubbed with Sri Lanka, Ireland and Oman in Group A of the first round of the 2020 T20 World Cup, and there is no reason why they cannot advance to the 12-team tournament proper. They have beaten Ireland twice in the shortest format – at the 2015 edition of the Qualifier and during a bilateral series in 2015-16 – and given their combined talent and the unpredictable nature of the T20 game, they can give Sri Lanka a run for their money too.

By qualifying for their first senior ICC tournament, Papua New Guinea have shown that they are steadily becoming a T20I force to reckon with – they have won 14 and lost just two out of 17 T20Is played so far in 2019. There is no dearth of local support back home for the Barramundis, and a sizeable contingent is expected to travel to Australia next year in the hope of spurring them to even further heights. Considering their wherewithal, one can say that their best is yet to come.

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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