By Joel Dubber
Faith has played an important role in the development of cricket in Papua New Guinea and on Sunday it will be repaid when the 'Barramundis' make their Twenty20 World Cup debut against Oman in Al Amerat.
The majority of the team taking the field hail from a single village located on the southern Papuan coast near the capital, Port Moresby.
Hanuabada, which means "big village", has been considered cricket's spiritual home in the former British protectorate since it was first played there in the early 1900s.
"The game was introduced to the villagers by the missionaries. The people fell in love with the sport and embraced it because of the Christian influence," international umpire Lakani Oala told Reuters.
"Cricket would bring neighbouring villages together by playing amongst each other regularly, which created harmony, peace and forged strong friendship," the 62-year-old eighth-generation Hanuabadan said.
"All cricket matches were opened and ended with prayers (and our) national cricket teams still practise this today."
Growing the game has been a challenge in PNG.
The team play few fixtures, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic, and PNG's location and reputation as a dangerous travel destination means it is difficult to attract touring sides despite the proximity to Australia and New Zealand.
"Unfortunately where we are, geography is not on our side and we lack international exposure and games," Cricket PNG chairperson Helen Macindoe told Reuters.
"We're hoping with the 'Barras' making it to the World Cup, there'll be a little bit more exposure."
While the world stage is PNG's focus for the next few weeks, the long-term aim is to continue growing the game beyond Hanuabada and the neighbouring coastal areas.
"A couple of years ago we managed to get some funding through Cricket Australia, New Zealand Cricket and the ICC (International Cricket Council), and we're building 48 more wickets around the country," Macindoe said.
PNG are grouped with Oman, Scotland and Bangladesh in the opening round and will need to finish in the top two if they are to secure a spot alongside the top-ranked nations in the "Super 12" stage.
The T20 World Cup, running from Oct. 17 to Nov. 14, was shifted to Oman and the United Arab Emirates from original hosts India due to COVID-19 concerns.