The game of cricket sounds very different in Papua New Guinea.

Bat hitting ball is much like anywhere else. But after that, you hear the thud as it strikes the wooden roof or wall of a house. This is followed by the splash as the ball falls into the sea.

Or there’s the sound of an engine as the game is interrupted by a car driving on the pitch – which, in all fairness, is actually a busy road.

PNG's ODI record
Matches: 2
Won: 2
Highest total: 264-7
Largest win: 4 wickets
Highest scorer: L Siaka, 140 runs
Top score: L Siaka, 109
Most wickets: N Vanua, 4 wickets
Best figures: N Vanua 4-60

At least, this is what cricket sounds like in Hanuabada – the ‘village on stilts’ on the outskirts of the capital Port Moresby.

In the rest of the country, the game isn’t played very much. But that hasn’t stopped Papua New Guinea from getting agonisingly close to a place at the 2015 World Cup.

Falling at the last hurdle

Hanuabada provides the vast majority of PNG’s national players – cricketers who were within a shade of reaching both last year’s World Twenty20, and the ongoing competition in Australia and New Zealand.

“In the last 12 months we’ve missed two World Cups by a game,” Cricket PNG’s General Manager Greg Campbell told Al Jazeera at an U19 nets session in Port Moresby.

“But that’s our pinnacle at the moment, to reach a 50-over or 20-over World Cup. The rules have changed with four spots fewer for the next one but we’re confident we can get there. And one day - I might not be alive then – PNG might be playing Test cricket.”

While the presence of Afghanistan at this World Cup had been ordained ever since their meteoric rise up the rankings from the depths of the world cricket league, PNG have flown under the radar to reach this point.

Their late collapse in qualifying, having gone into the Super Six stage nicely poised, nevertheless saw the ‘Barramundis’ awarded ODI status – they’re slated to play the Afghans as well as associate ODI nations like Scotland and the UAE later this year.

Central contracts

It’s a progression that means playing in one of the many games that spring up along the road in Hanuabada is no longer just a leisure pursuit.

And one day - I might not be alive then – PNG might be playing Test cricket

Greg Campbell, Cricket PNG’s General Manager

Aided by development funds from the Australian government, PNG players are now on central contracts for the first time – a great incentive for batsmen to clear those roofs, and for bowlers to avoid those trips into the Coral Sea to retrieve the ball.

“The sport can change people to become a good person, but some also love cricket because it’s an incentive for the future,” Seura Loa said as he watched children play in Hanuabada, where he organises the junior ‘Lik Lik Cricket’ programme.

“It can mean a living, a house. But I’m an unemployed person and I love cricket also.”

Becoming a ‘good person’ can be an important event in Port Moresby, which has one of the world’s highest crime rates.

National cricketers become role models both in terms of behaviour and status, with some of them playing as rookies for teams in Australia’s Big Bash League.

The nature of the sport also sets them apart from Rugby League – PNG’s national obsession which sometimes descends into street fights between supporters of rival Australian teams, let alone local ones.

Cricket for everyone

Indeed there can be few places in the world except India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka where cricket is played so spontaneously or in such an egalitarian spirit. The spirit of the game has also reached areas of society that usually remain out of sight.

Families with disabled children often both overprotect them and hide them from the outside world. Last year, Cricket PNG launched its ‘Blo Olgeta’ or ‘cricket for everyone’ programme.

Al Jazeera attended a session where national players gave special needs children training and match practice. The confidence and pleasure the kids got out of it was immediately evident. And it might not stop at that.

“The children feel they are not segregated, that they are not pushed anywhere, but that…there are people out there who want us and love us,” teacher Christine Kenia said.

“But I’ve already told Cricket PNG that we might have some future Barramundis among them. They might not have skills in other things but in cricket, they have some hidden talents.”

With PNG’s new-found ODI status, the cricketing talent may not be hidden in Hanuabada for too much longer either.

Paul Rhys is a broadcast and online journalist. He tweets @pjc_rhys

Source: Al Jazeera