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Fielding for the future: Cricket's PNG mission

A girl batting misses the ball and her stumps are broken.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Cricket has long been a part of the Papua New Guinean sporting landscape, but a determined push to introduce the game into provincial areas has seen it blossom in new places with a new generation.

The giggling, boisterous stream of humanity feels much more like a cricket crowd than a cricket team.

It's not surprising. The Omili Primary School in a suburb of Lae, Papua New Guinea, has a population of 2,800. Its student body would fill ten times over the grandstand at PNG's national cricket ground, Amini Park, in faraway Port Moresby.

But those exploding en masse onto the playground are here to play, not watch.

Close up shot of woman smiling at camera.
Omili Primary School Sports Coordinator Malinda Tau-Marupi.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"They get very restless," says Omili Primary School Sports Coordinator Malinda Tau-Marupi.

"There are so many students and so much overcrowding. They get so rowdy and they would love to be outside on this little field here."

- Malinda Tau-Marupi

The "little field" is, in fact, a large, flat, grassy paddock; a rarity in many parts of PNG. More than 150 assemble and stay quiet just long enough to listen to brief instructions from the four-man coaching team. Within seconds five cricket pitches are created.

Side-on shot of a boy throwing a cricket ball. Multiple crickets games are being played in the background.
Cricket skills and life skills are developed here.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Clinics like this are met with huge excitement for those playing, and longing looks from those who aren't. Not so long ago, the game would have been met with puzzlement by most.

"Cricket wasn't that popular," Malinda recalls.

"Not in this region of New Guinea. But today it is becoming very common and played mostly by kids of this region here."

It's not that cricket is new in PNG. Missionaries introduced the game here nearly 120 years ago.

"Cricket started way back," says Morobe Cricket Coordinator Nigel Topai, himself a modern-day missionary for the game.

"It was not popular in the outer provinces but the interest is starting to pick up in those areas."

Man seated with cricket bat.
Morobe Cricket Coordinator Nigel Topai.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Nigel has his own international dreams, currently on ice because of injury. But he and others across PNG are working tirelessly with the support of Australian Aid to find and develop players from their own beloved provinces in the hope the national team can become more geographically diverse.

The smiling faces and dancing eyes of Omili though, mask a confronting reality. As the sun blazes from directly above, and nearby billboards advertise delicious food many, perhaps most, of these children have not yet eaten today. The reasons are complex, both social and economic.

"I would say because of our standard of living many of them do not have decent meals," Malinda explains.

"We try our best to emphasise to parents as much as possible that they have three meals a day consisting of the food groups that give a healthy, balanced meal.

"Their lifestyle in the settlement is that they do not have decent meals or proper clothes."

A boy batting, misses hitting the cricket ball.
A swing and a miss.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

The importance of good nutrition is stressed during the cricket clinics. Female empowerment and teamwork are also emphasised in an attempt to break the cycle of violence witnessed daily by some of these children.

Overwhelmed teachers have to meet formal curriculum obligations to physically develop students. The clinics get them a step closer.

"Activities such as sports helps a lot of them to get where they are supposed to be in life."

- Malinda Tau-Marupi

"We do not have school fight problems within this area," Malinda say.

"They learn to work together and stay together, even if there are outside conflicts that we see along the streets."

The only conflict at Omili this day was the fight to get into the group photo and, of course, the fight to simultaneously improve PNG cricket and thousands of young lives.

Children holding cricket bats and balls smiling for the camera.
Some of the lucky Omili students who've had the chance to play cricket.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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