Papua New Guinea make their presence felt at new 'home' base in Dubai

PNG to host tri-series against Scotland and Oman in UAE due to travel issues back home emanating from low Covid vaccination rate

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Indian Premier League cricket, plus the national football teams of China and Syria, might be wholly different entities, but each share something in common. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, all of them had to stage home games in the UAE in recent times.

The latest sports team set to become “hosts” of a competition in Dubai will be the Papua New Guinea cricket team. With Port Moresby deemed unsuitable for the sides to travel because of a low Covid vaccination rate in the country, PNG will be the nominal home team in a tri-series also including Scotland and Oman, starting on Saturday.

The expatriate population of PNG in the UAE might be limited to a mere few. But if the evidence of when they were last here for a Cricket World Cup League 2 tri-series, against UAE and Nepal last month, is anything to go by, their supporters are both voluble and vivid.

“We only have a little community here, but when it comes to sports, man, UAE can hear us,” said Rose Sweetapple, who has lived in Dubai for the past 16 years.

Sweetapple herself is impossible to miss. Getting yourself seen and heard at a match involving the impassioned fans of Nepal is quite a feat, but Sweetapple stole the show when the sides met at the Dubai International Stadium two weeks ago by way of her glamorous headdress.

She made it herself in Dubai, in the style traditional to her home province of Madang on the north coast of PNG, using feathers that she ordered from the internet as well as items sourced in the country.

“The shells are from where I’m from,” she said. “I brought them from the market because when my relatives sell them, they sell for next to nothing, so you have to support them when they do that.

“The little feathers are from roosters, from the neck area. The longer brown ones are from pheasants.

“I put them together to make my headdress. It gives me peace, happiness, and joy to be representing my country by wearing feathers.”

Cricket, according to Sweetapple, is very popular in the island nation. She was among the country’s pioneering female cricketers when a woman’s league there was first started 30 years ago.

When PNG beat UAE last month, ending a run of 18 matches and over 1,000 days without a one-day international win, it was big news in the country, she says.

“That is a big deal at home,” she said. “People will stay up and watch it.

PNG bowler Assad Vala after taking the wicket of Nepal's Aasif Sheikh at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“Rugby league is huge as well. When State of Origin is on in Australia, even Australians don’t support like Papua New Guineans do. They are crazy for it because it is our national sport.

“No joke. Husbands and wives separate for the night if they support opposite teams. TVs get broken. Fights happen. It is massive.

“Even on public transport, if the driver supports the Blues [New South Wales], he will be wearing his shirt the whole week before the game.

"If there’s a blackout, we will be angry with the power supplier and demand they put the power back on.”

According to Charles Amini, one of PNG’s leading cricketers, the players themselves feel a passion for rugby league.

“It is like a religion there,” Amini said. “Everyone has a team they support. It is the same in our team. Not many play, but they are big followers and everyone has a team.

“But I guess you could say it was in my blood to play cricket. Everyone in my family has played, my grandfather, my father, my uncles.

“Back in the day, in the ’80s and ’90s cricket was big. They used to pack out the fields. Those crowds have slowed down, but hopefully we can build that back up.”

When the team first came to play in Dubai, half of them were the kids I had known from when they were little
Rose Sweetapple

As Amini says, his bloodline dictated he might become a star in cricket. His grandfather, father, mother and elder brother have all represented PNG in cricket.

And, yet it was a far more global name who inspired him to follow his particular discipline of bowling.

Because of the job of his father, Charles Sr, with Shell, the family moved to Melbourne when he was seven, and “I started bowling leg-spin because of watching Shane Warne at the MCG”.

“He was a very big inspiration,” Amini said. “I went to everything that was there – Test matches, rugby league, AFL.”

Life in Dubai might be markedly different to home for the touring “host” team. But they are at least welcomed by some friendly faces beyond the boundary. Amini himself has a cousin who lives in the city, while Sweetapple is familiar to all.

“When the team first came to play in Dubai, half of them were the kids I had known from when they were little,” Sweetapple said.

“I knew every one of them. They saw me and they said, ‘Auntie Rose!’ They all went and told their parents.”

And all of them manage to get themselves understood, too. Which is not quite the given it would be in most other teams.

PNG is believed to be the most linguistically diverse country in the world, with over 800 languages spoken. The national cricket team operates by using around five – with Motu, English and a pidgin version the most frequent.

“There are four main languages in which everyone in Papua New Guinea can communicate,” said Assad Vala, the team’s captain.

“Cricket is mostly played in Port Moresby but there are other centres playing it, too. Hopefully we can generate some more young players, bring them through and they can represent the country in the future.”

Updated: April 10, 2022, 4:22 AM