It doesn't have international status but with Fitzpatrick on board, the players could gain vital experience in the one-day game
When Cathryn Fitzpatrick, the leading One-Day International wicket-taker in women’s cricket and the fastest bowler in the world her day, says it’s “nerve-wracking” to bowl to a particular batter at the nets, you’d better sit up and take notice.
Fitzpatrick, a five-time World Cup winner with Australia, twice as player and three times as coach, is excited about Konio Oala, the young Papua New Guinea allrounder. The players have had a good training session during their ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier 2017 campaign in Colombo, and Oala has whacked a couple out of the practice ground. “Not just over, but out of the ground!”
The 20-year-old youngster with a lazy smile and striking tattooed arms and legs is one of the rising talents in Associate cricket.
“I’ve never seen any female hit the ball as far as she does,” insists Fitzpatrick, who is on the PNG coaching staff as a consultant. “I know a lot of people talk about (West Indies’) Deandra Dottin, how hard she hits it, but Konio…
“She’s very tall, so she gets a good stride into the ball. She makes it very difficult to bowl to her. Knowing that at any time she can just – you can put the fielders on the boundary, it doesn’t matter – she just goes over. She’s learning to build the innings differently, but I’ve not seen a female strike the ball like she does. As well as her ability to bowl fast and bowl a bouncer.”
Dottin hit an incredible 38-ball T20I century in 2010. Last year, Oala, who counts David Warner as among her favourite cricketers, managed a 65-ball 108 not out in the 20-over Pacific Games. It included 13 fours and four sixes.
It is that kind of promise that PNG Women has brought to the Women’s World Cup Qualifier in Sri Lanka. Playing 50-over cricket against international sides – PNG doesn't have international status – the tournament marks an important step in its development. Giving a good account of itself and gaining vital experience in the one-day game could change things for it.
At the time of writing, and with one match left against South Africa, it is yet to get a win. It narrowly missed out in a thriller against Scotland, despite almost matching the six runs or so it needed in the last 10 overs. But it will return home with more than the cricket bats and sports shoes it bought in Colombo.
“For players like Oala to be here and be seen, with the leagues that are popping up, like the WBBL, and possibly opportunities in England, the short format first is achievable and getting into leagues could change their lot,” says Fitzpatrick.
Oala and her teammates have been ambassadors for PNG women’s cricket in recent years. She and Ravini Oa were Women’s Big Bash League rookies this year. Norma Ovasuru had benefited from the programme last year. Oala, in Sydney Thunder, was thrilled about wearing Charlotte Edwards’s helmet and learning the sweep shot from her; Oa picked up tricks about getting more swing in bowling, and playing paddles and sweeps – although her attempt at a paddle shot, she admits after the loss to Scotland, needs more practice.
As part of the East Asia Pacific side, which also features members from Japan and Samoa, eight PNG girls defended their Australia Country Cricket Championship title.
PNG has been playing more cricket and, since its participation in the ICC Women’s World T20 Qualifier 2015 in Thailand, has gained more visibility. With Greg Campbell, former Australia cricketer, as general manager of their board, the men’s and women’s teams get good opportunities in Australia.
The challenges for the women’s team as they describe it, however, are unique.
The first team is contracted by Cricket PNG, and the players are happy with the facilities and training on offer. The support they could use goes beyond the 22 yards and after they’ve hung up their bats.
The management, for instance, organised a cooking class to help the girls understand nutrition and learn how to prepare healthy food with local, easily available ingredients, and cook within their means.
Almost all the girls are from the same village, where they grew up playing cricket together. So, Cricket PNG organises a minibus to transport them to the training facilities.
There’s a lot of singing and dancing and “making fun” that happens on the bus – and along the sidelines of tournaments, for that matter, though the girls no longer sing at every match like they used to – “but when it’s time for training, they give their best and in the game,” says Pauke Siaka, the captain.
As many as five of the players in Sri Lanka are mothers. Oala herself has two kids – she missed the World T20 Qualifier because her youngest was on the way – as do Ovasuru and Oa. Getting into an ice bath is like having a third, jokes Oala. They bank on an extended support system of supportive husbands, grandmums and parents. Siaka’s husband, Assad Vala, who leads the men’s side, knows exactly what it takes.
“I have good support from my family back at home,” says Oa. “Especially my husband and my little one. She’s always saying, ‘Mummy, one wicket for me!’ and I have the emotion to play for them.”
But, the women’s training schedule changes depending on what the men are doing. Which means, between the uncertainty of training and home, they don’t get a chance to add to what they get from cricket.
“We’ve been having some conversations around how we can possibly help get a more structured training environment, and possibly get some other training into the girls so it’ll allow them to then have some skills to get other work,” says Fitzpatrick. “If the training was a bit more structured, and it was always in the morning or always in the afternoon, or they [had] a bit of capacity to not necessarily put them in the workforce straight away, but provide them some skills... So that when the cricket money stops, hopefully there’s an income stream somewhere for them.”
For now, the support staff believes the girls need more exposure that will help them develop tactically. “We consume the game in Australia all the time, on telly, every night,” points out Fitzpatrick. But, “the PNG girls aren’t getting opportunities to listen to commentators, how they view the game, or talk cricket.”
Participation in global events like this qualifier, thus, is an education for the PNG girls. The hope is that next time, they’ll be hitting it out of the park in more ways than one.