JOSH SIM | ABC Newcastle
NEWCASTLE - An Australia-based member of Papua New Guinea's national cricket team is confident the Pacific nation can become a powerhouse of tier-two world cricket after its success in Hong Kong last month.
Born in Port Moresby to a Papua New Guinean mother and a New Zealander father, Chad Soper grew up on the New South Wales Central Coast.
Last month he returned from a tour of Hong Kong where he was a member of PNG national side the Barramundis which completed a set of 2-1 victories in a tier two One Day International and T20 International series.
Tier two teams include Scotland, the Netherlands and Nepal, while the world's top 12 teams contest the ICC Test Championship.
But just getting to represent his nation has been an unlikely achievement for the young cricketer, now a valuable member of the world's 17th-ranked side.
His father Jamie, however, said he was always sure his son could make it at the top level.
It was shortly before the Under 19s World Cup in 2012 that Jamie started making discreet enquiries.
"Dad was the one who really started having a look around for me … and just let them know I was available," Chad said.
"Next thing I know I get a call from [former PNG coach] Dipak Patel, telling me I'm in the squad."
An avid Cronulla Sharks fan, Soper had grown up on diet of footy in the winter and cricket in the summer.
On occasions, he even watched the PNG national team play in rugby league World Cups.
But for his first love — cricket — he had not even considered whether there was a PNG national team.
That first tournament was an eye-opener, coming up against players who would go on to become stars of the game, including Kraigg Brathwaite, Travis Head, Babar Azam and Quinten De Kock.
Lifting his stocks, the tournament saw him take seven wickets at an average of 28, including 5/32 against eventual tournament winner India.
"I was fortunate enough to get a few wickets that tournament. We played Nepal in a warm-up game and I got five wickets on a wicket that suited my bowling," he said.
"A few weeks later I was fortunate enough to get five wickets against India as well, and that's when I thought 'why not me at the top level?'"
Returning home to the Central Coast, Soper's focus was on playing Sydney Premier Cricket with his then-club Gordon.
He was just 17 when he got the nod to debut in the top grade, lining up with former Australian Test bowlers Matt Nicholson and Beau Casson, and taking two wickets.
Current PNG Coach Joe Dawes said playing Premier Cricket had been beneficial for Soper's development.
"You can't underestimate how important it is getting to play red-ball cricket and that longer form of the game regularly, like he does," Dawes said.
"Playing First Grade against some of them [first class cricketers] has been priceless."
It was not long before he was again called up by PNG, this time for the senior national side.
"I just remember it was a [phone] number from PNG and I thought 'who could this be?' It was like Christmas, to be honest, it was a massive surprise," Soper said.
Dawes said Soper's work ethic was the reason he was given an opportunity.
"He's probably not the most talented cricketer you'll ever see, but he knows his strengths and he nails them," Dawes said.
"He's just reliable, consistent and we know he's going to do a good job."
Just a few weeks later, Soper found himself in unfamiliar territory.
Standing in the middle of Hazelaarweg Cricket Ground in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Soper was presented with his first ever Papua New Guinea senior team cap.
The 'baggy black' with the bumblebee design has become his most treasured possession.
"I remember just thinking 'I've got it now [the cap], now let's get that new ball and get some wickets'," he said.
"I was fortunate enough to get a wicket in the second over … I just bowled a wide one and somehow he nicked it through to the keeper, so I'll take it."
But international cricket for tier two nations such as PNG is not particularly glamorous.
Players spend hours on economy flights, wait for cheaper connections, and do not always enjoy the best accommodation after a long day's play.
Since 2014, the players have been given yearly contracts and are paid to play, however PNG's weak currency and players who live outside the country must find other jobs.
Jamie Soper said the family had to foot some bills for their son.
"His contract barely pays his rent, and when he's home he's got a part-time job at a footwear store. But any large bills that come in, we're there for that," his father said.
"Financially it's a bit tough, but if I can give him something that he can look back on one day and say 'that was the best ride of my life', then I've done my job."
His coach said that despite the difficulties players like Soper faced, he had never once heard a complaint.
"Competitions like the East-Asia Pacific qualifiers that we're going through now are done on very tight budgets," Dawes said.
"But the boys all come from humble backgrounds and they're just happy to be on tour and around each other."
Soper said he believed Papua New Guinea — a nation of nearly 9 million people — was the next big powerhouse of the tier two stage of cricket, like Ireland and Afghanistan was before them.
He said the nation was the "sleeping giant" of the Pacific.
"We need more sponsors and a little bit more funding to come the way of Cricket PNG so we can help it blossom," he said.
"I know it will because it's a different place since I've started there. The next period is really exciting for PNG."