(UPDATED 0130, 0930 AEST)

There was drama aplenty, a shroud of mystery and a touch of the ridiculous at Sano today, as Japan awoke to the news that they had qualified for next year’s Under 19 World Cup without even stepping onto the pitch. Their final-day showdown and de facto final against Papua New Guinea had been called off, with the Papuans forfeiting the crucial points as they were unable to field an eligible team; eleven of their 14-man squad had been suspended by management. In a terse statement released later in the day, Cricket PNG cited “internal disciplinary reasons and failing to adhere to our strict codes of conduct” as the cause of the suspensions, though remained tight-lipped about what breaches could have been serious enough to warrant gifting the Japanese a place at the U19 World Cup, adding simply that they “will address this issue further on return to Port Moresby.”

It’s now been confirmed by sources very close to the matter, corroborating other information received by us over the weekend, at least 10 players were taken in for questioning by local police for shoplifting. Only after intensive negotiations which included the cricket boards of both Japan and PNG, as well as ICC management, did local police release the players in question without charge. An ABC Pacific Beat radio piece also covered the news yesterday.

“Parents will be briefed first and foremost and brought up to speed with what’s gone on. From there they’ll be an internal investigation then they’ll obviously be sanctions and bans and what not that flows on from there once we’ve got right to the bottom of who’s involved, (and) who…the ring leaders (are),” CPNG Head Coach Joe Dawes (who was not with the team on tour) said to ABC.

“The local police, the ICC, the EAP regional staff, everyone’s been brilliant with this. Young men have made some mistakes, but they (the police/ICC etc) have been really good with them, we’ve been able to get an outcome where the boys are on their way home.

“Not only does this rob the four guys who didn’t do the wrong thing, but there’s (lost World Cup qualification) funding attached with that, there will be fines from the ICC, there’s a lot of consequences that will come out of this yet, and hopefully all our sponsors will stick by us as well.

“99% of the people are all for strict punishments and discipline which we will be doing, but we will also be doing our best to see if we can educate the kids and bring them back into the fold at some stage,” Dawes concluded.

While this answers a number of queries it frankly raises more questions than it answers – namely how, what and why an entire cricket team of Papuan teenagers were attempting (very incompetently, it would seem) to shoplift in regional Japan. We can only wait as more details may eventually emerge, but the incident already seems destined to go down as one of the most absurd (and brainless) bonding sessions PNG cricket has ever seen.

The awkward circumstances notwithstanding, Japan celebrated as they progressed out of the East Asia Pacific group into its very first ICC World Cup, at any level or format. And while PNG entered the last day as firm favourites, the new-look Japanese side deserved to qualify after going unbeaten in their preceding three matches. First, they trounced Samoa by 178 runs, then cruised to victory over Vanuatu by 70, before surviving a batting wobble against the spirited Fijian bowlers to close out their third match by 4 wickets.

Captain Marcus Thurgate led the way with the bat, topping the tournament run charts with 124, including a pair of half-centuries, while his tidy keeping also picked up 3 catches, 2 stumpings and assisted in a pair of runouts. Already a seasoned campaigner at senior level (having officially debuted as a 15-year-old in 2016 at the East Asia Cup), Thurgate has a major part to play in the fortunes of the Japanese in years to come, both at the upcoming U19s tournament and for the men’s team.

Ball in hand, Japan were well-served by a multi-pronged bowling unit, with seamer Kazumasa Takahashi (4/14 against Samoa), legspinner Masato Morita (4/38 against Vanuatu) and offspinner Yugandhar Retharekar (5/18 against Fiji) all stepping up to lead the attack. With better batting lineups awaiting them at the U19 World Cup, possessing multiple bowlers with wicket-taking ability will be crucial to Japan’s chances of pulling off an upset against more-fancied opponents.

Originally published 8 June 2019. Additional information contained in paragraphs 2-6 and in italics where supported.
0930 12 June 2019 on further advice from sources very close to the matter, players were taken into custody and questioned but never legally arrested, and while it was reported by ABC that diplomatic negotiations took place this is understood not to be true.

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