Kathmandu: Dec 12, 2011
The aftermath of civil war and chronic political instability have given Nepalis little to cheer about in recent years but the nation's cricketers have emerged as a surprise source of inspiration.
In a country where sporting achievement has often taken a back seat to the realities of poverty and conflict, Nepal's fastest-growing game attracted sell-out crowds all last week as fans cheered the team in Asia's Twenty20 Cup.
The national stadium at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, which has no seating and an unofficial capacity of 8,000, saw daily crowds of 10,000, with many fans perched on walls and the roofs of cars to watch the action.
Only a few years ago, even the biggest matches attracted just a handful of spectators.
"The crowds always inspire us to put in our best performance," Paras Khadka, Nepal's captain, 25, told AFP.
"There is a bright future for Nepal in cricket because we have been able to play well at international level. The numbers of Nepali fans have significantly increased and they want us to qualify for the World Cup."
Nepal bowed out of the ACC Twenty20 Cup to eventual winners Afghanistan in the semi-finals on Friday, but their strong showing ensured them a berth in the qualifiers for next year's Twenty20 World Cup to be held in Sri Lanka.
The success marked a milestone in the development of the national cricket side, which started just 15 years ago.
In a country where most people live on less than $1.25 a day, and half of all under-fives have chronic malnutrition, sport provides a popular diversion.
While football has traditionally been the biggest sport, the buzz in the coffee shops of Kathmandu has been all about cricket, with jubilant Nepalis talking up the team's chances in the tournament, which ended Sunday.
"I am a die-hard fan of cricket and love to cheer for the Nepali team. The team always shows spirit and performs passionately," said student Nirjana Sharma, 23, who was among thousands who saw Nepal in action on Friday.
Despite their team not making it to the final, about 4,000 Nepalis roared on every wicket on Sunday as Afghanistan pipped Hong Kong by eight runs.
Niranjan Rajbanshi, of the Nepal Sports Journalist Forum, acknowledges that cricket has a long way to go until it is as popular as in neighbouring India.
But look further afield and Nepal holds its own, he says.
"I have been to cricket grounds all around Asia and you don't see the crowds in other countries that you get here," he told AFP.
Cricket spread worldwide through the British Empire but Nepal, which was never occupied by Britain, came to the game in the 1920s when it was introduced by the ruling Rana dynasty.
It remained a sport for the aristocracy in Nepal until improvements in communications and transport in the 1980s meant it could be played seriously outside Kathmandu.
Interest began to develop and the national side played for the first time, in the ACC Trophy in Kuala Lumpur, in 1996.
But the 10-year Maoist armed insurgency which began that same year saw the deaths of 16,000 Nepalis, crippled the country's education system and impeded the development of sports.
After a peace deal was signed in 2006, cricket has made rapid progress, with the media carrying extensive reports on major tournaments and crowds for major matches rivalling those seen in some Test-playing nations.
"When we used to play club-level matches, the stadiums were almost empty," said Pawan Agrawal, a former national captain and a member of the Cricket Association of Nepal.
He said up to 20,000 people would now come to watch the national side playing tournaments at Tribhuvan University.
"The popularity of cricket in the subcontinent and the live TV coverage has been instrumental," he said.
Today the country boasts 377 senior clubs playing on 72 grounds -- 17 of which have turf wickets.
Nepal's international cricketers have not been paid in the past, with most fitting in practice around their day jobs, but the Cricket Association of Nepal agreed in November to offer them a small stipend of 5,000 rupees ($61) a month.
"Football is number one here but cricket's achievements have definitely challenged its supremacy," said Binod Pandey, who covers the sport for the Kathmandu-based Nagarik daily newspaper.
"There are a lot of possibilities for Nepal to play world tournaments in the future." (AFP)