Nepal's journey through lower various grades of cricket has been inspiring © AFP
Nepal’s journey through various grades of cricket has been inspiring © AFP

 

Nepal’s journey through the various grades of cricket has been a spectacular climb, culminating in the giant steps taken in the last few years. Arunabha Sengupta writes that as they prepare to take on Hong Kong in their opening game of the ICC World T20 2014, they have it in them to spring a surprise or two.

 

The hills are alive

 

It is just not a long border and the snow peaks of the mighty Himalayas that the exquisite country of Nepal shares with India. The passion for cricket throbs equally in the picturesque land, echoing through the majestic mountains and picturesque valleys, sending waves of emotion across the nestling lakes and the rippling rivers.

 

The fans of this beautiful nation have long followed the game at the international level. It is probably not a far stretch to say that Sachin Tendulkar is almost as much a household name in Kathmandu as he is in Mumbai. The international circuit apart, the Indian Premier League (IPL) has been a major force in creating immense interest for the sport. Cricket has grown more and more popular with each passing season.

 

And now, ever since last November, the country has been experiencing its biggest ever sporting carnival. It all started from the moment Sharad Veswakar drove the last ball of the match from Hong Kong’s Haseeb Amjad through the off-side at Abu Dhabi. With that heart-stopping win in the quarter-finals of the International Cricket Council (ICC) World T20 Qualifier, the team won a place in what will be their first tournament on the big stage.

 

ICC World T20 2014 schedule: Match time table with venue details

 

The support and participation has turned active, no longer requiring the neighbouring lands to provide the cricketing stimulus. The game has captured the imagination of the nation, gripped the hearts with a unifying passion, popping up in discussions across age, sex and occupation, even amongst those whose understanding of the rules and nuances remain at the nascent stage. There have been best wishes, candlelight events, national demonstrations of support for the team. Almost every individual has already purchased the cricketing jersey, the same that their heroes will don in the tournament.

 

As is the case with every cricket team in the subcontinent, the game has been elevated to the status of national well-being, a vehicle that one hopes will soon take the country to the highest level in the international arena.

 

Cricket in the mountains

 

The craze for cricket is not really surprising. Nepal has had as ancient links to the British as Indians. It goes back to collaboration in the 18th century, the Anglo-Nepalese War, and the treaty of Sugauli in 1816. Unlike the Indians, this small nation never came under the British rule, but there were plenty of interactions with the Empire.

 

According to the recent speech of Andy Sparkes, the British Ambassador to Nepal, “We chose not to try to colonise, but to partner and influence. We were Nepal’s only such partner between 1816 and 1951.” The statement may be cloaked in muffling diplomatic niceties, but the British influence was aplenty and the treaty of perpetual peace and friendship of 1923 played an important role in the nation’s course in the 20th century. And of course, perhaps no other ally supplied military help to the British more enduringly than the Gurkhas.

 

Cricket, however, did not filter into the country through the regiments. The game was first introduced by the ruling Ranas in the 1920s, as they returned to Nepal after their British education. The roots were aristocratic, and The Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) was originally formed in 1946 for the ruling classes. The active sporting collaboration with the British remained limited mainly to mountaineering.

 

However, with the democratic movements of the 1950s, the general populace got a taste of the game. In 1961 the CAN became a part of the National Sports Council. The sport remained limited in and around Kathmandu for several decades, but with the rest of the subcontinent fast becoming the beating heart of the global sport, Nepal could soon feel the pulsating excitement generated by the willow striking the leather.

The craze for cricket is not really surprising. Nepal has had as ancient links to the British as Indians. It goes back to collaboration in the 18th century, the Anglo-Nepalese War, and the treaty of Sugauli in 1816. Unlike the Indians, this small nation never came under the British rule, but there were plenty of interactions with the Empire

The country’s rise through the international ranks has been quick. It was in the 1980s that the game spread to the other parts of the land. In 1988, the country became an affiliate member of the ICC. The first time Nepal featured in Wisden’s ‘Cricket Round the World’ section was in 1992. And four years later, they became an associate member of the ICC and played their first tournament, the Pepsi Asian Cricket Council Trophy in Kuala Lumpur. They won against Japan and Brunei.

 

The giant steps

 

The last few years has seen giant steps taken by the national team. Between 2010 and 2013, they have moved from Division Five to Division Two, and have now made it to the ICC World T20 2014.

 

It is not fair to expect wonders from a team from the Himalayas that is still finding its way around the foothills of international cricket. However, there remains a fair chance that the bubbling enthusiasm of the side will win quite a few hearts during the tournament.

 

They are a very young side, whose ebullience is palpable in the way they go about their job in the field. They are a bunch of excellent fielders, and this is one aspect of the game that can take the attention of the world for starters.

 

It is only reasonable to expect that the batting and bowling skills will discover plenty of rough edges that can be rounded only with sufficient time and experience at the highest level. But, there is talent aplenty in the side.

 

Captain Paras Khadka leads by example, an explosive batsman and a decent medium pacer to boot. Additionally, he is just 26, underlining the youthfulness of the team and the promises the future holds as their stars are kindled with the flame of exposure.

 

Like the Indians, the team’s biggest strength is spin. The pitches of Nepal tend to help the turning ball and hence, there is fair amount of resources in that area. Basanta Regmi is a major force with his left-arm spin, who also brings in a lot of value with his bat. Shakti Gauchan is another impressive name in that area, who can be extremely miserly with the ball. He had incredible figures of 10-8-2-3 against Malaysia in the ICC World Qualifier 2012 and had been invited by the Rajasthan Royals (RR) for training.

 

The lack of genuine fast bowlers in Nepal is also similar to the ailment suffered by India. However, the teenaged medium pacer Sompal Kami has recently impressed both in New Zealand and Namibia.

 

On the batting front, Gyanendra Malla is considered by local fans as dependable and in the classical mould. He holds the national record for the highest individual score in List A matches, with 86 from 97 balls scored against Canada.

 

And finally there is Vesawkar, a young man of excellent temperament, who has almost specialised in the act of pulling off incredible finishes. He hit a match-winning unbeaten 50 to take Nepal to victory in the ICC World Cricket Division Three final, ensuring the promotion to Division Two. He went on to bring about spectacular wins against Kenya, Hong Kong and United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the World Twenty 20 Qualifier last year and was instrumental in securing the World Cup spot. And he followed it up with a 45-ball 91 not out with eight sixes against Singapore in a 50-over match at home. Veswakar is already known as the Mike Hussey of the team among the Nepali fans.

 

Cricketing infrastructure and support remain primitive in the country. The Tribhuvan University International ground in Kirtipur is the only venue of acceptable standard. Even there the stadium lacks proper seats, with spectators forced to sit on the grassy banks. Furthermore, till now there is scant financial benefit for the cricketers representing the country.

 

However, the spirit remains indomitable, the hearts full of hope and youthful ambition. The zeal and ardour of the young players move them to invocations and patriotic songs, tears and prayer beads, euphoria and ecstasy. There is no doubt that whatever be the result, Paras Khadka’s team will be out there to do their best for the country.

 

As the captain said in the pre-tournament press conference, “We are here to present Nepal cricket in front of the whole world.” And there is a good chance that the world will sit up and take notice.

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)