© Getty Images
Nepal did not get to play any international match in 2016 © Getty Images

“Rain, rain go away! We have 10% of our 2016 matches to play today! #pleaseclear #bigday,” tweeted Netherlands skipper Peter Borren ahead of his side’s clash against Oman in the qualifying round of ICC World T20 2016, in Dharamsala earlier this year. The ‘10% matches’ mentioned in his tweet was a satirical reply to ICC, referring to the small number of matches the Associate Members usually get to play at international level in a calendar year. This deprives them of a chance to improve by playing against the bigger nations. Not just Netherlands, this has, in fact, been the story for almost all the Associate Members, including Nepal.

As a matter of fact, things are not the same for Nepal as compared to Netherlands, for they do not even have the T20I status like the European side. This makes their case to push for international recognition even more difficult due to lack of opportunities at international level. The tiny Himalayan nation, however, has been making giant strides in cricket of late. In the limited opportunities they have got, they have impressed all and sundry. They made it to the qualifying round of the ICC World T20 in 2014, and won 2 out of their 3 games to finish second behind Bangladesh in the points table but missed out on that solitary spot for the main round by a difference of mere 0.533 points on net run-rate.

They went down fighting against the hosts Bangladesh, but defeated Hong Kong and Afghanistan — teams having ODI and T20I status. However, after this impressive show, Nepal failed to maintain consistency and thus missed out on the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 as well as ICC World T20 in 2016. They could not seal the berths after failing to perform up to the mark in 2014 and 2015. They had an ordinary last year, where they lost all four of their ICC World Cricket League (WCL) Championship 2015-17 matches. That they competed was itself a commendable thing in the first place, given the country had to face a devastating earthquake.

Coming to WCL Championship, it is ICC’s premier List A tournament for Associate members. Performance in WCL Championship determines their fate (promotion/relegation) as well as plays a key role in qualifying for World Cups.

A bad 2015 notwithstanding, 2016 was a much better year for Nepal.

How they fared this year

Nepal had all of four WCL Championship matches scheduled in 2016. They had equal number of games scheduled last year, and they lost all four of them. But 2016 was much better, as they won 3 out of the scheduled 4 matches. Their first WCL Championship game this year was against Namibia, whom they hosted at home, in April 2016. In first of the two games played at Kirtipur’s Tribhuvan University International Cricket Ground, Nepal registered won by 5 wickets. Basant Regmi, Sharad Vesawkar and Binod Bhandari played crucial roles in their side’s win.

Namibia put up a better show in the next game, but Nepal still prevailed. Vesawkar got another fifty, but hero of the match was captain and the poster boy of Nepal cricket, Paras Khadka. The inspirational skipper first sent down 9 tight overs, giving away just 20 runs. Later, he returned to smash 94-ball 103, inclusive of 5 fours and 7 sixes. With these two wins, Nepal had a stunning start to 2016.

Nepal’s other two fixtures for the year were away games, scheduled to be played in August against Netherlands. However, the team had a pleasant surprise in store when the players got almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play at Lord’s. Ahead of their games against Netherlands, Nepal had a halt in London, to play a 50-over game against an MCC side. The match was arranged with a noble cause as part of celebrations to mark the 200-year-old relationship between Britain and Nepal. Its proceeds were to go towards rebuilding work in Nepal after last year’s earthquake.

Nepal won the historic match in front of a jubilant 5,000-odd crowd, which cheered for its every single run and every wicket taken. Batting first, they put up 217 for 8 on the board, and later their bowlers successfully defended the total. Sagar Pun and Regmi took 3 wickets each in the victory, while skipper Khadka once again led from the front with his 30 runs batting at No. 4 and six useful overs.

The win underlined Nepal’s slow but steady rise in world cricket.

The two games against Netherlands that followed bore mixed results for Nepal, as they lost the first match and won the second one. Once again, skipper Khadka was instrumental in his side’s win when he hammered 94-ball 84 in the second match and picked up 2 wickets. This way, Nepal ended their WCL Championship fixtures for 2016 with 3 wins and a loss.

Apart from these wins, there were a few other good things that happened to Nepal cricket in 2016, which suggest cricket has a bright future in the country. 16-year-old leg-spinner from Nepal — Sandeep Lamichhane — got opportunity of a lifetime when former Australian skipper Michael Clarke invited him to represent Sydney-based club Western Suburbs in Sydney’s Premier Cricket competition and to train at Clarke’s cricket academy in Sydney during his season-long stay in Australia. Not only Clarke, but his compatriot and a legend of the art of leg-spin Shane Warne too had words of praise for the teenager, who was the second highest wicket-taker in ICC U-19 World Cup 2016 with 14 scalps in six games at 17.07 apiece with a best of 5 for 27 against Ireland.

Image Courtesy: Michael Clarke (Instagram)
Image Courtesy: Michael Clarke (Instagram)

Besides, Rubina Chhetri became the first women’s cricketer from Nepal to join a training programme in the Women’s Big Bash League (BBL) for the season 2016-17, where she joined the Melbourne Renegades as a part of Associate Rookies program. These two developments are being seen as important landmarks in Nepal cricket’s brief yet riveting history.

CAN suspended

Another important event that affected Nepal cricket was ICC’s suspension of Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN). In April this year, ICC found Nepal government’s interference in the board to an objectionable extent and hence suspended the board immediately ”until such time as the CAN becomes free of government interference and is properly structured to begin exploiting the tremendous cricket talent and opportunities that exist in Nepal.”. The good thing, however, was that the ICC allowed Nepal national teams to feature in its flagship events.

Nepal players, especially their captain Khadka, have always been vocal in their criticism for the board. Time and again, they have demanded reform, proper cricketing infrastructure in the country and a system from where players come through the ranks. With the game rapidly popularising in the nation, there is a vast pool of untapped talent at the moment. What is required is a proper channel through which the young, talented players can exploit their game. Hopefully, the stakeholders of Nepal cricket as well as ICC can look into this matter in the coming years.

Way forward

Nepal’s next WCL Championship fixtures are against Kenya, again at home, in March next year. There is a gap of 7 months between their two WCL Championship fixtures, which denies them of any kind of momentum. Their players will be deprived of any solid practice in this period. This happens more so because the country does not have a proper First-Class structure in place. The top Nepali players currently play “random tournaments”, organised without any formal structure. This needs to be addressed immediately if the team is to realise its goal of becoming an ODI nation soon.

“Our goals moving forward are to become an ODI nation, and hopefully in the next 15-20 years become a Test-playing country, so a lot of things need to be sorted,” Khadka had said in an interview to ESPNCricinfo earlier this year. It was quite a fair assessment by the captain, who is leaving no stone unturned in realising Nepal’s dream. His team is taking small yet steady steps, and he is central to their efforts.

For now, his team’s first aim will be to try and finish in the top four of the WCL Championship. At present, they are sixth in the points table, behind Papua New Guinea (PNG), Netherlands, Hong Kong, Scotland and Kenya. With a negative run rate and difference of 5 points from the fourth-placed team, Nepal have a task at hand. But the reward is worth the effort — a place at the 2018 World T20 Qualifier. There is no official declaration yet, but ICC is hopeful of organising the tournament in 2018. Nepal’s immediate aim must be to qualify for that event, if at all it happens.