Geographically speaking, Nepal sits on the shoulder of a cricketing giant—India. And, more than once, the tiny nation has tapped on that shoulder for inspiration. Not least when it made M.S. Dhoni the ambassador of Nepal cricket in 2012.
The connection, however, goes way back. Cricket in Nepal, like in India, began with, and was limited to, the aristocracy as members of the ruling Rana family donned flannels to play a game the British had invented. But over time, and with independence, the sport was thrown open to the masses and saw a steady growth in popularity. During the 1990s, cricket moved out of Kathmandu and a major development programme saw it entering schools. Regional and district-level tourneys were organised and participation soared. In fact, there was a time when the Nepalese were queuing up to play, but had no grounds. Infrastructure lagged willingness and the number of participating teams had to be restricted until more facilities came up.
Then, in 1996, Nepal became an associate member of the International Cricket Council and began its journey as an international team. And on that journey were several milestones, most notably the recent promotion as an ODI team.
Over the years, Nepal has won many a lower-division championship, staking its claim as a 'minnow-in-waiting' on the international circuit. But, unlike some of the other smaller cricketing nations, Nepal already has a huge fan base and a cricketing legacy. Apparently, each international game draws in about 10,000 people, which far surpasses what other associate members bring in. Also, unlike teams such as Canada and Hong Kong, which are filled with expatriates playing a sport they thought they had left behind in their motherland, Nepal has a fully indigenous squad. Led by captain Paras Khadka, who stands tall at six foot three, the “Rhinos” have long been in the shadow of the other illustrious teams of the subcontinent, but have worked with dogged determination.
This, amid a crisis in its administrative system. Taking another unfortunate cue from India, particularly the BCCI, the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) got involved in some shady business, drawing the ICC's ire. The international body suspended CAN in 2016 because it felt the Nepalese government was interfering too much with the system. The suspension, however, did not affect the national team's ability to participate in ICC series.
The players, meanwhile, kept moving forward. They seemed sure of the light at the end of the tunnel. And, a few weeks ago, a light did shine. At the Indian Premier League auction, Delhi Daredevils picked up 17-year-old leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane. It reminded one of the time when Rashid Khan, another young leggie, became one of the first two Afghani cricketers in the IPL, in 2017. This put more eyes on Afghanistan cricket, which had been growing by leaps and bounds. In fact, Nepal's next target could be to emulate what Afghanistan, a fellow newbie, has achieved. Starting from near obscurity, the Afghans have built a strong team. They have impressed fans and critics alike, and soon will play their first Test, against India, in Bengaluru on June 14.
But, if Nepal is to grow as a cricketing nation, it has to play a lot more of long-format cricket. Though it does have many domestic tournaments, most of them feature T20s. The ODI status, however, might provide the impetus for improvement in the 50-over match. Also, having once lost its T20I status after a string of bad performances, Nepal would want to hold on to the newly earned position with all its might.
Hopefully, with more funding from the ICC, among other perks, the nation will get a chance to build more academies, training centres and stadiums, laying the groundwork for the next generation to take Nepal cricket even further.
Talking about the future, a recent match indicated that the faith placed in Nepal was not misplaced. It was the Under-19 Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur, and defending champions India took on Nepal in what many predicted would be a lopsided affair. After putting on a modest 185, Nepal seemed to be rushing towards the inevitable. However, it didn't. Instead, it bowled India out for 166. Incidentally, this was the same side that thrashed every team en route to winning the ICC World Cup. So yes, Nepal can, indeed, dream.
Courtesy: The Week