Kathmandu: In the past couple of months, as they watched their beloved team embark on the unlikely quest for a place in the 2019 ODI World Cup, Nepali cricket fans have been on a rollercoaster ride.
First, playing in the World Cricket League Division Two back in February, Nepal’s cricket team pulled off three nail-biting wins: first over Namibia (by one wicket), then Kenya (off the last ball) and then Canada (with one wicket left). With these wins, the team was eligible for the next round of the World Cup qualifiers in Zimbabwe.
There was no shortage of drama in the Zimbabwe tournament as well. All hope seemed lost when Nepal was handsomely beaten in the first three matches by Zimbabwe, Scotland and Afghanistan. Going into their last match against Hong Kong, Nepal had already been knocked out of contention for the super-six stage (the top two teams in the super six would qualify for the World Cup). Yet, there was still a mathematical chance for Nepal to get the ODI status if they could beat Hong Kong. They did, by five wickets, and made it to the playoff round.
In the playoffs, they faced doughty Papua New Guinea. Nepal won again, easily, this time by six wickets. But for Nepal to finish eighth (or higher) in the tournament, and thereby get the right to play ODI for four years, the Netherlands had to beat Hong Kong in a later match. Batting first, the Dutch were bundled out for 174 in 48.3 overs, sending many Nepali hearts aflutter. But the Dutch bowlers roared back to dismiss Hong Kong for 130. When Nadeem Ahmed, the 11th man for Hong Kong, was caught behind, the whole of Nepal erupted with joy.
Thus was Nepal’s ODI status for the next four years secured, in what is being dubbed as the country’s “biggest sporting achievement” till date. It was an old dream come true.
Cricket in Nepal
Cricket has an interesting history in Nepal. It was introduced here at the start of the 20th century by the Rana rulers who liked to style themselves after ‘English gentlemen’. But it did not become a popular sport until the 1951 political change, when the monarch and political parties wrested power from the autocratic Ranas. As people’s aspirations for democratic rights increased, so did the reach of the ‘gentleman’s game’.
The main difference between football (the most popular sport in Nepal) and cricket (the second most popular) was that while football was largely confined to the hill communities, cricket, perhaps because of its wild popularity just across the border in India, came to be played and loved in the hills and the plains alike.
This difference also came to be reflected in the compositions of the national football and cricket teams. While men from the hills monopolised the national men’s football team, there was equal representation of Pahadi and Madhesi communities in the national cricket squad. For instance, the most recent 15-men Nepali squad for the Zimbabwe qualifiers was a rich mosaic of its ethnic landscape, with representations from Brahmin, Chhetri, Tharu, Janjati, Muslim and other Madhesi communities.
The national cricket team unifies the new federal republic, even as the country struggles to find other common bonds that bring all of its diverse communities together. Another thing that works in the favour of cricket over football is that realistically, Nepal has no chance of making it to the top of Asian football, forget world football. But in cricket, and especially with the new ODI status, Nepal can one day hope to be a leading cricket power.
The ODI status
But that would perhaps be getting too far ahead of ourselves. The ODI status is just an opportunity, one which could be easily squandered. Nepali cricket lovers have not forgotten how the team that had qualified for the 2014 World T20 – and given Afghanistan and hosts Bangladesh a run for their money – soon lost their T20 status, without having played a single international T20 match outside the World T20. Some fear the same could now happen with their new ODI status.
There are many hurdles ahead for Nepal. In 2016, the ICC suspended its national board, the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN), on the charge of government meddling. Over the years, the political parties in power had turned CAN into a recruitment centre for their cronies. There has in the meantime been little domestic cricket. This is why Nepalis see the ODI status as a mini-miracle.
The good news is that the ODI status will bring plenty of new money from the ICC, which could come handy to compensate the paltry pay and perks of Nepali cricketers. Some of it could also go into completing the two long-delayed cricket grounds. With its good performance in the World Cup qualifiers, Nepal has also qualified for the Intercontinental Cup, the four-day long-format tournament among associate members of ICC, which should give the team much-needed international match practice. Most importantly, the ICC sanction does not prevent Nepal government from directly negotiating with other ODI- and Test-playing countries for bilateral ODI matches.
During his recent Nepal visit, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had hinted of starting ‘cricket diplomacy’ between Nepal and Pakistan. The perception here in Nepal is that since Pakistan is isolated in world cricket following the 2009 terrorist attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore, perhaps Nepal can help end Pakistan’s isolation by going there to play. Alternately, Nepal’s moderate climate offers the perfect setting for the cricketers from the subcontinent who are otherwise used to paying in scorching temperatures.
If Pakistan can be lured, the thinking goes, so can India, which would want to show that it is no less generous to its small neighbor. There could even be a healthy geopolitical competition to play cricket against Nepal, some reckon.
The ODI status has infused Nepalis with hope. Coupled with young Nepali leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane’s recent selection by the Delhi Daredevils IPL franchise, it will only add to the popularity of the game. The last time Nepali sports fans were so enthusiastic was when the men’s cricket team had made it to the 2014 World T20.
In the wake of the ODI status, government representatives have been quick to congratulate Team Nepal and promise added pay and perks and new stadiums. Thankfully, there is now an overwhelming public pressure for reform in Nepali cricket. The Oli government would be foolish to ignore its electorate.
Biswas Baral is the editor of The Annapurna Express published from Kathmandu. He tweets @biswasktm.