Anush Aryal, Kathmandu– It is an open secret that high attentions get spurred whenever an age level cricket team from Nepal gets involved in a tournament. And, when it came to the recent U19 Cricket World Cup in Bangladesh, the performance of the team was even more scrutinized for various reasons. First, Nepal were making the comeback in the tournament where they have made quite a name in the former editions as a giant killer. Second, senior team’s recent struggles in both the formats meant the onus was on the youngsters to exhume the fading hopes of the fans. Third, it was because the group draw was an absolute horror.
Close your eyes and imagine Nepal drawn in a group alongside the contenders Australia, New Zealand and heavy favorites India. Now, open your eyes. Ok, you had that!
All of us were eager to see- How would team Nepal respond to this? The preparations were satisfactory at best. As skipper Raju Rijal talked to the media on the wake of the tournament, Nepal were banking on the spin-friendly conditions and the traditional tag of giant killer. Later, Australia withdrew from the tournament and Ireland were drafted in. Now there were ‘only’ two so called giants. Parity restored? No, not until Nepal defeated New Zealand in their opening fixture of the tournament shaking off the nervousness.
The match against New Zealand was an evenly contested match where the pendulum kept swinging both ways. But, it was a comfortable 32-run-win for the Himalayan nation. Nepal posted their highest ever score of 238 at this level and while defending it, they saw off threatening partnership of 72 runs between Kiwi opener Glenn Phillips and skipper Josh Finnie. Dipendra Airee picked three for twenty four in his five overs to ensure there was no any lower order miracle and it was an easy win for Nepal then. Earlier, Sandeep Sunar (39), Raju Rijal (48) and Aarif Sheikh (39) provided valuable contribution and made sure Nepal would register a decent 200 odd runs on board. But, Butwal’s Kushal Bhurtel’s late blitz took the total to a recorded 238 from a modest looking 215.
In the second match, Nepal started off exactly where they left with in the first match. In a direct, professional and commanding display, Ireland were defeated for the third time in a row. Ireland were never really in the game and got hammered by eight wickets. Ireland had no answer to Sandeep Lamichhane’s leg-spin and were bundled out for 131. Lamichhane took a five-for including a hat-trick which was Nepal’s first ever in ICC U19 tournament. Batsmen had a little to do and Yogendra Karki’s fluent 61* was instrumental in chase which lasted for just more than 25 overs.
In the last group match, Rishab Pant and India brought Nepal down a peg. India defeated Nepal more or less exactly in the fashion we had feared of. Avesh Khan, Washington Sundar and Mayank Dagar shared seven wickets between them to restrict Nepal to 169-8 in a match reduced to 48 overs per side. Sandeep Sunar (37), Rajbir Singh (35) and Prem Tamang (29*) were the major contributors from Nepal. What followed next was a brutal hitting led by Rishabh Pant (78 off 24 balls) and India were 141-2 in twelve overs. Nepal ultimately lost the match by 7 wickets with nearly 30 overs to spare. The ultra-nationalists from Nepal had to live the other day to see Nepal defeating India.
Regardless of the Indian hammering, Nepal advanced further in the tournament which meant they’d be playing quarter-finals of the cup and not for the plate.
In the quarter-finals, Nepal lacked the cutting edge and conceded the tie to Bangladesh by 6 wickets. Chasing 212, Bangladesh were in real spot of bother when Sunil Dhamala trapped Joyraj Sheik (38) right in-front leaving Bangladesh 98-4 in 29th over. But, Zakir Hasan and Mehedi Hasan provided an exhibition of batting under pressure and took their side home with an unbeaten 117 runs partnership. Earlier, Raju Rijal gave a hint of why Santoshi Tole forked out almost one fourth of their budget for his services in Dhangadhi Cricket League. Raju made impressive 72 before running himself out. There were four other 20s in the Nepal innings which was pegged back by four run-outs.
Nepal could not further advance in the tournament but there were two more matches remaining for placement matches. Four days after the heart-breaking loss to Bangladesh, Nepal met Pakistan in the semi-finals of 5th place play-off.
Nepal again provided the glimpses of what they were capable reducing Pakistan to 30-3 in 14th over. Aarif Sheikh was bowled out all his overs from an end and finished with 2-22. But, Saif Badar (88) and centurion Hasan Mohsin ran well between the wickets and punished bad balls en-route of their 189-run-partnership. Pakistan would have easily got passed 275 run mark but Nepali bowlers pulled things a little at the end to restrict them for 258. Later, Pakistani bowlers broke the backbone of Nepali chase early and when captain Rijal got out, Nepal were reeling at 54-7 and 67-8 moments later. But, Prem Tamang became Nepal’s only saving grace and scored unbeaten 65 to cut the defeat to ‘only’ 122 runs.
Then Nepal had to play Namibia for the 7th place play off in a match which was like a final in the sense that winner of this match would enjoy being a test nation for once directly get into the next U19 world Cup as highest-ranked associate nations. Nepal were bowling first in their second curtailed match of the tournament. Van Lingen’s brisk 58, Lohan Louwrens’ watchful 59 and Francois Rautenbach’s cameo of 39 meant Namibia had Nepal chasing 226 at five runs per over. In reply, Nepal looked set to make this a one-sided chase before two collapses (one from 104-2 to 113/4 and other from 166/5 to 180/8) lost the game for them. Sunil Dhamala’s action-filled 59 and Prem Tamang’s spirited 32 went in vain. Nepal lost the match by 15 runs.
Nepal finished 8th in the 16-team tournament ahead of the test nations New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe. But, the bitter part now was these three nations will get a wild-card entry into the next U19 world cup and Nepal will be playing the Qualifiers.
Nepal impressed the fans, experts except Sanjay Manjrekar as a team finishing eighth. The players, individually, too were not far from impressing.
Captain Raju Rijal left his mark in the tournament as a wicketkeeper, a batsman and as the captain. Though he did not get enough runs in the tournament, his batting exhibited sheer class. His innings against Bangladesh was one of the best we have seen from a Nepali batsman in an ICC tournament. As a leader of the team, he was seen frequently directing and encouraging his players. Majority of the Nepalese cricket pundits and fan now have a little doubt if he is ready to take a further step and clinch a spot in the senior side.
Prem Tamang brought energy and aggression in the side be it batting, bowling or fielding. Though he was not given a clear role by the team management, he fared brilliantly in whatever the chances provided. An all-rounder, Prem finished tournament with 5 wickets and led the scoring charts for Nepal with 152 runs. He was dismissed only once the entire tournament and it was intriguing to see him not batting further up in the order.
Sandeep Lamichhane finished tournament as the second highest wicket taker with 14 scalps to his name. He also registered Nepal’s first ever hat-trick in any global ICC tournament and was also picked in the best XI of the tournament. In the world obsessed with comparisons, his leg-spins and googlies meant people fondly recalled Shane Warne once again. What he bowled in the second ball of 20th over in the match against Pakistan literally forced them to. Undoubtedly, he is the find of the tournament of Nepal. He might soon be rubbing shoulders with some of the big names in associate cricket. Remember the name- Sandeep Lamichhane!
The other side
If one merely looks at the final standings, ICC U19 World Cup has been an excellent tourney for Nepal. But, the four consecutive losses in the tournament highlighted something otherwise. The boys looked all set to surprise themselves after getting into the quarter-finals and whirling over Bangladesh for three quarters of the match, but lack of cutting edge held them back. The performance seemed to have depleted as the tournament progressed. May be the boys burned themselves out so early.
Loss to India was perfect example of what happens when you have a bad day in an office against a world-class opposition. Matches against Pakistan and Bangladesh showed the lack of experience, practice and match awareness. Nepal had both the team sweating and running for lives at some stages of the game but the experience of the opposition game took the game away eventually. Namibia loss was completely down to switching off for a while after such a great start to the chase. Agreed that three of those came against heavyweights of world cricket, but the loss against Namibia may well haunt Nepal in the future as well. It was depressing to see the side melt under pressure and lose the game which seemed to have been already pocketed.
Before the Tournament
The odds were heavily stacked against Nepal long before the tournament. Nepal were forced to carve their way into the tournament through a qualifier in Malaysia which they were initially supposed to be host. The preparations for this qualifier (Did we have any?) were absolutely pedestrian. Nepali cricket was experiencing the darkest of the night. The same way to the nation which was quailed in April, Nepali cricket, too, was shaken by the quake in ICC World T20 Qualifiers in Europe. Quake because nobody saw it coming; nobody wanted it to come. The fate looked very cruel to Nepal as the senior side played their worst cricket in a while and spot World T20 in India went out of grasp. Controversies kept coming in the Cricket Association of Nepal, nation was still feeling the tremors of the earthquake and the senior team had already failed to live up to an oracle-“World Cup to placate the pains of the quake”. The chips were such low that it took some serious optimism to except Nepal to book a ticket to Bangladesh for the U19 World Cup. The same way to the nation which was quailed in April, Nepali cricket, too, was shaken by the quake in ICC World T20 Qualifiers in Europe. Quake because nobody saw it coming; nobody wanted it to come. The fate looked very cruel to team Nepal as they played their worst cricket in a while and spot World T20 in India went out of grasp.
Nepal U19 had flown to Malaysia as an underemphasized, underestimated, underrated and underprepared underdogs. Less than two weeks after, they left the Southeast Asian nation as an invincible and merciless behemoth assassin having fun maiming the four (helpless looking) foes.
A few days after Nepal was hit by a devastating earthquake last April, Indian singer Gaurav Dagaonkar sang a heartfelt song urging people to help out the victims in Nepal. His message to Nepal and Nepalese was;
“Even the darkest night will end. And the sun will rise again.”
The next to non-existent reconstruction, unaddressed melancholies of the victims, the recent political chaos and diplomatic turmoil meant the darkest night is still coming with the worst of nightmares.
But if we are to talk about cricket’s darkest night, the success of U19 team after an efficacious return to the ICC Global event, promise shown by the young guns and ignited hopes meant the dawn is arriving and the sun is about to rise again. For the umpteenth time, it’s up to the CAN to discover light at the end of tunnel.