After witnessing the enthusiasm towards cricket first hand during a four-game tour of Nepal earlier this year, any theory of cricket being followed exclusively by the test-playing ten is hopelessly off the mark.
From the capital of Kathmandu, to Chitwan, Pokhara and the surrounds, Nepalis from all ages exhibit an excitement towards the game – an excitement that blazing heat and trying conditions – cannot quash. With the mercury climbing into the mid-thirties, and with the humidity and dust threatening to prevent play, batsmen, bowlers and those around the bat remain on their toes, ready for what is about to unfold. Ultimately, the tour proved to be a series cricketing lessons for our touring party, a cricketing team representing Narara Wyoming Cricket Club, from the New South Wales Central Coast.
In fact, the only thing that could stop play on the tour was a sandstorm. After setting a team from the Chitwan Academy 147 in a twenty over fixture, the hosts were one over into their chase when a gust of wind from the west blanketed the city with dust and sand. Keen to continue their run chase, both batsmen were still reluctant to leave the ground. Though, as the spectator marquees blew over and ended up in the nearby fields, even they knew play was impossible.
Nepal is no stranger to adverse conditions, with the earthquakes of 2015 still fresh in the memory. As a touring party fortunate enough to experience the beauty of Nepal, and with the disaster so recent, it became obvious straight away that the people who make up the country are a resilient bunch in their own way. While others could be seen digging their feet in and gritting their teeth, Nepalis carry on unperturbed by the past, bouncing off each other to move forward. It’s clear that cricket, a sport that encourages camaraderie and a form of humbleness, matches the personality of the Nepali people. These traits are within almost everyone, as the greeting of Namaste is exchanged by everyone, as they share mutual respect and peace with travellers and with one another.
It’s this teamwork which has seen Nepal rise as a cricketing nation over the last decade. On the international front, they have risen through the ICC World Cricket League divisional system, from division five winners in 2010 to fourth place in division two last year. That’s a climb of roughly twenty nations. Nepal has also tasted top class competition, qualifying for the ICC World Twenty20 tournament. Grouped with Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Hong Kong to vie for a single spot in the Super 10 phase, they missed out to the Bangladeshis, solely on net run rate. Recently, the Nepali national team hosted Namibia in two one-day games in the nations’ capital, winning both.
This Nepali fight and competitiveness flows down to the youth level teams, who have also turned heads on the biggest stage. Throwing predictions out the window, their under 19s side shocked New Zealand and toppled Ireland to progress to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, where they eventually fell to Bangladesh, the tournament hosts.
The privilege of representing Nepal is met with immense pride. While speaking to Nischal Pandey, a former under 19 international and an opponent in two tour matches in Chitwan, he couldn’t wait to whip out his phone and show photos of him draped in the Nepali blue and red.
“When I played my debut international game, that was a great feeling for me – that I played for my nation.”
As the political situation of the sport in Nepal is brought up, Pandey is frank, yet positive.
“Cricket in our country is quite disappointing for us, but we survive.”
Moving from Pokhara to further his cricket, Pandey and his left-arm orthodox bowling troubled several members of the touring party, though he wasn’t the only combatant that stood out. The Chitwan Academy proved to be a factory of talented crickets, with up to half a dozen spin bowlers tormenting us with their tricks. A product of their spinner-friendly conditions, doosras, wrong’uns and carom balls caused trouble. It was clear to see a pathway for the boys striving to represent their country at senior level at the Chitwan Academy.
This pathway has already seen several players go from raw talent to international player, with the latest being leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichanne. A key figure in Nepal’s Under 19 World Cup campaign, Lamichanne, who is just 15, enjoyed a breakout tournament. He took a wicket in their upset over New Zealand, and tore Ireland apart with a spell of 5 for 27 off ten overs (which included a hat-trick, no less). He was rewarded with a call up to the senior team in their second one-day match against Namibia in April, taking 2 for 39 before Captain Paras Khadka and Sharad Vesawkar led them to triumph with the bat. More recently, Lamichanne was invited to take part in the Hong Kong T20 tournament, with one of his teammates being none other than Michael Clarke.
An encouraging sign of progress of cricket in Nepal is that the early signs of quality in play can be found at grassroots level. Running a workshop at the Damgade School, outside of Pokhara, the thirty students between eight and fifteen years of age appeared overjoyed to just listen to the advice from us in bowling, batting and fielding. Soaking up all the information, students applied the technical tips in drills before they transferred it into a game situation. Again, in the scorching Nepali heat, on an unforgiving field of dirt and rocks, the children were immersed in the game of cricket. On top of that camaraderie mentioned before, cricket and other team sports not only improve social skills, but produce an eagerness to push oneself to mental and physical peak. As a bonus, the games being played out now will be looked at with fondness in years to come.
The children of Nepal can look up to sporting heroes, no different to any other country. Who wouldn’t want to emulate the heroics of men like Paras Khadka? A blazing all-rounder with every shot in the textbook and the ability to push the ball through at over 130 kilometres an hour, Khadka leads from the front. With billboards of him plastered in the cities around the country, Khadka consistently re-pays the faith shown in him by 28 million Nepalis with match-winning performances with bat and ball. According to Anil Adhikari, a senior figure of Chitwan cricket and a friend of Paras, he is a positive role-model for younger generations.
“He is the biggest fashion idol and sportsman of this country. It’s due to the first time Nepal played in their first World Cup of any sport. He is good looking, taller than the average Nepali, polite and educated young icon of this country.
“He challenged the authority and came out and spoke to the media about corruption and irregularities of the Cricket Association of Nepal. He leads by example and most of his teammates support him on and off the field. Personality he is polite, friendly and a loved character.”
Adhikari is not only a key figure in Chitwan. He is invited regularly to commentate Nepal matches broadcast by Kalika FM 95.2, and is involved in college cricket on a national level.
“For the last 12 years we have organised national level inter-college cricket with cash prizes. Though, while it is a college competition, Nepalese national players are hired by different colleges and its one of the popular tournaments of Nepal. Lots of young cricketers get the chance to play with senior and national cricketers.”
The observations of the cricket-mad country that debunk the idea that the sport belongs to some sort of ten-man boys club extend further than the grounds, schools and streets that Nepalis play in. Once they sit down and unwind, there’s up to four of the six cable sports channels beaming some form of cricket programming simultaneously. Viewers can tune into live action, highlights of matches, and interviews profiling figures being idolised by the young and upcoming. Want to know what Virat Kohli’s strike rate was in the recent World Twenty20? Or how Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee steamed in all day? Just ask a Nepali teen who spends their evening watching Frenemies on Star Sports. This coverage isn’t lost in the remote parts of the country either. On a trek of Poon Hill, in the Himalayan region and at altitude, our touring party witnessed Carlos Brathwaite’s last over heroics over England in the World Twenty20 Final in high definition over a few drinks with locals. Appreciating the skill of the West Indians, locals stood up and recreated the “Champion” dance, as seen on the social media platforms at the fingertips of young and old. When it emerged that the touring party was in fact a cricket team, everyone spoke of the T20 World Cup being played at the time, or the pride they had of the national team. We’d discuss favourite players, favourite IPL teams and the arts of batting and bowling.
With this television exposure, advertisers can cash in for the love of the sport. Billboards of Khadka are plastered across the country, not only on the highways linking the cities, but as a distraction from the vehicle horns and near misses of the busy urban streets. And, as one walks down these streets, the opportunity to purchase the Nepali jersey arises at almost every corner. Shopkeepers were all too excited to sell us the kit displayed front and centre as a memento, but also as an advertisement for the country and its growing pedigree in the sport.
While the sandstorms and scorching heat fail in bringing down Nepali cricket, administrative controversy, politics and conflict from the top are more devastating. After illegal political influence on Nepali cricket, The ICC suspended the Cricket Association of Nepal during a board meeting on Sunday the 24th of April, 2016. This is because the National Sports Council or NSC formed an ad-hoc committee to run the association, thus breaching article 2.9 off the ICC’s Articles of Association. While one can make a fair argument that the ICC could make a greater effort to improving associate cricket, one cannot debate their decision in this instance. Adhikari believes there was a lack of clarity from the government, hence the suspension.
“(The) Nepal Government was always not so clear about the cricket association and development of cricket. Sports in Nepal get the least budget in government papers.
“The Nepal sports councils and other concerned cricket bodies have to come together for the solution to fix the problem. I see the chances are unlikely as the government and cricket association are pointing fingers at each other for this suspension.”
With funding cut as a result of the ban, the ICC have allowed Nepal to continue competing in international competitions, in what is an encouraging move. In their recent matches against Namibia Nepal fans crammed themselves into the Tribhuvan University Ground to witness two inspiring victories. At 5 for 113 and needing 83 for victory, Binod Bandari joined Sharad Vesawkar, and combined with a match-winning partnership of 87 to guide the hosts to victory. It was a similar tale in their second game. Captain Paras Khadka led from the front, cracking a magnificent 103, before Vesawkar guided the Nepalis home again, this time with a steady 74 not out. Continued participation in international fixtures has a lasting effect, especially for the younger generations. Naïve to the political problems, children watching on or listening to their heroes play on the world stage is an inspiration.
In a weird way, failing to win a game was on the tour an overwhelming positive, as it proved that there is quality in cricket throughout several Nepali regions. They played with method whether it be on the field, in the street or at school, and there always seemed to be this itch that only cricket could scratch. As the Nepali bodies with the power to resolve the issues hopefully do so, one hopes that the ICC sees everything good in Nepali cricket, and sets development plans to grow the sport further. On top of this, it would be refreshing to hear of success stories thanks to the ICC and other organisations across the associate countries. Who wouldn’t want to see teams like Nepal or United Arab Emirates topple one of the world’s superpowers and claim a major international trophy? We’ve seen the likes of Ireland and the Netherlands knock off teams like England in international competition, and we’ve seen Afghanistan pip a world champion West Indies team in the recent World Twenty20.
A further push of the sport could see Nepal and others succeed in a Himalayan climb to world supremacy, if the right plans are put in place, and if they are allowed to test some of the world’s best on a regular basis. On the park, the best thing the national team can do is to continue their form. They are set to showcase their talents at Lords against the MCC on the 19th of July, before travelling to the Netherlands, where they take on the Dutch in the World Cricket League in August.