Catch Us If You Can!
From being an elite sport to being a household game, cricket has reached a point where it warrants the attention as well as the imagination of not only the fans but also of those previously untouched by the game. With Nepal now being given the One Day International status, Avash Ghimire traces the modern history of cricket and finds out that it didn’t get easier for the team. They just got better.
I started playing cricket in the late 90s. With a plastic bat and ball in tow, and stumps that were made out of piled up bricks, the game was my favorite pastime. Soon, wooden bats followed. The plastic balls were replaced by leather balls, our legs covered with protective pads that were only available in a few places in Kathmandu. Luckily at that time, the city had a lot of open grounds to play the game. But, for many of us, it was the sacred streets where we learned to play the game and master the straight drive.
However, several years later, in 2018, the sport has reached a point where it warrants the attention as well as the imagination of not only the fans, but also of those previously untouched by the game. Experiencing monumental wins and heartbreaking losses—but an experience to cherish nonetheless—Nepali cricket has added many feathers to its cap, and the recent One Day International (ODI) status given to the team will certainly be the highlight of their career. Even with an unstable government, a suspended cricket association, and not so proper training facilities, Paras and his men have achieved what seemed impossible.
After getting the recognition of International Cricket Council (ICC) as an associate nation in 1996, Nepal has never looked back. Introduced to the country by the Ranas, cricket used to be an elite sport. But soon, it became a household game. I have faint memories of experiencing the game in a stadium for the first time back in 1999, when Nepal was playing against Hong Kong at Pulchowk ground. More than a decade later, in 2010, I clearly remember the electricity in the air at the Kirtipur stadium. Nepal was playing against U.S.A. in the final of the ICC World Cricket League Division Five tournament. The stadium was filled to the brim. Those who couldn't be seated inside were gathered around cheap Chinese phones that also doubled up as televisions. Nepal won that match and was promoted to division 4.
“Rising from Div 5 to Div 1 [ODI status] has been an amazing experience,” national player Sharad Veswakar states. “I feel very lucky to have been part of the national team, to have faced all the ups and downs.”
Even then, with a hunger to win and some classy performances, it appeared as if Nepal was just another test playing nation. Later, in November of the same year, Nepal appeared in the 2010 Asian Games and lost against Sri Lanka in the quarter-final. It was the first match Nepal had played against a full member nation. Things got better in December 2011, as we hosted the 2011 ACC Twenty20 Cup and finished fourth, thereby qualifying for the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier. This was big. If we could only qualify, that would be another milestone. But, it was a difficult road ahead.
We finished seventh in the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier. In the same tournament, Shakti Gauchan took the first international hat-trick for Nepal against Denmark. It has been a phenomenal journey for players like Gauchan, who is the one of the most experienced players in the team. Slowly, but surely, with players like Gauchan, Paras Khadka, and several other equally talented players, Nepali cricket was rising, and so were the players’ individual abilities.
In September 2012, Nepal appeared in the 2012 ICC World Cricket League Division Four, where Subash Khakurel and Anil Mandal both scored a century. Khakurel scored 115 off 142 balls against United States, and Mandal scored 113 off 134 balls against Denmark. In a match against Malaysia, Shakti Gauchan set up Nepal's convincing victory with a new record. The left-arm orthodox spinner’s figures of 10-8-2-3 is the best economical bowling spell ever in limited over encounters. After winning all the six matches of the tournament, Nepal progressed to 2013 ICC World Cricket League Division Three. Basanta Regmi won the player of the tournament by taking 21 wickets.
On 12 October, 2012 ACC Trophy Elite, Nepal had to share the trophy with the U.A.E. after a thrilling tied-final in Sharjah Cricket Stadium. Skipper Khadka scored an unbeaten 106 off just 77 balls against Kuwait, his maiden century for Nepal, in the tournament. Likewise, in 2013, ACC Twenty20 Cup held at home grounds, Nepal easily marched towards the final of the tournament with high class performance from captain Khadka and the team by thwarting U.A.E. by 6 wickets. Nepal had earlier qualified for 2013 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier.
In 2014 ICC World Cricket League Division Three held in Malaysia, Nepal won and qualified for the 2015 ICC World Cricket League Division Two. Gyanendra Malla scored his maiden century, 114 off 125 balls, against Singapore in the tournament. After finishing fourth in the 2015 ICC World Cricket League Division Two in Namibia, Nepal qualified for the 2015–17 ICC World Cricket League Championship. But Nepal failed to secure promotion to Division One and qualification to 2015–17 ICC Intercontinental Cup, after finishing third in the round-robin stage. But, the good news was that Basanta Regmi became the first bowler to take 100 wickets in the World Cricket League; an individual, yet an amazing achievement for both Basanta and the nation.
In 2016, Nepal got the privilege to play at the Lords, considered the “mecca of cricket”. On a sweltering day in north London, Nepal XI defeated MCC by 41 runs, after which the Nepal captain, Paras Khadka, led his players around the outfield to pay tribute to their typically exuberant supporters. The fixture was arranged as part of the celebrations to mark the 200-year-old relationship between Britain and Nepal, with proceeds from the match going towards rebuilding work in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake.
“In our short cricket history, we have been able to achieve many milestones. I feel blessed and proud to be a part of this historical journey,” Vice-captain Gyanendra Malla states. But, it gets tough when you get higher. That has happened to team Nepal, too.
A need for our own domestic leagues emerged hence. This would help us find young talents. Regular matches would mean playing against each other and new players and get more experience. But it was not possible until there would be some involvement form the private sector. A model like that in India, where big business houses invest in teams, was needed.
Nepal Premier League (NPL) was then introduced in 2014. NPL teams were captained by marquee players, and for the first time they would compete in a tournament. Despite the struggles the tournament faced, it paved a way for other tournaments. In 2017, Dhangadi Premier League (DPL) was introduced. Dhangadi, considered as the “city of cricket”, promised to be another benchmark for our domestic cricket. The players were getting paid, the audience was entertained, and the sponsors were happy. During the whole time, Nepal national team was getting promoted to higher division. We had also played the 2014 T20 World Cup. The dream of becoming an ODI nation was in sight.
It took a text message from Pokhara Rhinos for me to suddenly realize how Nepali cricket has shaped up. It was in November 2017 that I got the text asking me if I’d be interested to be on the team’s management team. Soon after, I joined the team. The team represented Shanker Group and the city of Pokhara. Shakti Gauchan was the captain, and in front of us was the tournament with the biggest prize money.
EPL was different. It wasn’t just about making a team and winning. There was a lot of handwork—like selection of the team jersey, the TVC, the press releases—involved. Everything was professional and its scale was grand.
EPL concluded in 12 days and got the recognition of the ICC, which meant higher ranking international players would now come to Nepal in the future. EPL not only gave opportunity to the players, but it also gave opportunity to many businesses, vendors, and individuals.
Cricket today has come a long way, from being played at Tundikhel, to Lords. Looking back on everything that has happened, and with firsthand experience, Captain Paras Khadka states, “This has just been an amazing journey. So many ups and downs, so many players have made so many contributions, the coaches, the people involved. And, finally, we have become an ODI nation.”
Now, with sights fixed on the ICC World Cup, Paras and his men have a vision. Earlier, it was just a dream.