Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Nepal’s extraordinary rise in cricket

In a region where cricket is the unofficial religion, Nepal has been one of the last nations to convert, but it's slowly getting there

It was a Saturday in late April in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and fast bowler Sompal Kami was enjoying a day off from training. Nepal was knocking on the doors of Big Cricket, much as Bangladesh did a decade ago, and Kami and his fellow cricketers were preparing for the July qualifiers for the 2016 World Twenty20 championship.

One of his mates, Sharad Vesawkar, was also at home. He was recovering from an ankle injury sustained while training a few days ago.

And then the earth moved. At 11.56am on 25 April, a 7.8-magnitude quake struck Nepal, killing at least 9,000 people, injuring more than 23,000 others and levelling vast parts of the Himalayan republic.

Three months later, as the qualifiers in Ireland and Scotland wind down (they were to end on 26 July), Nepal is at the bottom of the league. It has won only one match (against the US) and lost four.

Some experts say that this performance notwithstanding, Nepal will, like other subcontinental teams that were once where it is now—Sri Lanka in the 1970s and early 1980s, Bangladesh in the 1990s and 2000s—eventually make it to the big league.

But what’s far more interesting than happenings at the qualifiers is how Nepal even got there.

Like all good stories, it has many beginnings.

One was a man who helped Sri Lanka qualify for the 1979 World Cup and actually win a match in the tournament (against India). He also starred in the country’s first Test win, again against India, in 1985.

A two-month stay that became nine years

Roy Luke Dias, a Sri Lankan of Tamil origin, was born in Colombo in 1952. A stylish right-handed batsman—the first Sri Lankan cricketer to cross 1,000 runs in Tests—he had retired from cricket in 1987, after the World Cup in India, and taken up coaching.

In 2001, Jagmohan Dalmiya, the then president of the Asian Cricket Council and a man who had already set India on the road to becoming cricket’s commercial epicentre, asked Dias if he would go to Nepal for two months and train the country’s cricket team.

The two months became four, then a year.

It was bad at first.

“When I first went there, it was difficult," Dias says. “I still remember the first time I saw the players. The first practice game we played was a 40-overs-a-side match. The first match finished in two-and-a-half hours, and we played another game, which finished within the same time."

But Dias was still impressed with his players’ passion for the game. “What impressed me the most was their enthusiasm, their keenness to learn, improve and grow."

In 2002, within a year of Dias taking charge, in the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand, Nepal beat Pakistan and Bangladesh, eventually losing to Zimbabwe in the final.

The cricketing world sat up and took note.

Dias stayed on; the year became three years.

In the 2004 Under-19 World Cup, Nepal beat fancied South Africa. In 2006, Nepal defeated South Africa once again, en route to the Plate Championship for the second-rung teams, where it beat New Zealand.

Nepal’s dream of playing full international cricket was still several years away from being realized. But with each passing tournament, Nepal inched closer to it.

In 2008, Nepal was languishing in the fifth division of the International Cricket Council World Cricket League (WCL), competing against the likes of Mozambique and Vanuatu.

In February 2010, Nepal won the WCL Division Five, defeating the US in the final at Kathmandu. The win ensured promotion to Division Four. Later the same year, the team finished third in the division.

A little later, Dias decided to step down.

What had started as a two-month stint had turned into a nine-year one. He now coaches the Malaysian cricket team.

His successor, and one of the other beginnings of Nepal’s fairy tale, was another Sri Lankan, but not as well known.

Kandy to Kathmandu via Canada

Pubudu Bathiya Dassanayake was a competent, sometimes more than competent, wicketkeeper. He played 11 Tests and 16 one-day internationals (ODIs) for Sri Lanka in 1993 and 1994 before the selectors decided his batting wasn’t what an up-and-coming team needed. He continued to play first-class cricket and, towards the end of the 1990s, started representing Canada, where he had moved to, in the ICC Trophy (now called the ICC World Cup Qualifier). In 2007, he became Canada’s coach. And in 2011, under his guidance, Canada qualified for the World Cup held in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (where it won one match, beating Kenya).

Pubudu Dassanayake. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Pubudu Dassanayake. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Soon after, the Cricket Association of Nepal, or CAN, came calling.

Dassanayake decided that the one thing Nepal’s cricketers needed was more exposure.

He didn’t have to look far—help was around, just south of the border.

“We started to come to India and play. We had some practice matches in India in Mumbai before the 2012 World T20 qualifiers, where we beat most ‘A’ division clubs. Playing against good teams and good players always helps, especially given that club cricket in India has always been competitive, and that helps our improvement too," says Vesawkar.

Results followed.

In December 2011, Nepal hosted the 2011 ACC Twenty20 Cup and finished fourth, thereby qualifying for the 2012 ICC World T20 qualifier.

In 2012, Nepal finished seventh in the qualifier, but later that year won all six matches in and topped the 2012 WCL Division Four, and was promoted to the 2013 WCL Division Three. The same year, Nepal was joint winner (along with the United Arab Emirates) of the ACC Trophy Elite, an ODI tournament.

In 2013, Nepal beat Uganda to win the WCL Division Three. That victory ensured it a slot in the 2014 ICC World Cup qualifier in New Zealand. The same year, it lost to Afghanistan in the final of the ACC T20 Cup held at home and came third in the 2013 ICC Twenty20 qualifier. It beat Denmark, Papua New Guinea, Kenya and Hong Kong (a thrilling last-ball victory in the quarterfinal). The third place helped it qualify for the 2014 ICC World Twenty20 in Bangladesh.

The team had qualified for both the ICC World Cup qualifier and the qualifying round of the ICC World Twenty20. It had arrived. “It was a big achievement for us and for our country as well," says Gyanendra Malla, a batsman who occasionally dons the wicketkeeper’s gloves.

Gyanendra Malla. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Gyanendra Malla. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

And Nepal had new heroes, almost overnight.

But success breeds its own monsters.

2014

The year 2014 was another beginning and, at least in Nepal, the celebrations of the new year came early, in late 2013 itself.

The country celebrated its team’s qualification for the ICC World Twenty20 as if it had won the cup itself.

“There was so much media hype back home. Every day, some company or the other was inviting the cricketers for an event," recalls Dassanayake.

The ICC World Twenty20 was in March, but the ICC World Cup qualifier (for the 2015 ICC World Cup in Australia and New Zealand) was in January. New Zealand is a country where even established subcontinental cricket teams take time to get used to the conditions. “I really wanted to get the 50-over thing going," Dassanayake says.

December was a washout amid all the hype and celebration. “I think with that hype, the players got carried away," says Dassanayake.

The team fared badly in New Zealand. The only match it won was a playoff with Uganda to decide the ninth and 10th places.

Dassanayake was worried about the losses. He was even more worried about the impact they would have on the players ahead of March’s World T20. But the losses weren’t all bad. “The hype had evaporated," says Dassanayake.

He decided to adopt a contrarian approach to preparation. “I gave the players 15 days off. I asked them to take their minds off cricket and do whatever they wanted to."

It worked.

In the three qualifying-round matches Nepal played in Bangladesh, it won two, defeating Hong Kong and overcoming Afghanistan.

Back home, its progress was being tracked closely, even by those not interested in cricket. “When we played the first match, the response on social media was tremendous and that is when we realized that even those who didn’t know anything about cricket had started following us. They were going to city squares and wherever they could to catch a glimpse of the action, to follow the game," says Malla.

With two wins out of three, Nepal was on its way to qualifying for the next round, only to miss out via net run-rate after Afghanistan was bowled out for a lowly 70 by hosts Bangladesh.

The team missed the main draw by a whisker.

Back home, it was seen as another big win.

“The World T20 experience was amazing. It was easily the greatest moment of our lives," says captain Paras Khadka, an all-rounder.

Captain Paras Khadka. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Captain Paras Khadka. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

When the players returned to Kathmandu, you could have easily mistaken them for champions, when, in fact, they had failed to get past the qualifying rounds.

“The reception we got was amazing," gushes Khadka. The reception back home, adds Malla, “made me realize we had achieved something big".

The squad of 2014 were heroes back home. Everything the players did or said made the front pages. Suddenly, they were bombarded with brand endorsement offers. The money flowed in thick and fast. Khadka, easily the most popular Nepali cricketer today, endorses around 10 to 12 brands, including Indian brands such as Bajaj Pulsar, Donear and Karbonn.

Following the World T20, Nepal won the WCL Division Three in Malaysia, beating Uganda in the final, and was promoted to Division Two.

Another subcontinental team was making its mark.

The shadow of India

There’s a theory that the real beginning of cricket in Nepal has to do with its larger southern neighbour and cricketing powerhouse—on (sometimes) and off (always) the field.

Many of the players in the Nepal team are in their 20s.

In the 1990s, they say, TV was their window to the world of sport. Khadka remembers his father and grandfather watching “a lot of cricket", and some “tennis... Wimbledon".

He says, “It got to me."

Vesawkar, a middle-order batsman who can also turn his arm over, grew up in the UAE, where there are a lot of people from India and Pakistan and where, as a result, a lot of cricket is played. “We were in the UAE for six to seven years, and my brother used to play matches around there, so he used to take me along." He moved to Nepal in 1994.

Sharad Vesawkar. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Sharad Vesawkar. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

In 1996, the ICC World Cup was played in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. “Watching the World Cup in 1996 and the way Sachin Tendulkar batted in that tournament inspired me to take up cricket," says Vesawkar.

Another subcontinental team, Sri Lanka, would go on to win that tournament.

Slowly, cricket took hold.

Malla grew up around Kathmandu’s old city area, where houses would have expansive courtyards. “We used to play football and other sports inside that courtyard. Cricket was new to us, but slowly I started enjoying it. When you are interested in something new, you slowly try and get into it and in our case, we played with whatever we got—like plywood bats or woollen balls," he says.

And Tendulkar helped the sport catch on.

“Everybody in Nepal was talking about Tendulkar and I too wanted to be like him," recalls Malla.

TV seems to have played a part in the learning of Malla and some others. Their favourite programme—Reebok Cricket Skills, which used to be aired on Star Sports.

“I used to imitate those skills. Anil Kumble was teaching leg spin and googlies, and Navjot Singh Sidhu taught us how to hit sixes against spinners by dancing down the track," says Malla.

The 2014 results were there for all to see—whether from Dias or Dassanayake or Tendulkar (or maybe from all three and more), Nepal’s cricketers had learned to play cricket.

But by the time the team returned from the 2014 outing to Bangladesh, the clouds were already gathering.

Controversy and a professional CEO

In late 2014, Bhawana Ghimire became the first chief executive officer of the Cricket Association of Nepal—among the first women to hold down a major post in the male-dominated world of cricket administration. An MBA graduate who had worked with Punjab National Bank in a London branch and for a financial services firm in Bahrain where she had been exposed to how sports sponsorship works, Ghimire’s entry followed a crisis.

After the national team returned from Bangladesh following a successful World T20 campaign in March 2014, cricket in Nepal plunged into multiple crises, ranging from player disputes to a no-confidence motion against CAN’s president at the time. Members of the World T20 squad called a press conference announcing their boycott of the national one-day championship. Their grievances including issues such as lack of transparency, alleged corruption within CAN and non-payment of dues.

In May, the then CAN president, Tanka Angbuhang Limbu, faced a no-confidence motion over alleged irregularities in outsourcing the organization of the then newly created Nepal Premier League to a private sports management firm.

CAN members were charged with corruption and the country’s Supreme Court took notice. The ICC stopped sending funds to Nepal, while asking CAN to hire a chief executive officer and finance manager.

Ghimire’s appointment followed an ICC and ACC directive asking cricket associations to hire paid, full-time administrators.

Ghimire has transformed Nepal cricket, even as speculation over her tenure continues. She has put in place systems and processes, landed new sponsorship deals, and introduced a graded contract system for 22 cricketers. Nepal Telecom has signed on as the primary sponsor for the senior team in an annual deal rumoured to be worth $150,000. Nepal’s Under-19 team is sponsored by Kathmandu-based Chaudhary Group, which makes the popular Wai-Wai noodles.

Her six-month contract ended in April 2015, but CAN gave her a three-month extension; there is no certainty that her tenure will be extended again.

Still, taking note of Nepal’s recent cricketing achievements and its ever growing popularity, the country’s National Sports Council upgraded cricket to a so-called “category one" sport, making it eligible for increased grants from the state.

“It wasn’t the case before, but cricket is now a priority sport," says Khadka. “What that means is more money, but it has to filter down to the right places and the right people. There has always been a problem there."

“In the last one-and-a-half years," adds Khadka, “the help from the government has been massive. I think it has understood the value of cricket, its potential and what it has done to the country, in terms of uniting us."

“Last year, it allocated separate budgets for stadiums and other facilities."

And then the quake struck.

The aftermath

For two days after the quake, Kami and his family lived on boiled potatoes since they were the easiest to cook. “We had no water for the next day or two and all shops were shut," he says. “Once the building was evacuated, we had to sleep in a park. We would go through sleepless nights as there were aftershocks. Everyone was scared for their lives."

Kami came through the earthquake unscathed, but the muscles in his bowling arm were stiff and swollen, mainly due to lack of rest.

Vesawkar, too, escaped unhurt. He remembers running as soon as he felt the quake, forgetting his injured ankle and making it worse.

Khadka was in Australia at the time of the quake. He returned to an unfamiliar topography. “Not seeing monuments like Dharara and the Durbar Square (that one is used to seeing) is very sad," he laments.

But it was a bigger tragedy, he adds. “A lot of people have lost their lives and properties. As a country, it really hit us hard."

Cricket, Nepal’s cricketers say, has a significant role to play in rebuilding the country. The sport has played a seminal role in uniting the country in times of political instability and differences.

“Cricket is a sport which has taken us to global platforms. It has helped us get recognition in the world. People now have an attachment towards the game and they want the team do well. I feel cricket has united the country in a huge manner," says Khadka.

Sure enough, the cricketers pitched in after the quake.

“Initially, CAN and its players engaged in relief distribution and psychological healing of kids," Ghimire said in an email interview. “We have initiated a campaign #batfornepal, using which we are trying to raise funds locally and internationally."

The country’s cricketing infrastructure was not spared by the earthquake. “The Tribhuvan University has been hit hard, with all walls and fencing left broken. The indoor hall and the academy, including the pavilion has been cracked following the earthquake," added Ghimire.

Preparations for the World T20 qualification campaign were also hit.

India stepped in, with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) inviting Nepal’s cricket team to train and prepare for the World T20 qualifiers in Dharamshala.

Members of the Nepal team at Dharamshala. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Members of the Nepal team at Dharamshala. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

It was among the first things India’s wealthy cricket board did for CAN.

Indeed, over the past few years, BCCI has been criticized for not using its financial clout to help teams in the neighbourhood. CAN, for instance, has been knocking on the BCCI’s doors for some time.

“India can play a tremendous role in the development of Nepal cricket, especially in terms of coaching, academy development and age-group bilateral matches," said Ghimire.

She visited India in February to further a relationship with BCCI but things started changing only after a new regime took over BCCI’s reins in March.

For the players and the role alike, Nepal cricket can only transform itself with Indian help, Dassanayake says. “As a coach, I can’t ask for anything from another board, but whatever they have given, we really appreciate it. If, somewhere down the line, they are able to get our players into their domestic cricket by giving them more opportunities, I think it is going to help Nepal a lot."

BCCI secretary Anurag Thakur agrees. “Out of all the associate cricket-playing nations from Asia, our neighbours, Nepal and Afghanistan have done quite well recently. We feel we should support them," he says. “The recent in earthquake in Nepal caused massive destruction and destroyed their infrastructure. We wanted to help them prepare for the World T20 qualifiers. The BCCI president and members of the BCCI immediately agreed upon this. We are happy that they got the opportunity to train and prepare before the all-important tournament in Dharamshala."

Never mind that Nepal didn’t do well.

Earlier this year, it finished fourth in the WCL Divison Two and qualified for the 2015-17 WCL Championship.

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