In a country where the players are heroes and the sport acts as a balm of sorts, excitement is high for the side’s appearance in the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier 2018.

How often does a team, chasing 195 for victory in 50 overs, get to 144/9 in 42.1 overs and still not concede defeat?

This is Nepal’s story. In an ICC World Cricket League (WCL) Division Two game in Windhoek on 14 February 2018, Karan KC got together with Sandeep Lamichhane for the last wicket with the target still 51 runs away. Lamichhane faced 18 balls and scored five runs. Karan did the rest, ending unbeaten on a 31-ball 42. Not to forget that Karan was not a top-order batter who did what he was expected to do. He was the No.10. Those 42 runs lifted his List-A tally to 56 from 15 games.

“Nepal, you beauty” and “The party will go on all night” were scattered phrases around Twitter as soon as the winning run was scored. There were remarks, only half-joking, about cardiac arrests and blood pressure levels – Nepal had won their previous match, against Kenya, off the last ball too – and about relief, and miracles. It was that sort of occasion, after all. Nepal have never played in the ICC Cricket World Cup (CWC). They are a step closer to making it this time, for the ICC CWC 2019, because the win over Canada ensured qualification for the ICC CWC Qualifier 2018.

Photo Courtesy: ICC

The fans make the team

One just needs to get on social media to know what kind of fandom the Nepal cricket team enjoys.

People leave everything to follow Nepal’s matches. Celebrations after a win – and there have been a few major ones in recent times – are at a scale some of the Himalayan kingdom’s neighbours are more used to. And, much like in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, fortunes of the national team often dictate the mood of their legions of supporters.

To understand just how important cricket is to Nepal, it is necessary to revisit the events after the devastating earthquake in 2015.

The Malaysian Cricket Association arranged a fundraising Twenty20 match between Nepal and a World XI headlined by Sanath Jayasuriya, Marcus Stoinis and Steve O’Keefe. Cricket Scotland initiated a nationwide fundraising campaign just ahead of the team’s ICC WCL Championship game against Nepal, and Nepali diaspora organised matches in many parts of Asia, Europe, the USA and Australia.

Like in Afghanistan, a country ravaged by years of war, where cricket acts as a balm of sorts and where the national team cricketers enjoy superstar status, cricket in Nepal and cricketers from Nepal are heroes.

After they qualified for the ICC CWC Qualifier 2018, the team returned to a grand welcome and the Nepal government gave cash awards of 300,000 Nepalese rupees to each member of the team.

A team on the rise

Cricket began in Nepal through the efforts of the Nepal royalty – the Ranas – in the early 20th century, and became more of a public sport following the revolution of 1951. Interest, and investment, in the game began in earnest after Nepal became an ICC Affiliate Member in 1988 and then an ICC Associate Member in 1996, the same year that Nepal fielded its national team for the first time, at the Asian Cricket Council Trophy. It was also the year that cable television reached Nepal and the ICC CWC 1996 was a widely watched event.

From that point to becoming a force at the Associate level didn’t take too long for the team from a country obsessed with the game. Nepal became the ICC WCL Division Five champions in 2010, then Division Four champions in 2012, Division Three champions in 2013 and 2014 and, after moving up to Division Two in 2015 and then playing the 2015-17 Championship where they finished seventh, ended runners-up in Division Two in 2018.

Along the way, the big step up, and moment of celebration, was the qualification for the first round of the ICC World Twenty20 2014 following a third-place finish behind Ireland and Afghanistan in the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier 2013. It didn’t end there. Nepal got the better of both Hong Kong and Afghanistan in the ICC World Twenty20 2014 first round but lost to Bangladesh to exit the tournament.

An eye on the stars

Paras Khadka: The 30-year-old all-rounder has been one of the mainstays of the Nepal team since becoming a regular in the senior team while also a part of the Under-19 set-up. Interestingly, Khadka has taken part in three ICC Under-19 World Cups, in 2004, 2006 and 2008, and became the national team captain in 2009. Khadka is regarded as one for the pressure situations, with bat and ball, and was one of the best performers at the ICC WCL Division Two, his 241 runs putting him on top of the run-scorers’ table for the tournament. In the final against UAE, though Nepal lost, Khadka stood out with a 103-ball 112 not out.

Sharad Vesawkar: Another of the experienced cricketers in the Nepal team, the 29-year-old batsman has been a consistent run-scorer for his team over the years. In four first-class games, he has scored 170 runs at an average of 34, and is one of the players Nepal depend on the most in 50-over cricket – his List-A aggregate after 30 games is 785, scored at 32.7 with five half-centuries.

Sandeep Lamichhane: The Rashid Khan of Nepal, perhaps. Lamichhane is just 17 and has already made a big name for himself and earned important fans including Michael Clarke, the former Australia captain. Speaking to Cricket Australia some time back, Clarke said of the youngster, “Sandeep has a lot of talent, there’s no doubt about it. But I think he offers a hell of a lot more than that. I think he’s a lovely young man. He’s extremely respectful of his fans and the people who support him.” Just for an idea of how good he is, one needs only look at the numbers from the WCL: 17 wickets from six games at an average of 10.35 and an economy rate of 3.23.

Basant Regmi: Regmi, 31, is a left-arm spinner who has played many starring roles for Nepal at the Associate level over the years, and despite young Lamichhane emerging as the No.1 spinner for the team, he has done enough to hold on to his place in the XI. At the WCL recently, Regmi picked up seven wickets in six games, and played a starring role in the heart-stopping win over Canada with returns of 3/34 from 10 overs.

Sompal Kami: Even as Lamichhane was emerging as the star of the show, 22-year-old Kami, the medium pacer, was going about his business with quiet efficiency at the WCL. By the end of it, he had 10 wickets from six games – second on the list for Nepal – including a few early ones. He was particularly effective in the league game against UAE, when he accounted for Ashfaq Ahmed and Ghulam Shabber early on and came back later to wipe out the tail to return 4/30 from seven overs as Nepal won by four wickets.

Squad for the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifiers 2018
Paras Khadka (capt), Anil Kumar Sah, Basant Regmi, Dilip Nath (wk), Dipendra Singh Airee, Gyanendra Malla, Karan KC, Lalit Bhandari, Lalit Narayan Rajbanshi, Mohammad Arif Sheikh, Rohit Kumar Paudel, Sandeep Lamichhane, Shakti Gauchan, Sharad Vesawkar, Sompal Kami.