By Samraat Maharjan as part of #ECVoice
On September 6, Nepal marked 26 years of international Cricket. On that very day, they played against the then Associate giants Bangladesh during the 1996 ACC Trophy. The former Nepal Captain Pawan Agrawal, who was part of that tour, remembers Nepal dropped as many as six catches, yet Bangladesh could only manage 213 with a loss of 9 wickets. Although Nepal lost the match, perhaps it was an early indication that bowling will be Nepal’s strong department in the years to come.
Nepal soon became a popular cricketing nation, especially at an Associate level, with regular success in age group cricket. The biggest moment came when they sent a shockwave across the globe beating Pakistan by 30 runs during the 2002 U19 World Cup. Disciplined bowling from Nepal defended a mere 151 against Salman Butt-led Pakistan side.
In the same tournament, they beat another Test nation, this time Bangladesh, and once again defending the total, rolling Bangladesh for 157 in the semi-final of the plate championship. Bardan Chalise, the then-promising young cricketer, was the Player of the Match on both occasions. Against Pakistan, he top-scored with 42 off 87, effected one run-out, and also claimed one wicket. Similarly, against Bangladesh, he made 27 with the bat and grabbed 3/27. The journey would finally end after suffering a 137-run loss against Zimbabwe in the plate final.
Their biggest moment came during the 2006 U19 World Cup when they won the plate championship, beating New Zealand by one wicket in the final. Before that, South Africa suffered an agonising 2-run loss against spirited Nepali side. Surprisingly, those two wins came through batting, and not bowling, Nepal’s strong department. Nepal overcame a two-run victory defending 215 against current Test captain Dean Elgar’s led side in the semi-final. In the final, Basant Regmi emerged as the unlikely hero when he stole a Nepali victory from the jaws of defeat. Walking out to bat at 75/6 after the fall of Paras Khadka, Regmi made a stunning 66 as Nepal pulled off a shock 1-wicket victory over the Kiwis. He also claimed 3/41 in the first innings.
On the other side, the Senior team were trying to qualify for the 50-over World Cup through qualification rounds but without success. In 2001, they went to Canada to play the 2001 ICC Trophy, but exited from the first round. The same thing happened in 2005 during ICC World Cup Qualifying Series Division 2 Cricket Tournament. Another batting failure in the semi-final game against Fiji saw them out of the tournament. Chasing 144, Nepal were skittled for 140 despite a valiant effort from Binod Das who scored 45 while batting at 8.
Sometimes Nepali fans look back on all those years and the question “Have we progressed enough?” The straight answer would be “no” if they see where Afghanistan is right now. The same country was not even in the picture when Nepal played its first major tournament.
Since beating Nepal in a semi-final match during World Cricket League Division Five in 2008, Afghanistan made rapid progress over the next two years. By 2010, they were playing in Division One, whereas Nepal were still stuck in the loop – Division five. When Afghanistan played its first T20 World Cup in April 2010, Nepal had just been promoted from Division five. Four years later, they would meet in Bangladesh during T20 World Cup. Nepal, on their maiden T20 World Cup appearance, beat Hong Kong and mighty Afghanistan – the first time in 10 years.
Shakti Gauchan leaps in his celebration against Afghanistan at T20 World Cup (ICC)
While Afghanistan were regularly pushing their case for Test status, Nepal were fighting through the ranks in Division tournaments. The expectations were huge among the fans after maiden T20 World Cup appearance in Bangladesh. Earlier in the same year, Nepal had a disappointing 50-over qualifier in New Zealand where they lost all but one game. That tournament and result was quickly overshadowed by the spirited performances during the first round of the T20 World Cup. Nepal did not put a big total on the board but they made just enough scores so that their bowlers could defend the total.
Four years later, Afghanistan, along with Ireland, became Test nations. Nepal, on other hand, were struggling in World Cricket League Championship (WCLC). By this point, Nepal were yet to play any One Day International. The difference between the two teams, which started to be wide post-2008, was now daylight.
Where did it go wrong for Nepal?
In all those years, the batting department is the one area where Nepali have consistently struggled. The habit of losing at the crucial juncture has hurt their progress many times.
Nepal failed to chase 143 against Afghanistan in that famous semi-final match. One might think Nepal would have progressed to Division Four had they knocked off 143. However, given Nepal’s vulnerable batting and Afghanistan’s performance, it would be just a matter of time before they met again. Pity that Nepal would never meet at any crossroads in World Cricket League matches after that semi-final match. In short, Afghanistan did not look back.
Two batting failures in Division Four in 2010 meant they would remain in the same division over the next 2 years. The first one was an embarrassing 9-run defeat against Tanzania while chasing nothing-total (117). The second one was against the tournament’s eventual champions the USA. A day after a comfortable 194 run-chase against Argentina in less than 33 overs, Nepal’s batting crumble under the pressure in reply to USA’s total (203/8).
Nepal then made quick progress in the next few years to find themselves in Division Two. However, another shocking two-run loss against Uganda in the first game of Division Four proved to be the biggest setback for them after they failed to beat Kenya in the last game of the Round Robin stage. It was an inexcusable performance from Nepali batters while chasing a target of 147.
There are a few other losses that derailed their progress, such as the crucial semi-final loss against UAE in 2006 where a win would have helped them qualify into Asia Cup Qualifiers. Their dream of playing against Asian Giants – India and Pakistan mainly – still remains unfulfilled. Actually, they could have participated in the 2006 Asia Cup had it not been postponed. According to the ACC rules, the finalist of the ACC Trophy would feature as the two Associate teams in Asia Cup. Nepal finished second after losing against UAE in the final during the 2002 ACC Trophy.
Talking about costly losses, earlier this year, Nepal were also deprived of playing this year’s T20 World Cup in Australia. It was a 68-run loss against the UAE in a crucial semi-final match during T20 World Cup Qualifier A that shut Nepal’s door. Chasing 176, They were skittled for a mere 107.
Realistic chances of making the 50-over World Cup had diminished after ICC decided to reduce the number of teams in the World Cup, with probably their best chance coming at the 2007 CWC where as many as six Associates took part in the competition. It was then reduced to four in the next two editions 2011 and 2015. The last World Cup in 2019 saw real disappointment as no Associate could feature in the tournament.
Currently, Nepal are placed second from the bottom in the CWC League 2 table where they are facing a challenge to finish inside the top three so that they could directly advance to next year’s 50-over World Cup qualifier. With each loss, the chance for direct qualification is fading away but they would be hoping to at least retain ODI status, which they got in 2018.
Keeping timid batting aside, it’s an unignorable fact that Nepali cricket have had issues off the field as well. With limited talent, lack of exposures in international level, and frail domestic structure, Nepal needed to play out of their skin every time they stepped on the cricket field. It was a matter of time before they suffered setbacks at a crucial stage due to lack of competitive cricket at higher level.
Nepal team is blessed with talented young players, who are enthusiastic to taste success at the international level. However, having far too many inexperienced players in the current set up also has its own disadvantage. The 50-over World Cup is Nepal’s ultimate dream in long run but featuring in T20 World Cup for the second time is the need of the hour.
There’s an outside chance for direct qualification towards the 2024 T20 World Cup to be jointly hosted by the West Indies and the USA. If they did not get automatic qualification, the next route is a regional qualifier where they will have to battle out with Asian Associate giants.
Nepal seems far left behind when their fans look at the test status of Afghanistan. But the other side of the story is the UAE – the team that played 1996 Cricket World Cup – is still playing in the same league. Hong Kong is currently in the Challenge League. Maybe it’s time for people to realize that the story of Afghanistan is different than others and its rapid rise is the exception of its own kind. At the same time, Nepal can also take similar motivation if they are to become the next “Afghanistan”. They too had to fight through the World Cricket League with limited infrastructure and yet they come out top in no time.
Despite no real progress in the international arena, there are still a lot of fans who want the Test dream to turn into reality. Shakti Gauchan, Nepal’s former left-arm spinner, is one of them. Gauchan, who runs his own academy in his hometown Bhairahawa, recently said he wanted to see Nepal playing Test cricket during his lifetime.
Only one member – Gyanendra Malla – from Nepal’s golden generation is currently on the national team. Malla, who collected Player of the Match awards during the T20I series, made a comeback to the national side during the Kenya tour after the six-month gap. Sharad Vesawkar and Basant Regmi are two actively playing cricketers from the golden generation. While Sharad last played for national side more than seven months ago, Basant has not featured since July 2019.
With golden generation cricketers about to hang up their boots, Nepal would hope the current young crop of cricketers could become another golden generation cricketers. The Future of Nepal cricket is in the hands of Lamichhane, Rohit Paudel, DS Airee, Khushal Bhurtel, and the Sheikh brothers. They need to become the next Paras Khadka, Malla, Vesawkar, Regmi, and Gauchan. If that happens, in that case, Nepal would be on the right path to pursuing its dreams of playing Test cricket.