After a miracle run over the past 18 months in international cricket, Nepal’s luck ran out at the Asia T20 World Cup Qualifier, falling to Singapore and handing their opponents progress to the Global qualifier in the UAE.
Let’s not pretend – even a Nepal win on the last day may not have been enough, had reserve days been available in the tournament. Singapore may have reached an unassailable lead through a colossal Net Run Rate, had they been able to play their match against Kuwait.
The Nepalis have relied on one-off individual performances and the ever-present Paras Khadka too long, finally exposed by the improving standards across Asian cricket. Their loss to Qatar on Tuesday, a far more comprehensive defeat than the scorecard suggests, was a telling result, reflective of poor team selection and execution.
For a number of years, bowling has been Nepal’s strength. Whatever total made with the bat, the likes of Shakti Gauchan and Basant Regmi were always able to defend through tight bowling. The emergence of a young Sandeep Lamichhane continued this trend, albeit with a more attacking approach to spin bowling than the previous two. Lalit Rajbanshi has emerged, with the fast bowling of Sompal Kami, Karan KC and now Abinash Bohora improving in this time.
Why then, with such frailty with the bat and a more reliable bowling corps now and in the recent past, did Nepal go with one batsman fewer into the Qatar match? Knowing how reliable the bowling attack is, shouldn’t you trust the bowlers you have, and give yourself insurance in the batting department? At least eight players in the eleven had bowled in international cricket, with ‘keeper Binod Bhandari the only player not to bowl in domestic cricket. While being one of few Nepali players that has improved with the bat, Sompal Kami batting at five was a huge error made by selectors. Karan KC, who made his famous 42 from 31 balls against Canada last year at WCL2 at number 10, walked out at number seven. In T20 or 50-over cricket, to maximise your chances in batting out the overs and posting an imposing total, players one to seven must be picked with batting in mind.
As Janak Prakash took an acrobatic catch on the rope to remove Sharad Vesawkar, and a regathered effort from Paraam removed Bhandari, it appeared that Nepal’s problems were finally costing them matches – that the cracks in their game were unable to be taped together anymore, by any last over, last partnership heroics. Karan KC’s chase at WCL2 last year, and the countless times of bowlers bailing out the team (with ball and bat), can only get a team so far. This was exposed after Singapore showed Nepal how to bat, by first doing their homework and executing their plans with panache.
To be fair, Nepal play international cricket with one arm behind their back at times. Stifled by little domestic cricket, their board hasn’t sorted out their issues for more than three years. The latest word from sources involved in regional cricket in the country is that Nepal is aiming to align 7-8 domestic regions for consistent national-level play, before trying to address problems higher up. That’s all well and good, though there is confusion as to whether Nepal need to address their issues from the top down, or the bottom up. With endless participation and youth talent coming through, from the outside it looks like this talent cannot flourish with no firm domestic structure. The board and the lack of organisation looks to be letting its country, its players and its huge fanbase down.
Various sources in Nepal give different opinions on what is keeping Nepali cricket down. Some blame nepotism in appointments and selections. Some attribute it to laziness. Either way, this situation is nothing new. Ad hoc measures are forced to accommodate the mouths to feed, which only continue to complicate the situation. Those perhaps with good intentions have offered players shares in T20 leagues and other ventures, though in an ideal world these players would be paid as players by franchises and leagues.
The other side of the double-edged sword in all this is that because players aren’t able to focus on playing and instead looking for other ways to better their lives. Technical errors have multiplied and ultimately the performances of players who are meant to be stalwarts have dropped. During their loss to Singapore, the dismissal of Gyanendra Malla in his standing sweep, and of Sharad losing his shape in the shot, say more about a lack of cricket than of their own technical flaws. Aren’t these fundamental things ironed out by practice and play? So, is it fair for these players to be asked of lofty success? Probably not.
Why do the young players coming through look the most technically sound? Because the youth setup has allowed them to hone their game. This is one of the few things the country has done right in recent times. For senior players, it’s a classic example of when a team stays still, they go backwards relative to the rest of the field. Singapore and their progress highlight this.
With this in mind, it is perhaps unfair to point the finger at the likes of Malla and Vesawkar. Starving for some more cricket to play, it is near impossible with no organisation to hone and develop their respective games. It’d be astonishing for Nepal fans to think that Paras Khadka, who still manages to churn out runs despite all this, could be an even better player with some stability from a functioning board.
One player who can’t jump on this excuse is Sandeep Lamichhane. Thrust into the limelight of franchise T20 cricket, the boy from Chitwan did not shy away from the challenges of higher-level cricket. Across several continents, Sandeep has held his own, with numbers to match. In saying this though, Sandeep now faces new challenges which he has struggled to deal with. In what people refer to as ‘Second-year Syndrome’, he has gone from plucky challenger to a target for batsmen to take on with little to lose. Players and staff of opposing teams are able to sit down and analyse his bowling, devising plans of attack. Many have succeeded as the numbers show, as he finished with an economy of over eight and over for the tournament. In their de-facto final with Singapore, he returned figures of 0/34, with Rangarajan, Tim David and Ranjeet Singh toying with him. Teams with a clear plan in negating Sandeep’s threat by either coming down the track to play straight, or to stay and sweep, have had the most success.
What caused more concern was Sandeep’s response to being bashed around at the Qualifier, and his reactions to decisions not going his way. Several pundits and writers have noticed stroppiness come into his persona. While there is passion racing through him, he must channel it in the best way for himself and his team. With power and achievements comes greater responsibility.
Just like any other passionate fanbase, Nepal’s has shown their frustration through social media. Many have been measured in their responses, though some have not been as introspective. Blaming expats for other nations being stronger (despite players meeting eligibility requirements), some fans are blinded by their nation’s own cricketing shortcomings. It almost goes against the ‘Namaste’ mantra, not frustrated by things outside their control. Not only was Tim David born in Singapore, his dad also represented the country. If anything, Singapore should be praised for leaving no stone unturned in their pursuit of building their country’s cricket. To go one further, Nepal should be grateful they are even playing international cricket at all, after Zimbabwe were banned from the ICC and from playing international fixtures. This is happening while Nepali powerbrokers can’t decide how to run cricket in a country where most of their 30-million strong population can’t get enough of the product they have in their hands.
For Nepal cricket and its fans, this is hopefully the kick up the backside they needed. Even with Zimbabwe’s suspension from the ICC and a Global T20 Qualifying spot potentially opening up, finishing third at the Asian qualifier means it’s unlikely that Nepal will be thrown a lifeline if a makeshift repechage is put together. In the meantime, Lamichhane will be joined by Sompal Kami at the Canadian Global T20 in Brampton, representing Toronto and Winnipeg respectively.