In the second ball of the 18th over in the final of the ACC Men’s Premier Cup, Gulshan Jha hit one of the biggest six of the tournament. Before Karthik Meiyappan’s over ended, Jha hit two more boundaries as the Nepal cricket team scored 16 runs off it, which tilted the game in Nepal’s favour.
Jha’s obliteration of Meiyappan gave fans a belief that Nepal belonged on the big stage. The fans went wild as everyone at the TU Cricket Ground and millions watching at home started to dream of Nepal cricketers facing India and Pakistan at the Asia Cup in September.
This is quite rare as the current ICC’s structure rarely allows associate teams like Nepal to compete with the big boys. But here Nepal were on the verge of creating history and booking their place in the Asia Cup for the first time.
It has been 27 years since Nepal became an associate nation. But in all these years, they have not played a single game against India and Pakistan. Now, with this victory over the UAE in the final of the ACC Men’s Premier Cup, that wait is over. Fans are already excited about what happens to Nepal cricket after that.
The dramatic rise
Nepal beat the UAE by seven wickets in a rain-affected final that had to be played over two days. Bowling first after winning the toss, the team displayed one of their best performances with the ball as they reduced the UAE to 106 runs for the loss of nine wickets in 27.3 overs before the heavens opened up and ended play on May 1.
This was already a psychological boost as many felt Nepal had laid one hand on the trophy. The next day, Nepal bowled the UAE out for 117 runs and had the entire day to chase it down.
Nepal cricketers love drama. When the UAE picked up three quick wickets including that of captain Rohit Paudel, there was tension on the ground. But Monty Desai’s decision to send Gulsan Jha, who was brought to the team in place of Dipendra Singh Airee, to bat at number three for the first time proved to be a masterstroke. Thanks to his unbeaten 67 and a 96-run partnership with Bhim Sharki, Nepal won the match with 117 balls to spare.
His power-hitting was a joy to watch for the Nepal cricket fans as the left-hander dominated the UAE’s spin bowlers hitting six sixes and four fours.
Jha was drawn towards cricket thanks to Nepal’s playing in the 2014 T20 World Cup. Born in Sarlahi, Jha went to Ranchi in India at his own expense to train to become a better cricketer.
The players who he trained with there are struggling to get into the state team. Many have left India for life abroad while others quit cricket.
But Jha along with others in the team now has a chance to compete with world-class players like Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Mohammad Siraj and Jaspreet Bumrah among others.
Jha, who won player of the match in the final, was quite subdued in the post-match press conference.
“I was ready for any responsibility. I was able to play as instructed by the coach. I did not think about the past or the future. I wanted to think about the present and help the team win,” he said.
The dream deferred
This is not the first time Nepal cricketers have qualified for the Asia Cup. After reaching the final in ACC Trophy in 2002, Nepal and the UAE qualified for the Asia Cup. But due to political tensions between India and Pakistan due to the Kargil War, the tournament was cancelled.
Raju Khadka, the Nepal cricket captain then, still feels the pain as all their hard work had gone in vain as the team could not take on the best teams in the world due to no fault of their own.
“We were so excited to play against test nations. But we could not go and that remains a dark day for us. Our dream was shattered,” recalls Khadka.
Now, Nepal, after 22 years, have the opportunity to play the Asia Cup again. In 2002, Nepal had been an associate country for only six years. Fast-forward to now, Nepal have retained it thanks to the team’s incredible performance in the ICC Cricket League 2.
Khadka says playing against teams like India and Pakistan is exactly what Nepal cricketers need to reach greater heights.
“The dream we saw in the 2000s is turning into a reality now. Playing against big teams will not only change our players’ mindset but it will also change the way world cricket looks at us,” says Khadka.
He is correct. Nepal cricket’s performance in the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh in 2014 exposed players like Sandeep Lamichhane and Rohit Paudel to cricket. It lit a fire in their belly as it gave them a belief that they too could represent Nepal on the biggest stage.
“I was inspired by Paras (Khadka) dai and Gyanendra (Malla) dai during the T20 World Cup. I hope we can do the same when we play the Asia Cup,” says Paudel.
Lamichhane, who became the player of the tournament, also believes this is a great chance for them to become immortals in Nepali cricket and inspire a new generation of cricketers in the country.
Coach Monty Desai, who has been an integral part of the Nepal cricket team’s success in recent times, says that if they have a chance to demand bilateral series against full-member countries of the ICC, they can compete well against the likes of India and Pakistan.
“I cannot wait to see the team play against teams like India and Pakistan. I’m going to enjoy it and see how they play their one-ball battles against the best in the world. It will be great to see if they showcase their best in a bilateral series against these great teams,” he said in the press conference after the final.
Former cricketer Shakti Gauchan is ecstatic for the youngsters who are getting a chance to play against two great teams. He believes positive performance in the Asia Cup can result in great things for Nepal cricket.
“We should play fearless cricket against these teams. We have to show them that we are not inferior to them. If we do that, opportunities will come our way even if don’t win. Our boys will also get to play in franchise leagues across the world,” says Gauchan.
Need for additional support
It is historic in itself for Nepal to play with India and Pakistan in the Asia Cup as an associate nation but it is not improbable. However, to get such an opportunity repeatedly, the hard work of the players and coaches is not enough. It is now up to the government to invest in cricket and cricket infrastructure.
The Nepal cricket team have had this opportunity before but failed to do so after the T20 World Cup in 2014. Nepal’s cricket infrastructure is poor. The country does not have a well-equipped international cricket stadium and it also lacks a proper structure or development plan when it comes to cricket.
Despite making promises during elections, neither the cricket body nor the state has been able to develop cricket at the grassroots level as it is limited to age-group tournaments every now and when.
Like before, the government has decided to give each member of the team that won the ACC Premier Cup Rs 600,000. While is great for the current players, experts emphasise the need for systematic planning and investment in sports infrastructure and human resources if the country wants to do well internationally.
Women’s cricket has been neglected. There is no pathway to the national team as it is dependent on a few academies. The Cricket Association of Nepal is yet to build an A team.
Monty Desai says that in the last three months, Nepal cricketers have gained experience in playing under pressure, and now the country has to invest in physical infrastructure and exposure.”
“I want there to be a development camp and Nepal A team. Now, not only for the men’s team, we have to think about the whole of Nepal cricket”, he says. “If we work hard, Nepal can be a full member soon and if everything goes as planned, we can host a test match here at TU Cricket Ground.”
This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.