In 2014, Nepal made their maiden appearance in the ICC World Twenty20. The tournament was held in Bangladesh, from March 16 to April 6. With that leap Nepal made, cricket not only became a sport that brought smiles to faces but also wove together all the Nepalis across the globe into a single thread of unity.
As the national anthem was played under the Nepali flag that unfurled at the Zahur Ahmed Choudhury Stadium in Chittagong, when Nepal played their first match against Hong Kong, Nepalis the world over gladly embraced cricket as their new found love. And with international media splashing pictures of Nepalis gathering at various places to watch their team’s matches on big screens, cricket fever gripped the country.
The achievement was unprecedented, and remarkable, considering how Nepali cricketers usually prepare themselves for international tournaments--with the limited facilities that they have. The team got to get on the big stage purely as a result of the mentoring from coach Pubudu Dassanayake and the execution by skipper Paras Khadka and his boys.
Impressive on and off the field
If the team were jittery being up on the big stage, they did not show it in the first game. Nepal began their tournament with an 80-run rout of Hong Kong, in a match where Nepali spinner Shakti Gauchan was addressed as “Shakti the Power” by famous Pakistani commentator Ramiz Raza. Gauchan’s inspirational bowling figures of 3-9 from four overs helped Nepal defend a 149-8 total, stopping Hong Kong at 69 all out in 17 overs.
Hosts and Test-playing nation Bangladesh were up next. The match featured a record 85-run partnership --Nepal’s biggest in Twenty20 Internationals—between Khadka and Sharad Vesawkar, which allowed Nepal to get to 126-5. But the Bangladeshi side, studded with a power-packed batting line up, cantered to 132-2 in 15.3 overs, making Nepal’s path into the next round tough.
The chances of qualifying for the group stage were slim, but their last league match provided Nepal an opportunity to beat Afghanistan--to get past their almost decade-long losing jinx against their Associate archrivals. That mission got accomplished, and they did it with aplomb.
Subash Khakurel notched a half century--Nepal’s only one in Twenty20 internationals so far--as Nepal racked up 141-5. Right arm seamer Jitendra Mukhiya did the rest, producing his best figures in Twenty20, with 3-18, as Afghanistan were restricted to 132-8. Mukhiya was the hero of the day and he was later hailed by former West Indian bowler and commentator Ian Bishop: “Lol, sign up Jitendra Mukhiya for the CPL somebody (sic). Four overs of Yorkers worth the price of gold. 21 years old, imagine if he got exposure,” tweeted Bishop after the match.
Later, when Hong Kong produced one of the biggest upsets in World Twenty20 history, stunning Bangladesh by two wickets, the chances of Nepal’s qualifying for the next round opened up again, but they failed to progress by a fraction of the run rate needed. Although Nepal failed to get past the qualifying stages, they had done their job: The world was impressed with their performance, and their display in Bangladesh helped them join the Twenty20 International club for the next two years.
The World Twenty20 was also a venue where the Nepali cricketers justified their role as ambassadors of the country. Skipper Khadka, in particular, wowed the Indian and Bangladeshi media for the way he handled himself during post-match conferences.
“The matter-of-fact way that he [Khadka] talks is amazing. He makes no excuse for who they are [an Associate Members) but just states that they are here to play their brand of cricket with no sign of nerves showing on his cool face,” Anand Vasu, Managing Editor of Wisden India, had written about Khadka during the tournament.
A gloomy beginning of the year
The euphoria generated by the World Twenty20 had been preceded by a disastrous performance in the ICC World Cup Qualifiers in January in New Zealand, where the country lost the opportunity to join the higher echelons in world cricket. While the top two teams were to be guaranteed a spot in the 2015 50-over World Cup, the third and fourth placed team would walk be granted ODI status for the next four years. Nepal missed out on all the options available.
Nepal headed into the qualifiers high on confidence on the back of their successful outings in the Division IV and Division III tournaments, but the team finished a disappointing ninth and were relegated to Division III again. Nepal lost five matches in a row, going down to the United Arab Emirates, Scotland, Hong Kong and Canada before defeating Uganda in the ninth place playoff.
Nepal not only let slip an opportunity to find themselves among the elites of world cricket, but also threw away the chance to become an ODI nation. After taking part in the World Twenty20 tournament, Nepal participated in the newly modeled ACC Premier League, where a defeat against Afghanistan saw them end up third in the tourney.
Nepal managed to avenge the losses inflicted by the UAE and Hong Kong during the New Zealand Qualifier in the Premier League, held from May 1-7 in Malaysia, but the Afghanistan-jinx continued in their last league game, when they lost to their nemesis again. The biggest positive for Nepal was seamer Sompal Kami’s consistent performance in the tournament: he picked up 15 wickets in five matches and was declared the best bowler of the games.
It was also a year when the cricket team missed out on a silver medal in the 17th Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, held from September 19-October 4. Nepal opened the tournament with crushing victories against Maldives and Bahrain, but waiting for them in the quarter-finals were once again the Afghans.
A victory against Afghanistan would have lined them up against familiar foes Hong Kong in the semi-finals. But even against a depleted Afghanistan side, Nepal went on to lose by eight runs, as they failed to get to their 120-run target.
After playing their first three Twenty20 Internationals in Bangladesh, Nepal were to meet Hong Kong for their first ever bilateral Twenty20 International Series under the ACC High Performance Programme, in Sri Lanka. The three-match series, however, was washed out by rain, and both teams had to be content with playing the one-off Twenty20 International, which Nepal lost by two wickets.
A year of redemption looms
Expectations were pretty high when Nepal left for the World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand, in October this year, but they failed to live up to the people’s hopes, and in fact they seem to have lost the momentum they had gained through two years of hard work and success in the 50-over format after the arrival of Dassanayake.
After the International Cricket Council (ICC) gave teams like Nepal an opportunity to compete in the ICC World Cricket League Championship (WCLC) and the Intercontinental Cup (ICup)--which could have been already achieved had they featured among the top four in New Zealand--next year’s beginning could prove a turning point for Nepali cricket.
The road to redemption has already begun for Nepal, followed their New Zealand Qualifier debacle by lifting the Division III title in Malaysia, which was held from October 23-29. Nepal now head to Namibia for the Division-II games, where a top-two finish will find them among the teams in the WCLC and ICup, where the teams can enjoy the luxury of having a busy international schedule and the perks that could come alongside them.
Nepal owed Gyanendra Malla for their Division III title: his consistent performance throughout the tournament, which allowed him to shed the under-performer’s tag, saw him slamming a century against Singapore. After returning with the Division III crown, coach Dassanayake said his team had displayed a “team game” on their way to winning the title.
When skipper Khadka and Khakurel, who had long been Nepal’s more consistent performers in almost every other outing for Nepal failed to come up with their best efforts, other players took on the responsibility and performed when the team needed them. The timing of the other players hitting form will be the biggest variable that will determine how Nepal performs when they complete their redemption journey in Namibia from January 17-24 the coming year.
Turbulence off the field
While the World Twenty20 appearance and a successful Division III campaign salvaged Nepal’s reputation on the global stage, the revolt by the cricketers and the alleged corruption in the cricket governing body, compounded by the poor handling of the situation by coach Pubudu Dassanayake, cast a shadow on the team.
Soon after the World Twenty20, the national team cricketers staged a revolt, demanding a proper system in the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN), on April 11. Listing a host of grievances against the cricket governing body, the cricketers also asked the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) to investigate CAN’s financial dealings.
CAN somehow smoothed the roiling waters, but the worst was yet to come. When the CIAA probed CAN’s financial dealings, the cricket governing body were reluctant to offer Dassanayake an extension inside a month after it was made public that the body had decided give him a one-year extension with an increased paycheck.
Dassanayake and his boys had to leave for the ACC Premier League in Malaysia under a cloud, when the coach responsible for numerous achievements with the Nepali team was handed only a three-month extension--CAN had backtracked from their previous decision. In the meantime, on June 8, after an almost two-month-long investigation, the CIAA filed graft charges against 10 CAN officials, alleging them of having embezzled millions of rupees in the construction of the Mulpani Cricket Stadium.
The CIAA also recommended that the government, the Youth and Sports Ministry and the National Sports Council wipe out the entire elected CAN committee and bring in a new one. The tainted officials did step aside on moral grounds, but an undermanned CAN was not able to function smoothly. CAN’s ineligibility to function was exposed on June 24, when it received a formal warning from the ICC in its Annual Conference in Melbourne for not being able to recruit a full-time administrator.
To make matters worse, the ICC also stopped the distribution of its annual fund to Nepal for CAN’s failure to hire a paid administrator in time, according to the directive from the world cricket governing body. The crisis then hit a new low when CAN decided not to provide Dassanayake with a further extension after his contract expired on June 30, citing financial problems.
The decision invited more fury from the cricket lovers, with CAN becoming a subject of public castigation. Skipper Khadka dropped a bombshell through his Facebook account when he said that he would not play cricket for Nepal if Dassanayake were not retained. Khadka was widely criticised for his stance, but he was ready to defend himself.
“If I lose cricket, I only lose personally and professionally. But for me the right thing comes first. So I will live and die by my ethics,” a defiant Khadka had told The Kathmandu Post back then.
A day after Khadka made that Facebook post and with growing widespread criticism of CAN, Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat said the government would be there to honour Dassanayake for what he had achieved. “Govt cannot lose coach Dassanayake who s worked hard to raise our cricket status. Govt to support if CAN has become bankrupt n incapable,” a tweet from Mahat read.
Dassanayake finally arrived in Kathmandu following a nervous wait in Canada with the government handing him a one-year contract at its own expense. The controversy over cricket took a new turn when a Cabinet decision on November 6 decided to suspend the elected committee and formed a new ad-hoc committee, under its former president Binay Raj Pandey.
But the ad-hoc committee was soon dealt a hammer blow when the Supreme Court barred it from working in the office. With the elected committee still suspended by the government and the ad-hoc committee barred from taking office, Nepali cricket is now mired in a strange environment, and they have to find a way out.