Dias confident of Nepal's chances
From the moment the former Sri Lanka batting star, Roy Dias, took charge of running the cricket affairs of Nepal, the country's cricketing stocks has gone only in one direction. That is skywards.
People start giving unusual stares when one tries to connect Nepal with cricket. There is one incident that Dias recalls when Nepal took part in their first Under-19 World Cup, in New Zealand in 2001, and performed well to reach the Plate final, eventually losing lost to Zimbabwe, who were led by their former national captain Tatenda Taibu.
"Some of the BBC reporters were not sure whether Nepal played cricket," explained Dias. "One guy asked me how you play cricket in the mountains."
Dias, who played 20 Tests and 58 one-day internationals for Sri Lanka, believes that the tournament was the beginning for the development of Nepal. The country was fortunate enough to have a coach as qualified Dias to guide them on the correct path.
How much Nepal has improved over the past five years can be gauged by the fact that the 2006 U-19 World Cup, which will be held in Sri Lanka next month, will be Nepal's third year.
According to Dias the domestic structure in Nepal is `not that great', but overall Nepal has come a long way. "If you take the age groups U-15, 17 and 19, they fall into the best," said Dias. "This is our third U-19 World Cup under my coaching. Apart from the four Test-playing countries in Asia, Nepal is the strongest."
"Most of these kids have a lot of talent. It is just that the exposure is not enough. They believe in themselves that they are good enough to take part in any tournament. I am quite happy with them because I run the cricket show there.
"I have worked these boys for the past five years and know them inside out. It is easy for us to understand each other. Even the senior team has about 6 players from the U-19 side and the future for them is good."
Unlike other non-Test-playing Asian countries, Nepal does not rely on expatriates to make up their XI. Their team is strictly players of Nepalese origin and because of it they stand a very good chance of stealing a march over their rivals.
"What these guys need to improve in their cricket is to play stronger teams outside their country. There is no school structure," explained Dias. "They learn the basics of the game only when they come together in a national pool at the various age group levels.
"Most of their cricket is played on matting. They are very keen to learn and they are very friendly people, more like Sri Lankans, and give a lot of respect. For me it was a challenge accepting this job.
"When I took the job and first saw them playing, I thought I had made a mistake by coming to Nepal. But later on when we kept on improving I saw that they had it in them to become good cricketers. It is just that they lacked someone to advise them, especially a person who has played at the top level. They believe in me and they are a much disciplined lot."
Football is the main sport in Nepal but by way of results achieved during the last 3-4 years cricket has taken over. With India being so close to them the Nepalese have access to all TV sports channels. "They watch a lot of cricket," added Dias, "they have learnt the game watching cricket on television and by listening to commentaries."
Nepal are the first out of the 16 participating countries for the 2006 U-19 World Cup to arrive in Sri Lanka. "We have come two weeks before the tournament because at this period of time it is very cold in Nepal," explains Dias. "There is no point practicing there because conditions are different."
Nepal is indebted to the ICC and the Asian Cricket Council, who are doing a lot of funding for their cricket, as Dias acknowledges. "Without their help I don't think Nepal cricket would have got anywhere. We don't have many sponsors."
Nepal are drawn in Group D with England (who they will be meeting for the third time in the tournament), Zimbabwe and Ireland. "Hopefully, I think on Sri Lankan wickets we might have a slight chance of upsetting England," said Dias. "The guys are very keen. Initially bowling and fielding were our strong points, but the batting has got going. We have a balanced side. I will be happy if we can get to the last eight."
Apart from doing well in the World Cup, Nepal's greatest ambition is to qualify to play in the Inter-continental Cup which would enable their senior side to play matches of longer duration.