Nepal turns its eyes to Dhaka
Cricket has not taken over Nepal completely yet. An impasse over their first democratic constitution is leading to political turmoil. The country is still recovering from the earthquake of less than a year ago. And when it comes to sports that take the focus away from these issues, it is mostly football that takes over.
In Bangladesh, a group of 15 boys from Nepal are creating waves similar to the ones two years ago when the senior cricket team made it to the World T20 in Bangladesh. That team did not go past the first round to compete against the Full Member sides. This side, the Under-19s, however, has won its first two matches to make it to the knockouts.
When other Under-19 teams were preparing for the qualifiers and Full Member sides were coming out of the World Cup, Nepal was ravaged by an earthquake last April. The Nepal Under-19 team had a tournament coming up in June - the ACC Premier League - featuring five other Asian teams even as the country struggled in the aftermath of the calamity.
The Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) managed to hold a 12-day camp in Kathmandu, but it was not going to be enough. They then requested the ICC and the BCCI to let them practise in India. Soon, Delhi became Nepal's new base. They played on college grounds, travelled across the city, and played against local club cricketers to get up to speed.
In June, they went to Malaysia for the Under-19 ACC Premier League and won four of their five matches, finishing behind only Afghanistan. Left-arm spinner Sushil Kandel took with 11 wickets at an economy rate of 1.68, easily the lowest in the tournament.
In October, they headed to Malaysia again for the World Cup Qualifiers. Only one out of five teams could join the other 15 for the main event. Nepal emerged unbeatable. They routed Papua New Guinea for 48 runs, Uganda for 71, USA for 109, and restricted Ireland to 184. Clearly, bowling was their forte.
"Our team has been together for five months for two-three tournaments," coach Jagat Tamata says. "And our main factor is hard work. Every day we practise for six-seven hours, that's why we are here today."
The team held another camp in Nepal before heading over to India again on December 30, this time to Dharamsala. And soon it was time to board a flight for Bangladesh, for the warm-up matches.
Now, nearly 10 months after the earthquake, fans at home are gearing up to cheer for a group of teenagers who are the first in this World Cup to make it from the qualifiers to the quarter-finals. Several hours of load-shedding are not going to deter them. Generators have been arranged, movie halls have been booked to screen the matches, and school children will get together on a Friday morning to watch.
"The first two matches weren't live but now there is a big craze back home for the upcoming matches on TV," vice-captain Aarif Sheikh says. "The fans are thinking, 'How have they beaten New Zealand, how have they beaten Ireland?' So all over the country, they are focusing on the big match."
At the Shere Bangla Stadium too, Nepali fans will throng the ground to match the local spectators, in decibel levels if not numbers. There will be massive flags, Nepal Cricket Fan Club T-shirts, and banners waving in support for the clash against Bangladesh. Plenty of young Nepali fans - most of whom study in Dhaka in different colleges - are planning to take the day off or exchange their interning shifts on Friday for what is probably the biggest cricket event for them since the World T20 participation.
Ram Thapa Chhetri, an MBBS intern who was at the Shere Bangla for the India match, says: "We are supporting our team everywhere. We are appearing in every venue." When asked what his seniors thought of him giving cricket priority over work, he happily adds: "They are sitting there, two rows above me."
The Nepali college community in Bangladesh, who mostly study medicine and engineering, are between 3000 and 5000 strong, according to Chhetri. They connect using a Facebook page for days like these. They are helped by the team manager, Sudeep Sharma, in arranging for tickets, and they travelled to Fatullah, outside the city, to encourage their side in the wins against New Zealand and Ireland. They came in big numbers and took over the Grand Stand at Shere Bangla against India, cheered for every single run, and have big plans for Friday.
"If we win the quarter-final and make it to the semi-final, then more Nepalis will come," Chhetri says. "And we can win the final [laughs]. Nothing is impossible in cricket."
A lot of Nepali football fans also came to Dhaka recently for the Bangabandhu Gold Cup, organised by the Bangladesh Football Federation earlier in January, and decided to extend their stay in the euphoria after Nepal lifted the trophy.
Subir Khadka is not among them. He works in Kathmandu and booked tickets for Dhaka after the U-19 team won two matches in a row. He got only a couple of days off and does not regret the fact that he cannot stay for the quarter-final.
"This team needs more support," he says. "The senior team has already made it big by playing the T20 World Cup. These boys were playing against India and I decided to come here only for this match."
Nepal have taken the World Cup by surprise. They are lucky Australia pulled out, says their coach, but they have put their hand up too. Legspinner Sandeep Lamichhane came up with a hat-trick, and other spinners closed the door on opposition teams one by one, but their batting needs to come together stronger to beat the hosts on Friday - which even some of the strong senior sides have found tough lately.
"Our aim was to make it to the second round, anyhow, and we have achieved that," Tamata says. "We assigned responsibilities to the players and they have worked very hard. Now we are challenging ourselves more. We won't feel any pressure, we will face Full Members but we will keep things simple. It's a golden opportunity for our boys. If you do well here, you will go to the senior side.
"We need to improve in our batting. We got 238 against New Zealand but we were 10-15 runs short. Our target was to score 250 there."
The team has the skills and they go above and beyond physically. "Self-belief is very important. It' a very inexperienced side. Only players like Aarif and Raju [Rijal] have some experience. The other guys are very new, they are working hard every day, skill-wise and mentally.
"Normally we say to boys, enjoy yourself. That's one of the first things. We tell them to not think about who the opposition is, just focus only on your game and play and watch the ball. Keep it simple."
Aarif says there is a "vast difference" in facing sides in a World Cup, be it in batting, fielding, pace bowling or body language. Tackling Bangladesh at the Shere Bangla Stadium on a Friday will show him and his team another side of cricket, which visitors sides have found hard to cope with lately. But if they can overcome that, cricket will take another big step back home.
Vishal Dikshit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo