Nepal rue quarter-final exit, but buoyed by overall performance
When discussing Nepal defeat in the Under-19 World Cup quarter-final, topics such as captain Raju Rijal missing a stumping off Mehedi Hasan Miraz, their batsmen's inability to accelerate in the last 10 overs and conversely their bowlers giving away too much runs in the death may crop up. But they should not overshadow Rijal's 72 off 80 balls, made amid questions raised over the legitimacy of his participation in the tournament, or Nepal's spinners badgering the Bangladesh batsmen for long periods, or the team's tremendous fielding skills.
Bangladesh felt the pressure of expectation in the quarter-final chasing 212, and Nepal made sure it stung. Sunil Dhamala bowled a fine early spell, trapping Saif Hassan and Joyraz Sheik lbw. When Nazmul Hossain Shanto fell for eight in the 23rd over, Nepal were naturally in control.
Then came the missed stumping. "It was a very big mistake," Rijal said. "I didn't realise that the ball was coming to me. May be I was not alert that time. It was a very big loss.
"We feel good to be an Associate nation reaching the quarter-final by beating a Test nation. But I feel sad for this match. I think we were 20 to 30 runs short. I thought our bowling was very accurate and fielding very good. That's why at the half-time break we thought we will win. But they [Mehedi Hasan and Zakir Hasan] put pressure on our fielders, took ones and twos, and the game away from us."
Three days ago, a 25-year old Mumbai cricketer Kaustubh Pawar had alleged that he had played with Rijal and that he was too old to participate in an Under-19 World Cup. The ICC investigated the matter and gave the Nepal captain a clean chit, but it had still bothered him. "Little bit yes, but I forgot about it in the dressing room and played my natural game when I went to the field," he said.
Before his statement, the team manager Sudeep Sharma took over the microphone and said: "We provided all the legal documents we have from the Government of Nepal to the ICC. They took time and went through it and there was no fact behind the rumour. According to ICC, he has no age issues and Raju can play all matches."
Although the age controversy grabbed headlines, Nepal's tournament had a lot more to it than that. For someone like the legspinner Sandeep Lamichhane, coming from the Syangja district some 200 km to the west of Kathmandu, this was a chance to show his talent on the world stage. He took a hat-trick and converted it into a five-wicket haul against Ireland. He dismissed Shanto in the quarter-final and has eight wickets from four matches.
"In the last six months, I've had to stop my studies because of the training camps," Lamichhane told ESPNcricinfo. "I haven't seen my classroom for six months. What I am today is because of my coach Tamata. I like to give flight. If batsmen are taking risk, it's a good sign for me. I used to watch videos of Shane Warne and my coach helped me become a legbreak bowler. I'm also following Adil Rashid these days but Shane Warne forever."
That Lamichhane is serious about cricket is clear from how much he has invested in it. He even moved cities to get better opportunities and said it has helped that his family are fans of the game. "I grew up in Syangja and then moved to Chitwan, which is my hometown now," he said. "I moved to Chitwan three years ago because of parents and better cricket opportunities. I started playing at nine. My father and older brother supported me as they are both fond of cricket."
The team's vice-captain Aarif Sheikh has been decent with the bat; his 39 off 60 balls in the middle order helped Nepal beat New Zealand in their opening match of the Under-19 World Cup. Since then he has made 31, 26 and 21 but is yet to pick up a wicket with his medium-pace.
Sheikh said that his favorite cricketer is Kevin Pietersen and no one else, and he has a similar role of being the enforcer in the middle-order. "I prefer batting, of course. I enjoy batting at No. 5, when the team is under pressure I enjoy it more. KP is my favourite. I like how he can picks singles, rotate the strike. When I get time I try to catch his matches."
Sheikh also made it a point to highlight the contributions of the Nepal support staff. "The coach said not to take too much pressure, play what you have and he believes in us and we believe in ourselves too. All the players have been given their roles and that's what we are focusing on."
Nepal now turn their attention to the playoffs and are determined to ensure automatic qualification to the 2018 Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand.