Nepal contemplates the dizziest heights
Geographically speaking, Nepal and Bangladesh are like chalk and cheese, but for the Nepalese Under-19 team, there is at least one region of the country that might remind them (very fleetingly) of home. When you've travelled from the lap of the Himalayas, it's nice to have some foothills around you, and they would have found just that in their World Cup base at Chittagong. The local hills do not exactly touch the sky, but they do form a boundary chain of sorts around the city.
Back home in Nepal, 4500ft is considered low ground, whereas Chittagong is perilously close to sea level and, according to some environmentalists, it could be gulped down by the Bay of Bengal (currently some 150 kilometres away) in the not-too-distant future. And then there is the constant threat of earthquakes - every now and then a mild tremor is felt in Chittagong, which sits atop south-east Asia's most volatile seismic region.
But there is another reason why Nepal's cricketers enjoyed Chittagong more than any other part of Bangladesh. There is a significant presence of Nepalese students here, studying in various educational institutions of Bangladesh's second-largest city. They came in their numbers to support the team during every game they played. And how well the players responded.
Rather fittingly, Nepal chose Chittagong to generate a tremor that was felt around the cricket world. When their captain Shakti Gauchan smacked a four to topple South Africa with one wicket and two balls to spare in a group game on February 18, it marked one of the biggest upsets in the competition's history. It also put Nepal right on track for a Super League berth, although in the end they were pipped to the post by an inferior run-rate.
But Nepal had announced their arrival, and their latest triumph was a continuation of the remarkable wins against Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 2002 competition in New Zealand. It was the sort of display that vindicated Roy Dias's decision three years ago, when the Asian Cricket Council's suggested he might be the right man to coach the team.
"My first impression of cricket in Nepal and the team was one of disappointment," admitted Dias. "I thought I had made a terrible mistake by agreeing to coach them." But a month into his job, the Under-19s won the ACC youth tournament and qualified for the World Cup. Dias, a stylish batsman for Sri Lanka in their early Test days, knew he wouldn't ever regret the choice again.
Dias had offers to coach Bangladesh as well, but after weighing up his options he decided to stick with what he had got. "I feel I have more to give to a country like Nepal," he explained. "It is a poor nation, and needs all the assistance required to reach international standard in cricket."
Although the infrastructure remains very poor, cricket has a firm rooting in Nepal. It was the British-educated rulers of the Rana clan who first brought the game to this sleepy part of the subcontinent in the early part of the century. The Cricket Association of Nepal was formed in 1946, but it wasn't until 1996 that cricket really got going there. That was the year when Nepal became an associate member of the ICC.
Since then, Nepal's Under-19s have appeared in three youth World Cups, and that success coupled with impressive showings in regional tournaments has resulted in a gradual decline in the popularity of football, which was once the No. 1 game. The power of satellite television, which is dominated by Indian sports channels, has also influenced Nepal's younger generation to take up cricket.
Now Nepalese children can watch live cricket all over the world on TV, and with many choosing to study in India, it is only natural for them to get hooked. Gauchan, whose first name "Shakti" means power, spent a year in Bombay and picked up many of the finer points of the game there. He subsequently toured Bangladesh with the Nepal U17s and the Asian Cricklet Council's U19 "Dream Team", and he put that experience to great use with two consecutive Man-of-the-Match performances against South Africa and Uganda. He is the new face of Nepalese youth, which does not look upon cricket just as a mere pastime.
"Shakti dreams of a career in cricket," says Dias. "He wants to be a great player and that is his only goal. This mentality is something very unique as most youngsters are not prepared to take cricket that seriously."
But despite the unmistakable enthusiasm, Dias is still concerned about Nepal's facilities and the cricket culture. At present, the game is mostly played on matting pitches, and Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University has the only quality ground with a turf pitch. School cricket is in its infancy, and the standard overall is pretty low.
But Bangladesh - and Chittagong in particular - has given Dias cause for optimism. He had been to Chittagong once before, in 1977, and is pleasantly surprised by the improvements since. "Conditions have improved in leaps and bounds since I last came here. There are two international-standard fields in Chittagong, and you need infrastructure like that in Nepal."
One area in which Nepal does have an edge is its selection procedure. It is totally decentralised, unlike Bangladesh where everything is still based around Dhaka. The country is divided into five regions, and the best players to form a pool for any national or age-group level, be it U15, U17 or U19. At the moment, Dias's hands are full, as he has to look after and prepare all those teams for future events.
Under Dias, Nepal is learning to take one step at a time, and they have had to take the rough with the smooth. The victory over South Africa was overshadowed by their inability to beat Scotland and earn a place in the Plate semi-finals. But Dias is certain the teenagers will return to Nepal as better players, and he is setting very simple but realistic goals for the future. The next priority for Nepal is the ICC Trophy tournament in Ireland next year, where the prize is a place in the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean. And by then, there could be even more good news.
According to the ACC, Nepal and Malaysia are two of the foremost fast-track countries, and the ICC is thinking of setting up a Central Asian Academy for cricket in Nepal, which will be the centre of excellence for developing nations. There will be state-of-the-art practice facilities, training for cricketers and coaches conducted by international experts, and everything that an aspiring cricket nation can hope for. That could be the base camp from which Nepal's cricket can contemplate the biggest ascent of all - to Test status.
Rabeed Imam is senior sub-editor of the Daily Star in Dhaka.