Nepal dare to dream again
There's an expression among young Indian sports journalists these days: find the "mamta story." Mamta is a Hindi word that covers everything between motherly compassion and all-round empathy. A mamta story is "human interest" with larger helpings of emotion. A tear-jerker, lump-in-throat tale. Rags to riches, hardship to the heights of glory; sweat, tears and hopefully not too much blood.
By that score, Nepal cricket itself should qualify as a sitter of a mamta story. A country where cricket has gone into hyper mode over the last five years. An unexpected, disarming appearance in the 2014 World T20. A year later, less than three months before the qualifier for the 2016 World T20, the country was hit by the most devastating earthquake in its modern memory. The team regrouped, picked itself up, and plays its first match at the tournament this week.
It is not how they sees itself. Nepal's cricket team knows it must find the perfect balance between what needs to be done and what can at most possibly be done. Between the April 25 earthquake and their game in Belfast on Friday, the first of six, Nepal have travelled, trained and played across continents and conditions. From recovering, still after-shocked Kathmandu, the team moved to Dharamsala, Bath, Amstelveen, Rotterdam and Belfast. They found themselves playing against each other, the Gloucestershire 2nd XI, Netherlands, Oman and the UAE.
They know exactly where they stand. They need to finish in the top six of 14 teams to make it to the 2016 ICC World T20 for the second time running. The captain, Paras Khadka, is clear what his team, as "the first batch" of Nepal's international cricketers, must do. "It is a big responsibility for us to see that our fans don't get disappointed."
Had the phrase come out of European club football, it would be a platitude. But Khadka's words ring real. Within two decades, these cricketers have become their nation's premier sportsmen: Nepal's cricket team, the country's favourite national squad, the source of collective aspiration and dreaming.
When they play, wherever they do, on the handful of turf wickets in Kathmandu, Pokhara or Bhairawa, the people turn up. They fill bleachers, grass embankments, it is standing room only. Coach Pubudu Dassanayake has worked with the team since November 2011, after stints in Sri Lanka and then Canada, where he now lives. Canada had structure, facilities; Nepal has none of that, but Nepal has "it". Nepal "gets" cricket at an intuitive level.
Dassanayke has seen it all: "Nepal plays, 20,000 turn up. In Canada you couldn't get 100 to watch. Give a bat to a 10-year-old in Nepal, he would know forward and backward defence straight off."
These should be the best of times for any country newly allured by cricket, because the world game has never been richer. Yet when most required, cricket's financial excesses exist alongside a paucity of a genuine global vision. The sport has protectively closed ranks around its most wealthy, just as the game has sparked obsessions in two countries either side of South Asia's most formidable mountain ranges. Afghanistan cricket's growth around the Hindu Kush is driven by a generation that found itself in a cricketing nation across the border. Nepal's has followed a zig-zagging, eccentric path.
Cricket always played itself out in the corner of Nepal's eye, pictures and sounds coming in from television or radio from its giant neighbour. There were always club matches, village matches, school matches. The game spread through a steady osmosis due to Nepal's geographical proximity to the Indian border; through Nepalis who worked and lived in India before returning home, like left-arm spinner Shakti Gauchan's father, who was part of the Indian Army's Gurkha regiment. It gave Gauchan a chance to play club cricket in Mumbai and, many years on, to work in a training camp with Rajasthan Royals. Gauchan is now a team elder in every way - their oldest player, an example to the rest in endurance, fitness, skills and counsel.
Young left-arm spinner Bhuvan Karki, who missed out on the ICC World T20 qualifer squad clearly remembers hearing "BSNL chauka" on the radio. Chauka is Hindi for a four, BSNL one of India's state telecom companies that tagged its name onto every boundary in every Indian match being offered on radio commentary - well before the IPL's DLF-maximum days. Basant Regmi, about eight years older than Karki, from Bhairawa, grew up playing the game with a cork ball. Switching from bowling gentle-paced cutters to left-arm spin after breaking a finger, he learned from watching Daniel Vettori and Ashley Giles on TV. Anil Mandal from the eastern town of Janakpur learnt the game from older boys at his local club. Gyanendra Malla grew up in the old town in Kathmandu, played in courtyards as a boy with the courtyards' own rules, watching Navjot Sidhu teach viewers how to hit sixes, and Anil Kumble coach them on legspin on a programme called Reebok Cricket Skills. In 1996, Nepalis watched the world play in the neighbourhood, and to their delight a team from the neighbourhood won the World Cup.
Nepal's domestic cricket is played between nine regional teams plus a team each from the Army and the Armed Police Force. Two events - one T20 and one 50-over tournament - that make up one month's cricket every season. It took other rungs of other ladders to get Nepal to where they are today. Mostly the ICC's World Cricket League (WCL) divisions and events*, held far away from the attention of Full Members. The Asian Cricket Council (ACC) provided the developmental coaches, which is what brought bringing Roy Dias to Nepal, working with the Nepal juniors and seniors from 2001 to 2011. He shepherded Nepal to the plate runners-up titles at the 2002 and 2006 Under-19 World Cups and the ACC Youth Asia Cup in Karachi. It is this unglamourous developmental work that ensured that Basant played in Quetta and Bahrain, Bhuvan in Namibia, and Mandal in his first big competition, an Under-15 tournament, ten years ago.
Raman Shiwakoti, the team's data analyst, its chronicler, photographer, day-to-day manager, and if required, also an accredited Level 2 umpire, has been with the team since 2012. Nepal cricket's ascent into a wider national consciousness, he believes, came from 2011-12 onwards, when the team began to work its way up the WCL ranks*, up through Divisions IV and III. The qualification for the World T20 last year through Division II is what lit the touchpaper. From then on, all of Nepal was drawn in, obsessed, enchanted. "From the prime minister to the rickshaw-wallah," Khadka smiles.
The qualification through to the ICCWorld T20 in 2014 marked the moment when as Sharad Veswakar remembers, "everything changed". After 2014, the players were given contracts - US$350 per month for Group A, $250 for Group B, and groups C and D $100. Companies stepped forward to sign players for sponsorships and "ambassadorships". Jobs in the army and Armed Police Force were offered, and spots on their teams. Less than two years after the magic of 2014, the ACC, which had provided coaches and a clutch of continental events, has been disbanded under the Big Three's new restructuring. Neither Dassanayake nor his players understand why or what this means for their future.
For the moment, they are in Belfast. When Dassanayake first arrived in Nepal he told journalists at the airport that his job was to make the team mentally believe that they belonged at a higher level and to take them to a World Cup. "People laughed," he chuckles. The expectations from his team will always remain, but that pleases him: "Now we have created a pressure, we need to go and perform."
Dharamsala, with its scenic surroundings and five-star cricket facilities, where the team trained for a fortnight after the quake, was far removed from Kathmandu's damaged Tribhuvan Stadium. After the shudder of the first day subsided and the phone lines came back up, the players reached out to each other. Basant to Khadka in Australia to tell him the team was by and large fine. Subash Khakurel and Shiwakoti to set up conversations on Facebook and Viber between the group of about 25 front-line cricketers. The players had gathered to meet, train and meditate at Tribhuvan. Early on, the senior cricketers and the coach they call "Pubu" were trying to get the boys to turn their attention to cricket, but a series of aftershocks sent the younger players rushing home to faraway villages. They returned in a straggle, scarred but resolute.
How will Nepal go at the qualifier? Malla, who spent a few weeks playing club cricket in Canada, says the lack of experience in his team can be countered by a shift in mindset: "It's one guy with a bat and one guy with a ball." Gauchan believes that, through cricket, Nepal have a chance to tap into a memory he has of another sport, another country, another time. In March 2011, Japan was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami that led to a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. In July, its women's football team became the first Asian team to win the sport's World Cup. "If we do well at the qualifier to start with, it will be like a gift to our people. Like it was for the Japanese that year."
Khadka is sitting among his buddies in a storeroom under the slope that leads to the Dharamsala practice pitches. He has spoken with affection about his team-mates. "We're united, we're tight, we're committed, there's pressure on everyone to deliver." He has run his broadsword through the administration. "If you come to the board, make sure you are there to develop the game and not yourself. Most cricket administrators are part-time. It is all bullshit, it is all about egos. If we were part-time about cricket, we never would've got here."
He is a captain cut from a cricketing cloth that South Asians recognise. Kardar had it, Pataudi had it, Ranatunga had it. He may not belong to a front-line cricket nation but Khadka has it too - ambition, confidence, charisma. He had started in cricket like boys in South Asia do, all year round, non-stop, at school, during classes, at home. "You were a kid, you loved cricket, you played. I never dreamt of it - playing for Nepal."
Then came the ICC World T20 debut in Bangladesh: packed crowds, day-night cricket and Nepal's cricket team in the middle of it. Their flag, their anthem. Its reverberations were felt, growing in strength and power, by Khadka, his team, his country. "The feeling you get after that, is that you want to get to every World Cup from now."
*The references to ACC's Division Four and Five have been changed to divisions in the ICC's World Cricket League
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo