Nepal looks to make case as neutral venue
Home to eight of the ten tallest peaks in the world, it is only apt that Nepal is called 'the Home of the Gods'. It seems appropriate, therefore, that Nepal's newest cricket stadium, the half-complete Mulpani Cricket Ground in Kathmandu, is located atop a hill, that little bit closer to the heavens. The ground shares its acronym with a more celebrated stadium from the southern hemisphere, but the Mulpani ground possesses its own charm, with panoramic views of the Himalayas and the growing metropolis of Kathmandu.
Part of the romance associated with cricket revolves around the arena where all the action unfolds, whether it is the ocean-side Arnos Vale Stadium in St Vincent, or the grass banks of the Queenstown Events Centre surrounded by the Remarkables mountain range in New Zealand. With Nepal unlikely to receive Test or ODI status in the near future, there is a reason why the half-built stadium at Mulpani and the other existing grounds in Nepal could be on their way to becoming among the most picturesque locations for world cricket. This is because Nepal's cricket officials believe that Mulpani has a chance of becoming a neutral venue, open to year-long cricket due to a climate that makes play possible even during the height of the subcontinental summer. Now, if only the stadium could get ready in time.
There were expectations that the Mulpani stadium, partly funded by the ACC, would be ready to host cricket soon. Until now, however, apart from the pavilion block and the wall lining the stadium, there are no other concrete fixtures at the ground. While some work has been done on the pitch and outfield, the ground is not yet in a state to accommodate any cricket. Tarini Bikram Shah, the acting President of CAN, believes that "if all goes well, the stadium should be ready for some cricket in four months."
Once this picturesque ground is ready, Kathmandu could at least hope to give itself a chance to take the stage as the world's next neutral venue on the lines of Sharjah, Singapore and Toronto. Paras Khadka, the captain of the Nepal cricket team certainly believes so: "There is no reason why Nepal cannot become a popular neutral venue because we have good weather for almost nine months in a year and the locals love the sport".
If all goes well, the stadium at Mulpani is expected to be the largest in terms of seating capacity in Nepal, with the stands and grass banks projected to accommodate about 30,000 fans, but the ground has had a few troubles already. In 2007, the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) decided to construct an international-quality stadium on this plot. Before that, various plans from CAN, the ICC and the Asian Cricket Council all suggested the setting up of various institutions in Mulpani, from cricket academies to administrative headquarters, none of which materialised.
Apart from the Mulpani stadium, Nepal does have a few grounds such as the Tribhuvan University International Cricket Ground (TU Ground) and the Pulchowk Cricket Ground in Kathmandu, which have hosted ICC and ACC events in the past. Outside Kathmandu, there are a few cricket grounds, the best known in Pokhara, Nepal's third-largest city. The TU Ground can accommodate about 20,000 spectators but the others don't have sophisticated seating facilities and are limited to hosting around 5000 fans.
Yet there is a strong case to be made for cricket in Kathmandu - its climate. Temperatures rarely climb above 30 degrees Celsius during the year. June is the hottest time of the year and it can be safely said that most people wouldn't consider it anything short of pleasant. The average rainfall is highest during July-August, but it is rarely more than 400 inches (approx 10,000mm). Between April and September, when the heat and the monsoon restrict South Asia's cricket season, the temperate climate of Kathmandu offers a tempting window for cricket in the region.
Another reason that makes Nepal a promising neutral venue is the local support for the game. Unlike, other smaller cricketing nations, such as UAE and Hong Kong, where teams are largely made up of expatriates, Nepal's national team, comprises indigenous players who have usually come through the ranks playing age-group cricket. Walk into a sports shop in Kathmandu, and one can see that cricket has its place. A quick chat with taxi drivers, security guards and hawkers on the street will tell you that football is still the country's number one sport, but the growing appetite for cricket among Nepal's public is unquestionable, something that national and global administrators of the sport would do well to capitalise on.
As things stand, India and Pakistan are slotted to play six Test series between 2015 and 2023. With Pakistan still lacking a home venue, Nepal could be a viable option due to its connectivity and proximity to both countries. Unlike other neutral venues - like Toronto, Singapore and Sharjah - where the presence of Indian and Pakistani expatriate populations is an important factor in filling up the stadiums, many are confident that local crowds will flock to the grounds in Nepal.
According to Khadka: "The local population loves the game and at least 15-20,000 people turn up at the Tribhuvan University Ground to watch the national team play. There is no doubt that the stadium will be packed even when quality international teams come to play". Aamir Akhtar, a former Nepal cricketer and occasional advisor to CAN, says, "Cricket tournaments in Sharjah brought countries together and Nepal now has the opportunity to promote peace and good relations through cricket."
Akhtar offers another arrow in Nepal's quiver - Mulpani as a venue for pre-season training for first-class teams from around the world. "The weather in Kathmandu is pleasant all-year round and with the pitch at Mulpani set to assist seam bowling, Kathmandu could become an attractive destination for pre-season tours by county teams," he says. It will mark a considerable - and financially viable - shift away from the established practice by county teams like Yorkshire and Durham of undertaking pre-season tours to South Africa and West Indies. Few teams travel to the subcontinent due to the vastly dissimilar pitch and weather conditions, but Mulpani's supporters are hoping to change that trend.
The first steps to take international cricket to Nepal were seen with the Tempo Legends World Cup in 1999. The tri-series involving veteran stars representing India, Pakistan and a 'Rest of the World' team and was played at the Tribhuvan University Ground in 1999. The tournament was jointly organised by CAN and Zee Sports, but there was no capitalisation on the momentum to put cricket in Kathmandu on the world map. With a creditable showing at the World T20 and Nepal's recent T20 international status, the public's interest is only on the rise, making this a good time to take the game to Nepal in a bigger way.
Bishen Jeswant is a stats sub editor at ESPNcricinfo. @bishen_jeswant