A tale of hard work, fate and tears
On November 16, Nepal were chasing 183 against Kenya, who were favourites to win the Group B encounter in the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier in Dubai. They needed 17 runs off the final over. In the middle were the captain, Paras Khadka, and Sharad Vesawkar. As soon as the tall Vesawkar hit the first of three sixes to win the match, his team-mate Sagar Pun began to cry. Pun, a 20-year-old batsman, was padded up because he was the next man in, and he cried louder as Vesawkar took Nepal closer to the target.
"Matches like these only bring the emotions out easily. Imagine if a wicket had fallen and he [Pun] was the next man in, what might have happened," Khadka tells ESPNcricinfo from Abu Dhabi with a chuckle, explaining Pun's reaction.
"Everybody was so keen. Everybody was pushing themselves. Every one of us believes in fate. Every one of us believes in God."
According to Khadka, his players have worked "double" the amount they usually do, for this tournament. "The belief was always there. But in the T20 format you just never know which way the game can swing," he says. "There is no substitute for hard work, even if it might take time. Three years ago, four years ago, five years ago if anyone had asked us, do you want to play a World Cup, our answer would have been - maybe yes. But how do we go about it?"
On Wednesday afternoon, in the dry heat of Abu Dhabi, Vesawkar and Khadka found themselves in the middle once again, with Nepal's fate in the balance. In the quarter-final against Hong Kong, with a spot in the World Twenty20 at stake, Nepal needed 26 off the last two overs. With 10 balls to go, Khadka attempted a risky second run and was dismissed. Nepal now needed 13 off the final over, from medium-pacer Haseeb Amjad. Vesawkar started the over with a straight six and then bottom-edged the next ball to the fine-leg boundary. With one ball to go and scores level, all the Hong Kong fielders were inside the circle. Vesawkar's powerful off drive pierced the field to deliver the most important victory in the Affiliate nation's history. Nepal had qualified for the 2014 World Twenty20 in Bangladesh.
Nepal's journey through the tournament in the UAE had been tense. They might not even have made it to the knockouts, if not for a fractionally superior run rate to Scotland. At the end of the group stage, Nepal and Scotland were level on eight points. They were separated only by a net run rate calculated to the fourth decimal: Scotland had 0.3792, while Nepal had 0.3794. "I do not know how they calculated, but we had the belief. We had the hunger," Khadka says, still unable to comprehend what his team achieved.
Vesawkar confesses that the significance of their performance has not "sunk in" completely because it has been a long-cherished dream, and now that they are there it feels almost unreal. "It is the proudest moment of our lives," he says. "We wanted to play a World Cup. It was a dream for us. Finally it has come true."
Vesawkar started following cricket when he was eight, after watching Sachin Tendulkar during the 1996 World Cup. "Sachin inspired me," Vesawkar says, recollecting the days spent playing street cricket with tennis balls. He is happy he chased that dream.
"We had no other choice other than going for it," Vesawkar says about the final over against Kenya. "Yesterday [against Hong Kong] was very important to us because it was a do-or-die match and we had to qualify for the World Cup. There is so much [of a] following back home and the expectations were really high. The Kenya game was equally important, since the tournament could have gone either way, but I still feel the Hong Kong match had more importance."
In May this year, Nepal won the ICC World Cricket League Division Three title, beating Uganda in the final. It was Vesawakar who hit the winning runs, completing a half-century in the process. Nepal had lost their first two group matches but won all the rest to claim the title. It was their biggest win at the time.
According to Khadka, Nepal's Sri Lankan coach Pubudu Dassanayake has "transformed" the team's progress and development. "The introduction of our coach transformed everything. It has been the same team, same players, but everyone has risen to the task."
During the match against Hong Kong, Dassanayake, who joined Nepal after leaving the Canada job following the 2011 World Cup, remained confident, though he feared his batsmen had left themselves too many to get in the final over. "That was the only hiccup," he says. "But we had already been involved in last-over games."
Nations like Nepal struggle for proper cricket infrastructure and resources. To prepare for the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier, they travelled to Delhi in October to play practice matches. Amit Mathur, the former BCCI administrator and currently consultant with the Delhi Daredevils, helped organise the travel and practice games. "Six months ago we went to Bharatnagar Cricket Academy, where we were smashed by a couple of teams," Dassanayake says. "This time when we were there we had victories against Under-25 sides from Railways and Delhi District Cricket Association. That provided a shot of confidence and showed us how much we had improved."
Dassanayake says the dedication of Nepal cricketers must be admired, for most of them rely on their board for basic needs, including their kit. "The Nepal Cricket Association provided a kit to each of the 15 players. The players give their full time to cricket but they do not benefit financially." When Khadka, a former small-time school and college-level coach, says the players "have dedicated" themselves to cricket "full time," you realise how much they love the sport.
The ICC played its part too, by promoting cricket in Nepal and providing exposure to players. Dassanayake thinks that in a few years Nepal will be on par with Associates like Ireland and Netherlands. "This is beginning of another level but we have to do a lot of hard work," he says.
For Dassanayake, it is satisfying that Nepal have played the same brand of cricket in victory and defeat. "When we lost to Afghanistan in a seven-over rain-affected match, we had been confident we could beat them and hence were upset. But we played good cricket and stuck to our plans in front of strong crowd support for both sides." On Friday, Nepal face Afghanistan again in the semi-finals of the tournament. Vesawkar wants to beat the arch-rivals, another long-standing desire, but for now he cannot forget the crowd that gathered at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium to infuse the team with energy.
After the victory against Hong Kong, as Khadka and his men sang the patriotic anthem "Rato Ra Chandra Surya", the crowd joined the chorus to make the moment that much more special. "It is almost like a festival back home. There have been rallies, candle-light functions and such from the moment we qualified," Khadka says. "Our home minister called us to congratulate the team. People are very excited. As a country we have been waiting for something to unite us. I think cricket has become the unifying factor."
When Khadka got out against Hong Kong, he saw Pun crying once again. This time, even Khadka was counting prayer beads in his mind. "It was crazy. When I was batting I was in the zone. You work so hard all your life and it is right there in front you. And then I got out with 10 balls left." Khadka recollects the moment. He had removed his helmet and gloves but he did not sit down. "I was standing there and praying. Please, please, God, you cannot be cruel.
"In the end it was fate. I believe in destiny. Honest work paid off."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo