Cricket-mad Nepal faces infrastructure challenges
Nepal's maiden World T20 appearance is the culmination of a long and difficult journey, and the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) is hoping Paras Khadka's side will continue to raise the profile of a game that is quickly gaining popularity in the country.
"The performance of our side has instilled a sense of pride among people in the country and fans of the game," Ashok Nath Pyakuryal, the secretary of CAN, said. "Football is one of the more popular games in the country, but the side's recent wins have boosted cricket's profile and also attracted funds towards the game."
The boost to cricket's popularity in Nepal was perhaps most visible when the team qualified for the World T20 in November 2013 and fans thronged the airport to greet the side that finished third in the World T20 Qualifier. In the ACC Twenty20 Cup, the qualifying tournament for 2013 World T20 Qualifier, Nepal made it to the final before losing to Afghanistan. The senior team also had another memorable achievement in 2013, when they finished at the top of the World Cricket League Division Three, three years after starting out in Division Five.
Like for most Affiliate and Associate Members, infrastructure remains one of the biggest challenges for Nepal. In their case, however, that problem is compounded by geography, because a substantial part of the country is home to the Himalayan mountain ranges.
"Nepal has a geographical mix and the Terai (plain) region is the most significant cricketing area within the country," Pyakuryal said. "Cricket culture in the mountain side of the country is low because infrastructure has still not developed as it has in the plains, which also border India. Most players come from that region but gradually, a few players are also coming through from the mountain region."
Nepal's recent performances prompted the government to support the development of the game but according to Pyakuryal its role is mostly restricted to infrastructure. The ACC and the ICC also provide financial assistance, and the ICC provided CAN with a high-performance plan for T20 cricket. The problem is that most of these funds are moved to the development of grounds and coaching facilities. In such a scenario, for CAN, finding sponsors for domestic tournaments is a challenge.
"We qualified for the World T20 but there is a shortage of resources. The problem with certain grants that come in is that they offer help to the team only at international competitions," he said. "Our concern is the shortage of resources at the domestic level. The amount of money that comes in from sponsors at the domestic level is not large and we often have to rely on internal resources. The funds that come in from the government can be used for infrastructure development.
"We don't have stadiums such as the ones in India. But we have a few good grounds in Kathmandu and we have regularly hosted international tournaments of the ACC and the ICC. The plan is to have at least a ground in each region. The government is also helping develop grounds - in the eastern and western parts of the country and in Kathmandu."
One of Nepal's first major cricketing achievements, which brought the young team into the spotlight, was their win in the Plate Championship of the 2006 Under-19 World Cup. The core of the present team has risen through age-group cricket and that has made for a healthy team spirit.
"Our biggest strength would be our team spirit," Khadka, Nepal's captain, said. "We have amazing camaraderie amongst all our players. Most of us have come up through the junior ranks and we have played the junior World Cups as well, but this is the biggest stage of all. Some of us have been part of wins against Test-playing teams at the Under-19 level as well. We want to take all the positives in the past and do well in this tournament."
Lately, however, Nepal's age-group teams have not been able to keep up their performances. The lack of bench strength is a concern and CAN has been sending teams to India for various club tournaments to improve performances.
"The advent of television and the success of the team in the last four-five years have helped the game grow all over Nepal. Kids are now actively taking up cricket which is a good sign," he said. "But there is a concern over the bench strength for the senior team, specifically the Under-16 and Under-19 teams. Along with the government's sports council, we are looking to develop cricket at three levels - inter-school, college and university.
"The Under-19 team has also been participating in a few club-level competitions in India, and they visited Benaras recently for a tournament. A few teams from Nepal have also participated in local competitions in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai."
Apart from improving infrastructure, CAN is also working on developing a first-class competition. Currently, the domestic structure follows club, district and regional progression and nearly 12 teams participate at the national level. The competitions, however, are only one-dayers and T20s.
"Earlier, the semi-finals and finals of our major tournaments used to be played over two days," Pyakuryal says. "But that stopped. We are now contemplating a two-day format in domestic cricket at the regional and national levels."
CAN is also developing its national cricket academy. Pyakuryal said there were different programmes for school and Under-16 levels and the academy acted as a nodal body for other regional academies. Pubudu Dassanayake, the former Sri Lanka Test cricketer who took over as Nepal coach in 2011, also oversees the training of coaches in the country Dassanayake, who succeeded another former Sri Lanka cricketer, Roy Dias, has been widely credited with helping the team get more results.
The success of Nepal's Asian neighbours has also boosted the game - a fact both Khadka and Pyakuryal acknowledge. "We are in the South Asian community where India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - all these countries are pretty close to each other," Khadka told mediapersons in Chittagong. "All the TV channels we get back home are full of cricket."
Pyakuryal also agreed. "The India and Pakistan teams are followed very keenly and the rise of Indian cricket has also helped the game in Nepal."
Irrespective of their performances, one of the few things Nepal has been able to rely on is a fan following comparable to those enjoyed by their subcontinent neighbours. The internet has added to the legion of their followers. Khadka stresses that the team realises that their World Cup performance is important not just for the fans but also for the next generation of cricketers in Nepal.
"People get in touch mostly through social media," Khadka said. "On my personal Facebook, and Twitter page, there are messages like, 'We need to do well,' and 'Inspite of whatever happens, you guys have made the country proud.' But we as cricketers want to do well and set a mark for our generations to follow. Nepal is heading in the right way in terms of cricket - fan following, cricket structure-wise. If we put up a good performance, it will not only help the current generation of players but also the future generations to take up the game."
Rachna Shetty is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo