Redemption for Netherlands, regret for Nepal
January 23 has started to become a memorable date in the annals of Netherlands cricket history. On a Thursday in 2014, it was one of the most stunning and costly days for the Dutch both on and off the field.
After finishing in a tie for third with UAE in the World Cricket League Championship, just one point behind Afghanistan for one of the two automatic 2015 World Cup qualifying berths on offer through the competition, Netherlands suffered a shock four-wicket defeat to a Kenya side in decline on the final day of the group stage at the 2014 World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand. Not only were they not going to the World Cup after having played in the last three editions, but they lost ODI status and the funding that came with it to keep their core group of players on full-time contracts.
On Friday, exactly one year to the day of the defeat that extinguished their 2015 World Cup aspirations, Netherlands' WCL Division Two tournament fate once again hinged on an unlikely Kenya chase. This time the African side had to do it against Nepal, not just to help Netherlands but to save themselves from relegation to WCL Division Three. Wicketkeeper Irfan Karim broke Dutch hearts in 2014 with his 108 off 84 balls, but his unbeaten 75 off 94 balls in a five-wicket win over Nepal has initiated the healing process for those deep Netherlands wounds.
Much of that Netherlands core was still present on this tour to Namibia: captain Peter Borren, Mudassar Bukhari, Stephan Myburgh, Wesley Barresi and Ahsan Malik. Many others were not. From the World T20 squad that beat England and Ireland there was no Tom Cooper, Micky Swart, Timm van der Gugten or Logan van Beek. Dirk Nannes, Alexei Kervezee and Ryan ten Doeschate have long since departed the Dutch structure. Yet one of Netherlands greatest strengths, their ability to replenish their stocks by whatever means necessary, once again came through.
Ben Cooper, Tom's younger brother, had played a fledgling role at the World T20 but given an opportunity to step up in Namibia he delivered with two half-centuries. Malik's pace is hardly threatening but his cagey variations resulted in 17 wickets, best at the tournament. Vivian Kingma never saw the field at the World T20 in Bangladesh, but made a vital contribution at this tournament with eight wickets, including two as part of the early wreckage on the final day of group play against Uganda to set up a glorious day of celebrating for the Oranje.
The day also presented a fascinating juxtaposition for Nepal. At 2013 WCL Division Three in Bermuda, Nepal entered the final day at 2-2 with a net run rate of 0.704 behind 3-1 USA. Nepal needed a heavy win over Italy and hope for an unlikely loss by USA to Bermuda, a team the Americans hadn't lost to in ICC tournament play since 2005. Nepal held Italy to 127 that day and chased down the total inside 15 overs, then sat and waited for USA's eight-year unbeaten streak to be broken in astonishing fashion.
In Namibia, it was 2-2 Netherlands who needed a speedy defeat over Uganda to bridge the net run rate gap of 0.911 and cross their fingers for an unlikely Nepal loss. All 3-1 Nepal needed to do was beat Kenya to clinch promotion to Division One, but that proved to be easier said than done.
Nepal has several top-flight talents in their ranks, none more than the captain and vice-captain duo of Paras Khadka and Gyanendra Malla as well as one of the best bowling attacks in the Associate world, but their overall depth has hindered them in the past and it cost them dearly in Windhoek. Khadka and Malla were the only two Nepalese batsmen to accumulate more than 100 runs during the round-robin stage. Nepal's first-wicket stand averaged just 10.2 in those five games, producing a hole that the two senior batsmen were forced to constantly dig out from.
At first glance it might look as if Nepal's promotion hopes were dashed in the loss to Kenya, but in truth they had two costly missteps earlier in the tournament that had a far more significant impact on their final standing. The first of those was the opening day two-run loss to Uganda, the only win for Uganda in the round-robin stage. Nepal only needed 147 to win that day, but Nepal has historically been so heavily reliant on Khadka and Malla for runs that when either one fails it usually spells doom. Malla top-scored on the day with 34, but Khadka's 5 was followed by three more single digit scores from the middle order. Malla was the seventh man to fall on 109, leaving 38 needed to win off the last 12 overs with three wickets in hand but it was too tall an order to accomplish.
The second blunder came against Canada, where Nepal allowed their opponents to recover from 22 for 5 to reach 114. In October at the last WCL Division Three in Malaysia, Nepal went through a near identical situation against Uganda on the opening day of group play, setting the African side back at 23 for 5 before conceding a 137-run sixth-wicket stand that enabled Uganda to reach 203 for 8. Once again at Division Two in Namibia, the necessary ruthlessness was absent from Nepal's bowlers.
Even still, a strong batting unit would be undaunted with a chase of 115. Nepal on the other hand stumbled out of the gate, losing two wickets before a run was on the board. After the way they collapsed against Uganda on day one, Malla and Khadka had to go about the chase more cautiously than they'd have anticipated when the second innings began. It took Nepal pair 23.1 overs to get there.
Netherlands had no such issues on that last day against Uganda. The Dutch pinned down their opponent at 16 for 4 and barely let them up for air, eventually knocking them over for 79 before chasing in 6.3 overs to overhaul Nepal on net run rate. Had Nepal employed the same efficiency in the field and at bat against Canada as the Dutch did against Uganda, Nepal would have finished with a higher net run rate than Netherlands and would be going on to the WCLC and Intercontinental Cup instead of the Dutch.
One of the most frustrating aspects for Nepal is that they'll know they were good enough to be promoted, having beat Namibia and Netherlands in this tournament. They'll have plenty of time to stew over that because their punishment for a lack of consistency is being trapped in World Cricket League purgatory. If the tournament structure in the last World Cricket League cycle (2010-2014) is continued for the current WCL cycle through 2018, both Nepal and Kenya will not play in any World Cricket League tournaments for three years until the 2018 World Cup Qualifier. For a cricket-mad Associate nation like Nepal, being starved of meaningful 50-over matches for that long is a tough pill to swallow.
After finishing in the three and four spots at 2011 Division Two in the UAE, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea made the most of their three years of isolated preparation and finished in the top four at the 2014 World Cup Qualifier, thus attaining ODI status. Such has been the downward trend of their cricket that Kenya won't mind sitting still until 2018. At least they remain in Division Two, unlike Canada. With Asian depth running strong and the Americas getting weaker, Canada will have to fight hard to get past Singapore and Malaysia in the next Division Three if they harbour any hopes of retrieving ODI status.
The Cricket Association of Nepal recently awarded central contracts for its players ahead of Division Two, but after the World T20 Qualifier this summer, there is little scheduled for Nepal on the international calendar and that may make it difficult for those contacts to be renewed. Even if they are, Nepal will have to work hard to overcome the 50-over stagnation in the same way that Hong Kong and PNG did to gain promotion when 2018 comes around. And that's if the ICC still has the desire to continue funding the WCLC and Intercontinental Cup four years from now, which is no sure thing following recent proclamations about streamlining administrative processes coming out of the Big Three takeover.
While Namibia and Netherlands fully deserved their promotion, it is unfortunate that Nepal didn't make it into the top two because it would have been a major shot in the arm for the Intercontinental Cup. The ICC's four-day first-class competition for Associates has been a helpful developmental tool for players but hasn't been embraced from a marketing or promotional standpoint. There is little doubt that the appearance of Ireland in Kathmandu for a four-day fixture would have produced crowds in excess of 15,000 per day. That would have been a positive not just for Nepal, but for everyone in the competition.
Five-figure crowds or not, Netherlands are happy to return to the WCLC and Intercontinental Cup. January 23 was a Netherlands nightmare in 2014 but the same date turned into a Dutch dream in 2015. Now they have a seat back at the head table of Associates.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna