Fierce competitors: what Nepal want to be at their second World Cup appearance in a decade

Their captain, Rohit Paudel, and coach, Monty Desai, talk about the side's dream run over the last 18 months and what they hope to achieve in their time on the big stage

Ashish Pant
Rohit Paudel coaches a child at the Nepal Cricket for Good event before the game against Afghanistan, ICC World Cup Qualifier 2018, Bulawayo, March 9, 2018

Nepal captain Rohit Paudel coaches a youngster at an event on the sidelines of the 2018 ODI World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe  •  Nigel Roddis/ICC/Getty Images

Rohit Paudel was 11 when Nepal last qualified for a T20 World Cup. He distinctly remembers running back from school to watch the side make history by qualifying for the tournament. On match days during the World Cup, the entire neighbourhood would get together and watch Nepal's World Cup games, he says.
Seeing the likes of Paras Khadka and Gyanendra Malla overcome odds to represent Nepal at a major world event captured Paudel's imagination. He set his sights on becoming a professional cricketer, hoping to play in a World Cup someday like his heroes.
Ten years later he is not just representing Nepal, he is the captain of the team that embarks on just its second T20 World Cup appearance since that 2014 tournament in Bangladesh.
Growing up in Buddhabasti, a village in Lumbini Province about 200km west of Kathmandu, Paudel was introduced to the sport by his older brother. Cricket has always been popular in Nepal, but the lack of adequate infrastructure meant it wasn't always a viable option professionally. The 2014 T20 World Cup, however, changed things for Paudel. He wanted to become a cricketer and play for his country at the highest level.
It wasn't easy. There weren't many professional coaches and academies where he lived. So when he was barely in his teens, Paudel was off to Kathmandu to enrol at the Baluwatar cricket academy there.
"Initially it was tough, very tough," Paudel says about having to go live with his older sister in the capital. "Leaving your mother behind isn't easy, no? Right from the start I have always stayed with her. Slowly I adjusted."
His rise up the ranks was swift. Paudel made his ODI debut when he was a month shy of his 16th birthday, and in just his third game became the youngest player in men's cricket to score a half-century in ODIs, a record that was eclipsed by his team-mate Kushal Malla a year later. Soon after, he got his T20I cap, and then in November 2022, barely two months after his 20th birthday, Paudel became Nepal's ODI captain, the second youngest ever in ODI history, behind Rashid Khan.
It did not come in the prettiest of circumstances. Paudel replaced Sandeep Lamichhane, who was suspended by the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) and later sentenced to jail for rape. Also, between August 2021 and December 2022, three Nepal coaches - Dav Whatmore, Pubudu Dassanayake and Manoj Prabhakar - resigned from their positions.
At the start of 2023, the team was languishing in sixth place out of seven on the World Cup League 2 points table. Only the top three teams could make a straight entry into the ODI World Cup qualifiers later in the year. But the bigger worry was that only the top five teams at the end of the league would be able to retain ODI status. Nepal were on the brink of losing that.
They needed some inspiration and it came through two appointments that shouldn't have been needed in the first place. Paudel was handed the captaincy because of Lamichhane's suspension. In February 2023, Monty Desai was named the Nepal head coach, replacing Prabhakar, who resigned after only five months in the job.
You might say scaling improbable summits is second nature for Nepalis, but even the most ardent fans cannot have foreseen the unprecedented rise that followed. Desai's experience of working with several international teams, and Paudel's brand of courageous captaincy, helped bring about a dramatic upswing in Nepal's fortunes.
In the next 12 months or so, Nepal retained their ODI status, made it to the World Cup qualifiers, won 11 out of their last 12 games in World Cup League 2, and became the first ever team to breach the 300 mark in T20Is. To round off a remarkable year, they qualified for their first T20 World Cup in a decade, in front of a boisterous home crowd.
Placed in Group A of the Asia Qualifier alongside Oman, Singapore and Malaysia, they finished the league phase second on the points table with two wins out of three. In the semi-final they defeated UAE by eight wickets to cause bedlam in Mulpani.
What brought about the turnaround? Desai puts it down to Paudel's effective leadership and "one big, happy dressing room".
"When we started off this journey, what set him apart was that he was so clearly and quickly aligned with our vision," Desai says of Paudel's captaincy. "He is someone who has a lot of enthusiasm - very energetic, very curious. He has an understanding of this vision about Nepal cricket and is hungry. He wants to lead, he wants to influence his team-mates, and he wants to leave a mark. And that is something which has set him apart in my eyes.
"He is a young captain but he has earned a lot of respect on and off the field because of the consistency which he brings in his behaviour. There is an element of calmness in him. He is a very well-balanced personality."
While Paudel the captain has grown, Paudel the batter has excelled too. Since April 2023, no other Nepal player has scored more runs in T20Is than Paudel's 732 in 27 innings at an average of 36.60. He is also heading into the World Cup in prime form, having been the top run-scorer in a T20 series against a touring West Indies A side that included the likes of Obed McCoy, Matthew Forde and Hayden Walsh in their ranks. In four innings Paudel finished with 265 runs at 132.50. And while Nepal lost the series 2-3, the result could well have been in their favour had a few things gone their way.
"I think I am in very good form, in a much better space now," Paudel says. "My focus is on the process. The World Cup will be watched by so many countries, and the focus will be on presenting my skills
"The time in between two balls, I am trying to utilise that. And I am focusing on every ball. That, I think, is working for me. The one-ball battles. That is something I am keenly working on, and I want to keep working on that in the World Cup."
Another key figure in the 15-member squad, who has made quite a splash in these last 15 months is Dipendra Singh Airee, Nepal's six-hitting machine. Against Mongolia in the Asian Games last year, he smashed a nine-ball fifty, the fastest ever in T20 history. In April this year he became just the third man to hit six sixes in an over in a T20I, against Qatar. His blitzes also fetched Airee a contract in the ILT20 last season as a replacement player for Gulf Giants.
"What he brings in, the enthusiasm and the energy which he brings in on the field, it's amazing to watch," Desai says of him. "He never doubts his abilities.
"It's not fair to compare great cricketers around the world. But, you know, in an excitement of imagination, if I have to say it, he is in his own ways the [MS] Dhoni of Nepal. And I know from him that he has admired Dhoni for years. He wants to be like him. He says he wants to be known as a finisher.
"He has not come across, up till now, a lot of superior skills, so we need to still see [how he fares against] that. But whatever he has faced so far, in that definitely he has got an attitude of going in the last few overs. If he knows there is a weak link there, then he looks for the big over with those weak links, which is very similar to any professional players around in the world who are playing in T20 leagues."
Another aspect of Airee's abilities, which both Paudel and Desai want the world to see more of, is his fielding. Paudel thinks Airee is at the moment "one of the best fielders in the world of our generation", and Desai agrees. They might not be wrong.
"The angles from where he gets run-outs… He is just oozing with confidence always," Desai says. "We are learning new coaching methods from him.
"To give an example - we know there are the right mechanics and the right elements to create throws and power. But he says, 'What if I'm imbalanced and I have to throw an accurate throw?' So he trains with an imbalanced position to throw. He throws with his right hand. He's practising throwing with his non-throwing arm as well.
"An imbalanced way of throwing is something creative. And he's brought this method. So, very interesting."
Desai wants Nepal to give special attention to their fielding, at the T20 World Cup. "Our fielding unit is where we have been working a lot more, because we definitely have defined fielding as our sixth bowler who will get us a wicket," he says.
Nepal are one of the youngest teams in the competition. Of the 15 going to the World Cup, only four players are 26 or older, of whom only Karan KC is over 30. But that doesn't mean they lack experience. Rohit, Airee and Karan have all played 100 or more international games, while openers Aasif Sheikh and Kushal Bhurtel also have a good amount of experience at the highest level. Even 20-year-old Kushal Malla has 75 international games under his belt. And for inspiration, Nepal don't have to look past Sompal Kami, the only player in the side now who was part of the 2014 T20 World Cup squad, who is still only 28.
"We will give credit to the management and previous captains and coaches who have invested in players like Rohit and Dipendra, and Kushal Bhurtel and Aasif Sheikh. These are players who have played a lot of games. And I think these are the players that we as a team look forward to," Desai says. "The others chip in and bring in their abilities.
"So we have kind of picked the core group, where at least seven-odd players have played together a lot."
Placed in Group D, Nepal start their World Cup campaign against Netherlands on June 4 in Dallas, and will then face Sri Lanka, South Africa and Bangladesh. Paudel and Desai are not looking too far ahead. While the target certainly is to reach the Super Eights, they want to focus on the one-ball battles, take every moment as it comes, and be "fierce competitors".
"The first step in progress for us will be to win the first game," Desai says. "We keep saying over here that pressure is privilege. If we can handle that pressure well, then probably we'll be scripting a new story as well.
"At the World Cup, all 20 teams start from the same point. In the Olympics, in 100-metre sprints, it's the same for all athletes. Who crosses the line first is unknown.
"Preparation-wise, there are expectations because of the recent results against the West Indies A team. For us, I would say my personal expectation as a coach with this team will be that I want them to stay connected with their identity, which is fierce competitors, and I want them to compete.
"I keep reminding them that you have to respect these opportunities, because once their brand of cricket is recognised around the world, just the way some of the A teams have happily accepted our invitations and come to this country and played, that is how we will get more exposure, that is how we will grow and that is how our team will develop.
Are there nerves within the camp?
"I am not feeling the nervousness at the moment because there is still [some time] to go," Paudel says. "But when I am outside, the fans do constantly remind us that there is a World Cup coming up. Then, yeah, we do feel some nervousness. But having said that, it is a great opportunity for all of us to play better cricket and take Nepal cricket to greater heights. We want to give the fans a gift by winning."
Nepal's rise in world cricket hasn't gone unnoticed. Just this year, they've had Namibia and Netherlands coming over for a T20I tri-series, alongside visits from Ireland A and West Indies A. Last month, Nepal also travelled to Vapi in Gujarat, India, for a preparatory camp, where they played a triangular series with Gujarat and Baroda.
The last year and a half has been nothing short of a dream for Nepal. Now that they are at the World Cup, they will want to show the rest of the world that they belong. Who knows, maybe along the way they can also conjure a few miracles.

Ashish Pant is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo