Work to do for Nepal cricket as dangerous stagnation stands in way of ODI and Test status

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Just over 22 months ago, Nepal were the toast of the cricket world after the landlocked nation attained ODI status for the first time in its history in the most thrilling fashion.

A victory over Papua New Guinea in the World Cup Qualifier play-off clash in Harare capped off a meteoric rise which saw Nepal climb from playing in Division Five of the World Cricket League (WCL) to achieving ODI status in a span of eight years.

That the historic moment came at a time when the country’s board – the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) – was suspended by the ICC, made the team’s feat all the more commendable. It didn’t take too long for Nepal to register their maiden ODI win with the team beating Netherlands by a solitary run in their second official one-day international appearance.

While many expected the Nepal juggernaut to pick up even more steam following that achievement, the wheels have started to buckle since. In the months to follow, there have been a few highs such as the 2-1 bilateral ODI series win over the UAE. However, there have been several lows as well with their failure to even qualify for the 2020 T20I World Cup Qualifier in the UAE ranking the highest.

Costly defeats to Qatar and then Singapore in the T20 World Cup Asia Qualifiers, meant that Nepal missed out on a chance to book their tickets to the final qualifying round held in the UAE in October last year.

“That was obviously a big disappointment and setback for us since we really wanted to be there (UAE),” Paras Khadka, who led Nepal in that tournament, told Sport360 in an exclusive chat.

Khadka has been Nepal's talisman. Image credit - CAN/Twitter.

Khadka has been Nepal’s talisman. Image credit – CAN/Twitter.

“The format of the Qualifier was such, that if you lose even one or two matches, then it becomes extremely tricky for you to get back in the tournament.

“Still, there are no excuses for our performances though, we were really poor by our standards and failed to play good cricket overall.”

Khadka is the name most synonymous with Nepal’s rise as a cricketing force, with the all-rounder serving as the skipper for a near 10-year tenure. From Nepal’s WCL Division Five title-winning campaign in 2010 to their ODI status securing run in 2018 – Khadka was always the man leading the charge. He also holds the distinction of being Nepal’s maiden ODI and T20I centurion, with the knocks coming against the UAE and Singapore respectively last year.

In a move which came as a surprise last October, the 32-year-old announced his decision to step down from captaincy. That the news came just a day after the CAN’s suspension was temporarily lifted by the ICC, led to plenty of speculation as to why Khadka had decided to step aside.

The veteran Nepal man, however, has made it clear his decision was very much a personal one and not related to CAN’s return.

“I think it was about time. It had been nearly 10 years since I had been leading the country and the suspension of the CAN had just been lifted,” he said.

“When we were in Oman for the five-nation series, I decided on a personal note that it was time to step back and hand over the baton to someone else. I had great fun leading my country, it is the proudest thing I have done.

“Even playing for my country was something I had never imagined, so to be a Nepal player and lead the country was something I will always hold close to my heart. Your first duty as a player is to perform for the team and the captaincy is a bonus you cherish. I had a great time leading an amazing bunch of boys and also the coaches who played a major role in making everything happen.

Paras Khadka. Image: ICC/Twitter.

Paras Khadka. Image: ICC/Twitter.

“I believe there is still a long way to go for Nepal cricket, but for me personally, it was time to take a step back and enjoy the few years I still have remaining as a player. I want to keep contributing to the maximum in my capacity as a player. Whether it be on the field or off it, I shall always be available for the development of the sport in the country. I am with them in every step.”

While the captaincy burden no longer rests on his shoulders, there is still a big role for Khadka to play as Nepal enters another crucial phase of its cricketing journey. Up next for the team in February, is the 2023 Cricket World Cup League Two engagements in Kathmandu which pits them against Oman and the USA. The tri-nation ODI battle on home soil is just the start of a lengthy League Two campaign which will also see them rub shoulders with the likes of Scotland, the UAE, Namibia and Papua New Guinea down the line.

A top-three finish in the CWC League Two tournament will guarantee Nepal a place in the final qualifying round for the 2023 World Cup to be held in India. Then, there is also the matter of the 2020 Asia Cup Eastern Region Qualifier in Thailand towards the end of February where Nepal and seven other teams including Hong Kong and Singapore will battle it out. On offer are two slots to the final Asia Cup Qualifier which will be hosted by Malaysia in August this year.

Having missed out badly on the 2020 T20 World Cup qualification race, the Asia Cup Qualifier has assumed even greater significance for Khadka and Nepal.

“We missed out on the 2020 World Cup so we absolutely want to ensure that we qualify for the Asia Cup at least,” Khadka explained.

“Of course, there are many good teams vying for the same in the qualifiers so it definitely won’t be an easy prospect. We are a very young team at the moment and everyone is working very hard to achieve our goals.

“We need to be patient with the youngsters but there is no doubt that everyone is putting in the effort. We have a lot of cricket to play, including the qualifying rounds for the 2023 World Cup. We don’t want to miss out on any opportunity.”

Khadka and Co. Image: Emirates Cricket Board/Twitter.

Khadka and Co. Image: Emirates Cricket Board/Twitter.

Even more important in the coming months will be to make the most of their ODI status which comes for a limited period (two years remaining). While attaining the feat was an incredible achievement for Nepal, maintaining ODI status is a different matter altogether. Countries such as Scotland and Ireland (before gaining full ICC membership) were able to attract top opponents such as Pakistan and Australia while holding ODI status. All this was made possible by their close proximity to England, which made it convenient for the big touring sides to visit Scotland and Ireland for short limited-overs series.

Nepal, with its close proximity to cricketing giants such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, is well placed to do the same. However, nothing of that sort has been forthcoming so far with CAN’s suspension playing its part in the lack of progress. It has been more than three months since the board’s suspension was lifted and we are yet to see any concrete vision or plan laid out by the body.

CAN’s website remains inaccessible with the domain name currently on sale. Khadka, on his part as a player, has not been privy to CAN’s plans, if any, for the development of the sport in the country.

“We as a team are concentrating on the upcoming tri-nation ODI series as of now. I haven’t had any discussions with the board. I do not attend their meetings. Let us see wait and see what they are planning,” he revealed.

What direction the CAN takes its new avatar still remains to be seen, but the clock is ticking down fast on Nepal’s ODI status. Khadka, though, is optimistic and feels Nepal can attract some high-quality opponents if the board can get its act together.

“It all comes down to planning on part of the board and management,” he stated.

“Obviously we want to try to maximise our ODI status but our first priority is to keep improving as a team. If we play well, then we can attract better opponents. If we want to send a proposal to a bigger Test playing country, we have to be at their level.

“Our aim is of course, to rub shoulders with the big boys and if we keep improving as a team, I am sure we will get that chance soon enough. The only way to improve as a cricketer and as a team is to play against better opponents and teams. In the end, however, it will all comes down to the board.”

While retaining ODI status is high on the list for Khadka and Nepal, the ultimate dream is achieving Test status. The fervour for the game among the general populace is clear to see and one only has to look at the reception afforded to Sandeep Lamichhane after he became the first Nepalese player to bag an Indian Premier League (IPL) contract in 2018. As many as three franchise T20 leagues are already functioning in the country and all of them are privately owned. The appetite for the sport is clear to see among fans and sponsors alike with cricket quickly establishing itself as the sport of Nepal’s masses.

On the face of it, Nepal contains all the ingredients required to develop into the next Test playing force, although the obstacles to overcome are still substantial. Cricket infrastructure is still severely lacking in the country and a professional first-class cricket structure is a distant dream at the moment.

Administrative deficiencies and infighting have hampered progress in the past and this must be sorted out with a firm vision and strategy, if the long road towards Test cricket is to be trodden successfully.

For Khadka, Test status is very much a realistic proposition but the former captain insists that the work must start now.

“It is a 10-year dream from how I see it for us to become a Test playing country,” he said.

Still a long road ahead for Nepal.

Still a long road ahead for Nepal.

“But if you’re talking about a 10-year plan, the work has to start today itself. Obviously, there will be lots of challenges, lots of ups and downs. The most important thing is that we will have to keep performing on the field.

“We need to set up a lot of infrastructure within the country. It is clear that Nepalese people follow this game with so much craze and passion. We just need to now channel this energy in the right path. If everyone, including the Nepalese government, CAN and the ICC are on the same page, I believe there is a real possibility of achieving this dream.

“But we have to start today and lots of work needs to be done. There is no doubt that we have all the resources, it is about getting all these resources under one platform and vision. It is our biggest dream and for me, personally, it would be a lifetime dream come true to see Nepal as a Test playing country.”

Whether all the stakeholders can now come together to propel Nepal towards the next phase of its cricket revolution is now the most burning question. Despite uncertain times and futures, Khadka and Co have still managed to light the torch that has shown the path forward for Nepal. The all-rounder and his team-mates will no doubt continue to carry the Nepal flag high on the cricket pitch in the tournaments to come.

It is now up to the administration to back up the passion of Khadka and the team with a vision and plan that can make their greatest dreams come true.

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