Thursday, June 13, 2024

Nepal joins the T20 cricket jamboree, with team anthems, unrealistic fans, escapist dreams and reasonable skills in tow

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The last 16 months have been a journey to remember for a lifetime for Nepal cricket. So much so that in Nepal’s pop culture, their cricket team has become hot property with a couple of leading artists from the Himalayan country, releasing albums for them. To put things in perspective, just like how ‘Rally Round the West Indies’ and ‘Dil, Dil, Pakistan’ would be blaring out of the speakers when the former champions walk on to the field, Nepal will have its own “Hami Nepali” sung by Tanka Timilsina and Anita Chalaune.

At home, the Rhinos (the nickname of the team) are treated like superheroes that their coach Monty Desai has to keep reminding them every day that it isn’t strictly the reality. Growing up in India, Desai has seen masses being totally consumed by cricket in the 80s and 90s. But the scenes in Nepal are a lot different. “It is just unbelievable,” he says.

Roddy Estwick, the bowling coach that Desai brought in to assist during the T20 World Cup, even relates to the scenes he grew up watching back in Barbados. “With me, when I see the youth filling up the stadium, standing on top of trees, buildings in the vicinity, it reminds me of what we used to see in the Caribbean back in the 80s. Just pure passion. And more importantly, cricket is the only good distraction they have, to put behind all difficulties they face in life,” Estwick says.

Nepal's fans cheer for their team during an ICC Men's T20 World Cup cricket match against the Netherlands at Grand Prairie Stadium in Grand Prairie, Texas Nepal’s fans cheer for their team during an ICC Men’s T20 World Cup cricket match against the Netherlands at Grand Prairie Stadium in Grand Prairie, Texas. (AP)

So it is not just Timilsina and Chalaune, who are trying to milk mileage out of cricket, which is right now the flavour of the town. There are other artists too, who have chipped in with their own tracks, just to associate themselves with the Nepal team. “We as a country are going through a lot. And cricket is the only solace,” Suvam Koirala, a 19-year-old college student pursuing his bachelors degree in Kathmandu says. “As a country there is not much happiness. We are not a developed country, and there is little to do because of the constraints we face. All of us face hardships and even our cricketers have got this far overcoming plenty of challenges. They don’t even get a good landscape to play the sport. And now, they happen to be our faces at the world level,” Koirala adds.

It is this emotional connection that has brought about a rebirth of cricket in Nepal. In 2014, when they made the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh, Nepal was full of promise and hope. But due to the interference of the government into the Cricket Association of Nepal’s functioning, they slipped so badly from the Associates ladder that climbing back to this point has taken them 10 years.

Festive offer

“We feel there is a definite vision now,” Desai says. “The cricketing journey is uniting the nation. From a six-year-old to a 60-year-old, when Nepal play in Kathmandu, everyone turns up at the ground. It seems like everything happens for a purpose because a majority of the current team picked up the sport after being inspired by their qualification in 2014,” he adds.

These days, at the Tribhuvan College ground, which hosts Nepal’s international fixtures, it has become a common sight to witness fans line-up outside the gates from 5 am for a T20 game that starts at 12.30 pm. “We are emotionally attached to the team now. Be it boys or girls or men or women. When we are playing here, people don’t mind even losing out on income and come and watch the team play. It is the only team we have to support in the global arena. And it is the only sport that unites us all,” Koirala says.

Nepal fans cheer for their team during an ICC Men's T20 World Cup cricket match between Nepal and the Netherlands at Grand Prairie Stadium in Grand Prairie, Texas Nepal fans cheer for their team during an ICC Men’s T20 World Cup cricket match between Nepal and the Netherlands at Grand Prairie Stadium in Grand Prairie, Texas. (AP)

And invariably when the team returns home from an overseas tour, especially the Qualifiers, they are accorded a grand welcome. From flex boards to open top bus journeys and garlands, Desai has seen it all. “They are living a collective dream. They want to do it for the people as well. And what I’ve seen is, it makes them responsible too. They are fighters. They like to safeguard their territory. The fierce competition is definitely there. They have the desire. They want a direction. That is what strikes me about them,” Desai says.

At the T20 World Cup, Nepal will be the youngest team, with their average age being 23.66. It was the path that Desai was keen to take, after coming on board as coach in 2023 February. With half a dozen players whom he coached at the 2017 Under-19 World Cup forming the core, Desai is now focussing on building a team for the future.

“They have a grinding journey ahead. They have the skills, but you need to be consistent at the top level. They are familiar with the conditions and opponents at the Associate level. But in the next step, they need to ensure they don’t fall behind other teams. In the defeats, that is what we keep telling them. Obviously, their inexperience will show, but they have to ride the tide,” Desai says.

SL vs NEP 2024, T20 World Cup 2024 Match Today Live Telecast: Nepal will take on Sri Lanka on Wednesday. Nepal’s Sompal Kami, center, celebrates after he ran out the Netherland’s Sybrand Engelbrecht for 14 runs during an ICC Men’s T20 World Cup cricket match at Grand Prairie Stadium in Grand Prairie, Texas. (AP)

The enthusiasm levels back home in Nepal are such that, when the team left for Miami in the first week of May, fans gathered at the Kathmandu airport demanding nothing but the trophy on return. “Their expectations are not realistic. But it shows they are chasing a dream. And the journey is going to be long. It doesn’t reflect where we stand. We have played some cricket in the last 15 months, showed some good skills. If we play to our potential, then we can definitely compete well. If we compete well, there is a chance you can get over the line in T20s,” Desai says.

As far as keeping emotions and expectations in check are concerned, Desai ensures outside noise doesn’t influence the dressing room. “We keep reminding them. It is important even for the players to understand that they have not achieved anything. We keep telling them to take all of it (the celebrations) with pinch of salt. The ground reality is the same,” Desai adds.

Nepal after losing their first game against the Netherlands by six wickets will take on Sri Lanka on Wednesday.

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