Within days of the World T20 tickets going on sale, Nepal’s opening game was sold out.
Every time Nepal takes the field in the coming days in Bangladesh, their politicians will wear the team colours to parliament.
Players from Nepal might be brushing shoulders with the game’s top stars for the first time but the Himalayan nation’s love affair with cricket did not happen overnight.
Nepal’s captain Paras Khadka, who has been part of the national side since 2004, believes the team will take inspiration from the heroes’ welcome it received on arrival in Katmandu after qualifying for the World T20.
“We have an amazing number of fans back home. The fan-following, especially after we qualified for the World T20, matches up to any Test-playing nation’s,” Khadka said.
This is the second instance when cricket in Nepal has taken centrestage.
“When we played in the Under-19 World Cup in 2000, the nation was behind us. We rubbed shoulders with the Mohammad Kaif-led India side that included Yuvraj Singh. But we lost our way again as one of our main sponsors (an Indian media company) pulled out after promoting the game for a couple of years. But now, after qualifying for the World T20, we have regained lost ground,” said former Nepal player Aamir Akhtar, who was part of the Under-19 squad of 2000.
Akhtar is now director of the company that is launching the Nepal Premier League (NPL) and he believes the tournament will help promote the game in the region.
The NPL will be played at venues from Dhangadi in the far west, Biratnagar in the southeast and Rajbiraj close to the Indian border. Six corporate groups have invested in owning teams in a country where football remains the No.1 sport.
Unlike most smaller cricketing nations that bank on expatriates from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to form their teams, the Nepal story is different.
“All the players are Nepalese, there are no expatriates in our side and that makes our success unique. Us qualifying for the World T20 has revived interest in cricket in our nation. Our political leaders will be cheering for the team, along with the common fans. This has never happened before,” says Akhtar, an all-rounder in his playing days.
Nepal has also reached out for advice and support to their more experienced neighbours. Amrit Mathur, a former manager of the Indian team and secretary at the Sports Authority of India, is the international consultant of the Cricket Association of Nepal. Last year, Mathur helped arrange the senior Nepal team’s tour of India during which they were hosted by the Delhi and District Association and played matches against a DDCA XI.
“The Asian Cricket Council has also played a big role in developing the sport. The ACC have appointed a Sri Lankan coach (Pubudu Dassanayake), which has made a difference. The core of the current national squad has also played together for a long time. The ambassador of India to Nepal is also supporting cricket in Nepal,” Mathur said. Dassanayake’s experience of coaching Canada when they qualified for the 50-over World Cup in 2007 and 2011 came in handy.
However, the sport has a long way to go in terms of infrastructure, which makes the team’s qualification for the World T20 a struggle against the odds.
“Two years ago CAN drew up a plan to qualify for the World T20. The core group of players were given $250-$300 per month so that they could focus on cricket. That said, in terms of infrastructure we have a long way to go. There is only one turf wicket in the whole country, in Kathmandu,” Akhtar said.