It took a minor miracle to get them here.
Nepal landed in Harare this week ahead of the World Cup Qualifier having earned their spot at the tournament by the narrowest of margins. A series of nerve-shredding, last-ditch wins at World Cricket League Division 2 in Namibia last month, culminating that extraordinary 51-run last-wicket stand between Sandeep Lamichanne and Karan KC to pull off a last-ball victory over Canada in the de facto semi-final saw Paras Khadka’s side book their tickets to Zimbabwe. If it was perhaps not the likeliest outcome of that remarkable tournament, it was undoubtedly, from a purely utilitarian perspective, the happiest.
Though the lamentable decision to scale back the World Cup to ten teams means they would need a still more incredible performance over the coming weeks to claim one of the two qualifier spots on offer, with four Full Members and five higher-ranked Associates standing in their way, there is a rather more attainable, and arguably more important prize on offer for Nepal. The final standings in Zimbabwe at the end of the tournament will determine which three of Scotland, Hong Kong, PNG, the UAE and Nepal will be awarded One-Day International (ODI) status for the coming four years.
For these sides, this status is no mere badge of honour. The opportunities, both competitive and commercial, and the ICC funding that accompanies the award can entirely transform the nature of the game in a country that wins it, or loses it. Nepal finally find themselves by a combination of luck, skill and above all dogged determination, on the brink of breakthrough.
The structure of the tournament is such that a couple of wins at the group stage may be enough to secure that prize, or failing that, winning an all-or-nothing playoff match. They will have legions rooting for them. Their presence in Zimbabwe will more-or-less double the global interest in the tournament, at least if social media engagement is any measure. Nepal, you see, is no ordinary Associate.
On the field, by the improving standards of the top-level Associate circuit, they may look nothing special. A solid spin section that can be dangerous when conditions suit, a pair of skiddy and quickish seam bowlers, a perennial problem finding openers to top a busy but brittle batting line-up (the Division 2 final two weeks ago against the UAE was the first time they had posted 250+ in List A cricket), Nepal have never shown the easy dominance of Ireland or Afghanistan.
Their rise through the ranks of the World Cricket League, charting a course from 2010 Division 5 to the 2014 edition of the World Cup Qualifier, would at first shadow that of Asian rivals — now full members of the International Cricket Council (ICC) — but Nepal seemed to plateau well short of the top, bouncing between the lower end of the WCL Championship and Division 3 since then. But they do share one crucial thing in common with Afghanistan which sets them apart from their Associate peers — back home they are superstars.
Whilst away games at Ayr or Windhoek or Rotterdam are played in front of crowds that rarely reach three figures, back in Nepal they play in front of thousands of fans. When they returned from Namibia last month, they stepped off the plane to a hero’s welcome and an invitation to meet Prime Minister KP Oli, who duly dished out NPR 300,000 (about $3,000) to every member of the squad.
And grateful they certainly are, the seeping influence of Indian television coupled with occasional on-field success has seen the game grow to threaten football as the Himalayan Republic’s favourite sport. A Facebook group for Nepal cricket fans has almost half a million members — some three times what similar groups for the West Indies or Zimbabwe can boast.
They have not always had much to celebrate. Though Nepal have tasted success at global tournaments, besting Hong Kong and Afghanistan and coming tantalisingly close to reaching the main stage of the 2014 WorldT20, only to miss out on net run rate, they have never mustered the consistency on the field to keep pace with the top flight. They would hold onto the T20I status they earned in 2014 for just a few months before surrendering it at the 2015 WorldT20 qualifier, finishing 12th out of 14 teams with only a single win to their names.
Still more frustrating for Nepal’s fans, the efforts of Khadka and Co on the field have been consistently undermined by administrative shambles off it. It is not just their fanatical support that makes Nepal unique among the teams in Zimbabwe, they are also the only nation contesting the Qualifier that is not currently a member of the ICC, having been suspended since April 2016 on grounds of government interference in the game's administration.
Just months after the team's impressive showing at the 2014 WorldT20, some 18 members of the Cricket Association of Nepal's 33-member board, including then president Tanka Angbuhang Limbu, general-secretary Ashok Nath Pyakuryal and treasurer Raju Babu Shrestha, found themselves up on charges of embezzlement. All would eventually be acquitted, but not before the board had collapsed into factional infighting.
The government would step in to dissolve the board, replacing it with an ad-hoc committee headed by former CAN president Binaya Raj Pandey under the direction of the National Sports Council. The ICC, in turn, would suspend Nepal's Associate Membership early in 2016. Since that time the senior side has been permitted to participate in ICC events under the auspices of the ICC directly, Pandey heading a new advisory committee and former CAN CEO Bhawana Ghimire taking on the role of ICC representative.
The situation is far from ideal, yet even in the absence of direction from the national board, or perhaps because of it, more cricket is being played in Nepal than ever. If the ICC’s indulgence has saved the national programme from international purgatory, the market has stepped in to rescue the domestic scene. Even before the NSC set up a replacement 50-over league in the form of the Prime Minister Cup, private T20 leagues were springing up to meet the countries new-found demand.
The re-christened Nepal Premiere League, now the Everest Premiere League, has met with greater success under the new moniker, even attracting some foreign talent in its second season — with Hong Kong skipper Babar Hayat winning Man of the Tournament award, whilst the rival Dhangadhi Premier League is also gearing up for its second season next month.
Yet market forces cannot fully compensate for a lack of central direction. Facilities in the country are left to decay, going untended for months at a time and poorly managed during the playing season, or even falling prey to developers seeking to re-purpose them. At least one ground in Chitwan has already been paved over and another in Pokhara is at risk. Plans for a new stadium at Dhangadhi, a local initiative, remain stalled for now, though organisers remain optimistic.
The national team itself suffered to a degree from the inevitable overly conservative selection that comes from the absence of an independent selection panel, though in this at least there have been signs of a turnaround. The squad that won through in Namibia reflected an increased willingness to draw on the burgeoning player pool that had brought Nepal such success at age-group level, and in teenaged legspinner Sandeep Lamichanne, recently contracted to the Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League and St Kitts & Nevis Patriots in the Caribbean Premier League, they may soon have a truly global star.
It's fair to say that Nepal are a long shot to make the Super Sixes at this Qualifier, much less the final. Yet for all their failings both on and off the field, they remain a solid bet for next Full Member of the ICC. Looking back at Ireland's decades-long campaign for a seat at the Test Table, four factors can be seen as key to getting there — on field dominance, professional organisation, popular enthusiasm, and money — yet the comparative rapidity of Afghanistan’s rise gives a hint of which of the four is the more important.
Nepal have never qualified for an ICC Cricket World Cup. They're not likely to qualify for this one. That, of course, would take another miracle. But it's the sort of miracle that is bound to happen eventually, if enough people keep believing.