It was the kids that did it.
After months, arguably years, of conservative and stagnant selection, persisting with an established but ossified old guard, Nepal took a chance on youth — taking the youngest squad at the tournament to World Cricket League Division 2 in Namibia last month.
It paid off and then some. Rohit Kumar Paudel was just 15 years and four months old when he called up for the pre-tour training camp ahead of old stalwarts like Sagar Pun and Binod Bhandari. Sandeep Lamichanne, man of the tournament in Namibia, is just two years his senior. Lamichanne is set to be the first Nepali to play in the Indian Premiere league, Paudel may well become the youngest player ever to feature in a men’s ODI.
Together with captain Paras Khadka, it was Paudel and Lamichhane who, more than anyone, got them to the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe and the brink of ODI breakthrough. Lamichanne took 17 wickets at WCL Division 2 and was involved in two crucial and indeed barely believable match-winning last-wicket stands. Paudel was second-highest run scorer behind Khadka.
Khadka himself made his debut as a teenager, he just 16 when he first appeared for the senior side against Malaysia back in 2004. Since then he has barely missed a game over his 14-year career, and remains indispensable to the team. He has helmed the side since 2009, making him one of the longest-serving captains in international cricket not to mention probably the finest all-round cricketer currently active in internationals never to have played an ODI.
He cuts a patrician figure both on and off the field. A head taller than most of his teammates, writing eloquently on occasion, soft spoken and considered in interviews, in short a natural leader. Nonetheless Khadka had been under pressure from the Nepali press ahead of the tournament, both for his over-rigid captaincy and conservative selection policy.
With the Cricket Association of Nepal currently suspended from the ICC, Khadka is a key voice in the three-person selection committee that currently picks the squad. It is fair to say that in putting faith in new faces he contributed as much to Nepal’s success over the last six weeks as he did with bat or ball.
Though Khadka remains the rock upon which Nepali cricket is built, it was the youngsters that got them to within one win of ODI status, Lamichanne took them through WCL Division 2, and young Paudel’s assured, unbeaten 48 that saw them home against Hong Kong at Bulawayo on Tuesday. That win set up a showdown with Papua New Guinea which, though neither side knew it for sure ahead of or even immediately after the game, would decide which of the two would enjoy ODI status for the next four years.
Dipendra Singh Airee, a comparative veteran at 18 years old, would be the star on the day. After Lamichanne had made a mess of the PNG middle order, Airee ran through the tail. Reading the conditions like a seasoned veteran, Airee mixed his pace expertly, varying between flattish off-spinners, pushing through arm balls and changing up with cutters and the occasional effort ball to rush the batsmen. He took four wickets on the trot, finishing with 4-17 in 4.2 overs as PNG collapsed to 114 all out.
Nepal stumbled into the chase, losing both openers in the first three overs to bring Airee to the crease at 2-13. Khadka looked to take control, smashing Alei Nao for 16 runs off a single over before holing out to mid-on in the next to leave Airee with 80 runs to get with an inexperienced middle order for company. In times past Nepal might have wilted under such pressure, but this was a new Nepali side in more ways than one.
Airee stepped up, with support from Aarif Shiekh and Paudel, he first settled the innings and then finished in style, stepping out to launch Norman Vanua for a towering six over over long on and into the bushes, to bring up his fifty and seal the win. It would be enough in the end, though Nepal didn’t know it yet. Should Hong Kong, chasing just 174 and only two wickets down at the time, best the Netherlands down in Kwekwe, Nepal would face another all-or-nothing showdown two days later.
With post-match presentations done, Airee inevitably Man of the Match, the players gathered in their tent to glare at mobile phone screens. They could only watch, as their fans had all day, by nervously refreshing the live scorecard that served as the world’s only connection to events in KweKwe. The cheer that erupted from that tent about 10 minutes later could mean one thing to those in the know &mdash' Anshuman Rath was out.
Rath would be the first of Roelof van der Merwe’s four wickets, a match-winning performance that sealed Nepal’s status as the 16th ODI nation. By that time, the Nepal team were back at the Meikles Hotel, still glued to their screens. The final three wickets would fall in just one over, and the celebrations could begin both at Meikles and across the world.
What exactly it is that they are celebrating remains rather hazy, however. ODI status itself is little more than decorative in the Associate scheme of things, carrying with it no automatic increase in ICC funding nor access to competitions. As Russel Degnan noted on Twitter, Hong Kong and PNG — who will give up their ODI status come Sunday — have enjoyed it for fully four years without either playing a single ODI against full member opposition outside of ICC tournaments.
As Khadka observed in a brief post-match conversation, Nepal’s schedule after the Qualifier is “a bit of a wilderness”. Paudel has just over two months to play an ODI if he is to take Hasan Raza’s record for youngest player. By rights he should be playing one on Saturday, but in practice it’s unlikely he will meet the deadline. Given the uncertainty surrounding the future of the World Cricket League and Intercontinental Cup, it is in fact entirely unclear where Nepal’s next competitive 50-over cricket match is coming from.
Unlike most Associates, however, Nepal can probably afford to wait; cricket is flourishing in the shadow of the Himalayas. And while the national team may still rely on the indulgence of the ICC and suffer from the lack of central direction, the enthusiasm of their fans — who turn out in their thousands to cheer them on when given the chance — is a firmer foundation for the game in Nepal than status or funding could ever provide.
“If we get things in the right place, in terms of management, over the next 8-10 years, maybe.” Khadka said when I asked him about the dream of Nepal’s first Test Match. Airee is 18 years old. Lamichanne is 17, Paudel just 15.
They will be in their prime.