Bhawana Ghimire took over a cricket board that was, for decades, rooted in patriarchy and aristocracy
Bhawana Ghimire took over a cricket board that was, for decades, rooted in patriarchy and aristocracy
Nepal's first CEO was seen as a pioneer but lofty plans have come to naught in the face of a shambolic cricket board
In the euphoria of Nepal's widely broadcasted wins against Hong Kong and Afghanistan in the 2014 World T20 in Bangladesh, cricket captured the nation's imagination. Here was a sport that the country could compete in at the elite level, a team that could do the proud nation some good. Not long after, Nepal was granted T20 international status, raising hopes of seeing them play more regularly on the international stage.
Suddenly everyone was a cricket fan. Games of cricket started popping up in backyards and open spaces. The sport became a regular topic of conversation in teashops and bars. The popularity of cricket fuelled hope that a proper domestic league would finally be set up. Looking into the future, cricket fans saw Nepal playing ODIs, and eventually Test cricket, on a regular basis.
A few months after Nepal's remarkable performance in Bangladesh, and under pressure from the ICC to professionalise its management, the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) hired 31-year-old Bhawana Ghimire as its first CEO. When news of her appointment filtered out, it was greeted with both fanfare and scepticism. Was she the best choice? Was she a political pawn? People were excited to see a new face, a young face, at a time when the CAN board was overseen by the 83-year-old Tarini Bikram Shah. To top it off, a woman had been appointed to professionalise a sporting institution that had, for all of Shah's eight decades, been rooted in patriarchy and aristocracy. Was it even possible?
Despite CAN's entrenched problems and notoriously storied politics, Ghimire had no hesitation in taking on the job. "I anticipated challenges," she said to me in February. "But cricket has so much potential in Nepal and I felt that I could contribute to make it the biggest sport in Nepal."
Six months into the job Ghimire presented the plan to the board. It was never approved. "I don't know if anyone even read it"
Ghimire instantly became a celebrity. Her mandate included maintaining communications with the Asian Cricket Council (ACC), ICC, and Nepal's governing bodies; running the CAN office; and reaching out to sponsors and other stakeholders for the promotion of cricket. Leveraging her new-found fame, Ghimire consistently pushed her agenda of professionalising cricket. She worked closely with Pubudu Dassanayake, the former Sri Lanka wicketkeeper-turned-Nepal coach, to draft a 70-page five-year plan.
Six months into the job she presented the plan to the board. It was never approved. "I don't know if anyone even read it," she says with sadness.
Taking on responsibility has been a cornerstone of Ghimire's upbringing. The oldest of three siblings, she raised her brother and sister in Kathmandu after they moved from their parental village in Arghakhanchi. She was in sixth grade at the time.
"It was the first time I had seen or ridden a bus. It was all new to me," she says, before going silent and reflective. "I guess I left my childhood in the village. My mother stayed back in the village and when my father was at work, I had to be the responsible one. My father enrolled me in Padma Kanya Higher Secondary School, and I remember, on the third day I went to school all by myself. It sounds trivial now, but that day, after I got home, I felt like I had become an independent woman."
Ghimire isn't an imposing figure but she carries herself with measured confidence. She is smartly dressed in a suit, and her eyes hold a steady resolve, a trait she has relied on when dealing with the mighty men of CAN. Unlike most Nepali girls, who are raised to be obedient wives, Ghimire grew up in a household that encouraged her to be freethinking and independent. "It's always been like that with my family," she shrugs. "I was given the freedom to choose what I studied and what I did. I never had to think about things in a gendered sense until I got this job."
Ghimire and her staff at work at an office at the Tribhuvan University ground
© Niranjan Shrestha
Ghimire and her staff at work at an office at the Tribhuvan University ground © Niranjan Shrestha
Growing up in Kathmandu, Ghimire dreamt of working in a bank. For many young Nepalis growing up in the 1990s, banks were an oasis of professionalism in an economy that was mostly informal. Pursuing her dream, she got a Bachelors in business administration in Kathmandu and then an MBA in banking and finance from the University of Wales in Bangor. After working in a bank in Nepal for a few months, she moved to Bahrain to join an asset management company.
"By then traditional banking had lost its charm on me and I wanted to do something new," she explains. For the next three and a half years, she had the opportunity to work on a number of sports events and the acquisition of some sporting companies. "I did a lot of research on sports clubs. I studied football clubs and some IPL clubs and came to know how sports clubs operated."
At a time when many Nepalis were actively seeking to leave the country in search of greener pastures, Ghimire chose to return to Kathmandu in 2010. "Well, I always knew I would come back and I always intended on coming back," she says laughing. "I had a dream of coming back to Nepal and establishing my own company."
Four years on, she got the call from CAN.
When I first met Ghimire, in February, Nepal were playing in the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh while the two CAN boards, both contesting legitimacy, were mired in a court battle. As we talked, we saw the Nepal top order crumble against Pakistan. We were sitting in a corporate-looking office and the game was being shown on a large flat-screen TV in the lobby. "This is my husband's office," she revealed in the lull between overs. "We can't work out of the CAN office since there is nothing there - no computers, no Wi-Fi."
The last sport to capture the national psyche was football in the late 1980s and 1990s. Most of its aspirations died within a political quagmire
Nepal tumbled to 29 for 4 in the tenth over, chasing 259. "Our boys are inexperienced," Ghimire stated, more to console herself. "They've hardly gotten any training or serious coaching."
I suggested that the U-19 team must be extremely talented to have beaten New Zealand and Ireland on their way to the quarter-finals. "Raw talent, but from here on if they don't get the kind of support and training that the New Zealand and Ireland players will get, they won't be able to keep up." She felt responsible for making sure that they kept up.
The team also had to put up with a dysfunctional CAN. "This whole tour is running on credit," she said, exasperated. "The players and coaches are having to spend their own money to represent their country."
The energy and love for the game among players and fans has encouraged the ACC and ICC to continue to support Nepal. On a number of occasions, international boards have gone to great lengths to overlook CAN's politics and ensure Nepal's teams could participate in tournaments. Yet Nepal cricket's current predicament is not unexpected. The last sport to capture the national psyche was football in the late 1980s and 1990s. Most of its aspirations died within a political quagmire. When the president of the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) was suspended over charges of corruption in last year's FIFA scandal, no one raised an eyebrow.
To understand the latest twist in the CAN story one must go back to December last year, when the National Sports Council (NSC), citing procedural inconsistencies, refused to recognise the newly elected CAN board. The NSC appointed its own 15-member board under a different leadership - which led to a court case that is currently held up in the Supreme Court. With the fate of CAN stuck in the courts for months, the ICC board stepped in on April 26 and suspended CAN's membership, until "CAN becomes free of government interference and is properly structured to begin exploiting the tremendous cricket talent and opportunities that exist in Nepal". However, the ICC board stated that it would allow the national team to continue featuring in ICC events, and retained Ghimire to oversee cricket operations.
Madhu Tamang, the head groundsman of the TU Cricket Ground, was not paid for months. He would water the pitch at his own expense
© Niranjan Shrestha
Madhu Tamang, the head groundsman of the TU Cricket Ground, was not paid for months. He would water the pitch at his own expense © Niranjan Shrestha
Ghimire helped the ICC coordinate Nepal's visit to the Netherlands for two games in August this year, as part of its World Cricket League (WCL) Championship. Nepal lost the first match by seven wickets but bounced back to win the second by 19 runs. In preparation for these matches, the ICC helped organise a tour of England in July, where Nepal beat the Marylebone Cricket Club in front of over 5000 adoring fans at Lord's.
In her quest to professionalise CAN, Ghimire has required incredible patience. Four to six presidents - depending on whom you consider legitimate - passed through CAN during her tenure. She worked under a board beset by court cases, infighting, and periodic bank freezes, combined with increased media scrutiny. While there have been marked improvements in the last year and a half, the instability of the board has meant progress has been tentative. When annual contracts for the players were announced in January last year, it was greeted with unanimous approval as a move towards professionalising the sport. With CAN operationally defunct, these contracts are yet to be renewed.
The two Nepal-Namibia games in April, part of the WCL Championship, were shrouded in uncertainty for many months. The ICC confirmed the venue a month before the games, only after deciding to take over all administrative responsibilities. Nepal won both matches and record numbers turned out to watch, but the spectre of a deadweight cricket board hung over the games.
"Our competitors have their cricket calendar set for the next two, three, five years. We don't know what we will be doing in two months"
About a month before the matches were to be played, I sat on a concrete pipe that serves as a bench in Kathmandu Cricket Training Center (KCTC) and waited for Gyanendra Malla, Nepal's vice-captain. KCTC occupies a small space two kilometres north of Nepal's premier cricket stadium - the Tribhuvan University (TU) Cricket Ground. Five teenage boys were singing old Hindi film love songs, chatting and laughing as they took turns bowling and batting in the nets.
Malla was easy-going and personable. His words came easy and precise. Watching him on TV doesn't give you the sense of how imposingly built he is and how his persona can fill the room. I asked him how the turmoil in CAN was affecting the team. "It affects Nepali cricket for sure, makes everything difficult, but it doesn't really affect our morale," he explained. "When we started, playing for our country was enough. That reason for playing has not changed."
When I brought up the issue of contracts, he shrugged. "They haven't renewed it, but it's not like we were not playing when we didn't have contracts." So what was the biggest fallout from the CAN drama, I asked. "We don't have a permanent coach and we don't have a cricket calendar," Malla said. "We can't plan anything in advance. Our competitors have their cricket calendar set for the next two, three, five years. We don't know what we will be doing in two months. It makes it incredibly hard for us to prepare for our upcoming matches."
Kathmandu hosted two games of the WCL Championship in April. Nepal beat Namibia in both, in front of packed crowds
© Madhu Tamang and Bhawana Ghimire
Kathmandu hosted two games of the WCL Championship in April. Nepal beat Namibia in both, in front of packed crowds © Madhu Tamang and Bhawana Ghimire
The national team's recent on-field success has meant access to larger pots of international funds, larger allocations within the national budget, and larger sponsorship deals. This has also meant that power brokers and politicians have come circling, like scavengers around carrion. Like with every other sport and industry in the country, the dreams of Nepali cricket have long been held hostage by the power of a few.
I asked Malla what he thought about the way the sport was governed. "What we really need is a change in mentality," he said. "We need people to come into cricket thinking of what they can give to the sport, not what they can take from it."
The players aren't alone in bearing the brunt of the administrative mess. Later that day I met Madhu Tamang, the head groundsman of the TU Cricket Ground, and found that he hadn't been paid for four months. This was in March, when the country was reeling from an acute shortage of fuel and cooking gas, and facing political turmoil. In the Madhes, the flat lowlands in the south, protesters unhappy with the country's new constitution had blocked all roads to Kathmandu. The government ignored their demands and blamed India for the fuel crisis. This sparked a strong wave of unitary nationalism, which the government exploited to violently suppress the protesters. Over 50 people lost their lives.
When annual contracts were announced in January last year it was greeted with unanimous approval. With CAN operationally defunct, these contracts are yet to be renewed
Tamang was confident that his 13-member team would eventually get paid. He had witnessed a number of upheavals in CAN and not getting paid during such "transitions" had become routine. I asked how he managed to maintain the ground when CAN was defunct and the nation was reeling under a fuel crisis. "I was getting some fuel from the office," he said, "but recently I've been buying it off the black market." For someone who had not drawn a salary for four months, to go out and purchase 15 litres of petrol - at an exorbitant rate of about US$5 a litre - to water a pitch is as heroic as it is foolhardy. It is also very Nepali.
When I asked Ghimire what would allow the players, groundsmen and their support teams to be able to do their jobs without being held hostage by the politics of the board, she had a clear road map in mind. "We need to reform the way cricket is managed in Nepal. We need a board that defines guidelines for management, sets financial controls, and then allows management to run day-to-day operations. We have a three-year agreement with Nepal Telecom for a yearly NPR 15.5 million (or about $155,000) sponsorship deal to support a T20 league and a domestic league [the biggest deal in Nepal sports], but without a governing body, we haven't been able to act!"
Ghimire also sold exclusive television rights for international cricket matches to Nepal TV for NPR 1.8 million per year (about $18,000) but the lack of cricket has been a major turn-off for potential sponsors. "It's very easy for sponsors to shift from cricket to football in Nepal," Ghimire said. "If we can't deliver games, they will start shifting."
Gyanendra Malla: "We need people to come into cricket thinking of what they can give to the sport, not what they can take from it"
Gyanendra Malla: "We need people to come into cricket thinking of what they can give to the sport, not what they can take from it" © AFP
The turmoil in CAN has meant that Nepal cricket has been unable to secure grants of upwards of a million dollars from the ICC. And even that, according to Ghimire, would not be sufficient. "We need to raise at least another million dollars in sponsorship on top of the ICC funding," she said. "That's how much we would need to really develop our domestic league and improve the standard of Nepali cricket."
Does she think that is possible? "Absolutely! We have a great team and raw talent. We can host a domestic league, T20 tournaments, one-day tournaments, U-21, U-19, women's and college tournaments. This is not even considering the scope of international matches and tournaments in Nepal. Each of these have to be developed. Each can have their own sponsors. But we need to build a system that can manage and run it."
Early in July, with CAN's court case set to continue, Ghimire officially tendered her resignation to the NSC. She said that she would continue to work under the ICC to oversee operations for Nepal's national teams. In an interview to onlinekhabar.com, she spoke about her inability to fulfil her role as CEO. "With two CAN boards, some say I am the CEO, others deny it. This means that even as CEO, I can't do anything. I can neither pay the players nor the employees. I can neither secure sponsorship nor run domestic tournaments."
Nepal is fortunate that the ICC and ACC retain great hope for cricket in the country. There is a crop of players, coaching and support staff who are willing to give their sweat and time for pride and honour alone. But fortune and volunteer efforts won't stand the test of time. If cricket is to be a consistent feature of the country's sports leagues and if they are to field a team that challenges for international honours, the people who claim to own the keys to Nepal cricket's governing body must match the spirit of the players who have done this nation proud.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.