Nepal fans celebrate

Give us a shout: in times of political instability, cricket has brought smiles to several Nepalis, and the fan following for the game is increasing

© Getty Images


Nepal climbs a mountain

Few things have united the country in hope like cricket has. And the driving force is the remarkable activism of its players

Pranab Man Singh  |  

It is getting to 11 in the morning and the mid-May temperature is creeping past 40°C. Kumar, as he calls himself, runs a food cart with a small gas stove. This morning he heard a rickshaw going around, playing a cassette on repeat, promoting an event. He thought he might make some money by coming out here, to "the middle of nowhere". Kumar is already out of eggs. He started the day with 48. Everyone is waiting for the cricket.

I am sitting under a cluster of young trees with a group of boys I have just befriended. We are grateful for the shade and the light breeze that rustles through the leaves. In front of us is Fapla Cricket Ground, the first regulation-size cricket field in Dhangadhi, a town by the Indian border in far western Nepal. A bamboo scaffold holds up two screens of black cloth behind the wickets. Purple and white triangular boards emblazoned with the tournament sponsor's logo surround the ground. On a small purple stage the inauguration show for the Nepal Premier League (NPL) begins with a pop star launching into song.

From where we sit, we can't make out the numbers on the small scoreboard propped against a colourful tent. There are probably 200 chairs spread between three tents, one each for players, VIPs and journalists. The bulk of the spectators, most under the age of 20, gather under the trees where I sit. The only girls around are wearing the sponsor's purple. The toilets are all natural and behind hedges.

The boys don't know much about what is happening, but they do know that the purple is where their cell phone money goes: the tournament is sponsored by Ncell, a private mobile operator. Each of the NPL's six teams is owned by a corporate house, one of them by Nepal's biggest media group, yet none of the matches is being telecast, or aired on radio. But two or three, maybe four or five, websites are scoring online, and the ubiquity of cell phones means Nepalis are increasingly switching from the traditional medium, radio, to Twitter and Facebook for updates. At the ground, the matches are free to watch.

Shakti Gauchan is giving something back to the game through the academy he has set up in his home town

Shakti Gauchan is giving something back to the game through the academy he has set up in his home town © Getty Images

I had flown to Dhangadhi assuming that I would witness history unfold. Following Nepal's heart-warming show at the World T20 this year, where they won two of their three matches, the NPL was supposed to usher in a new era of domestic cricket. But the Nepali league has come with its share of controversy. On the eve of the tournament, the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) issued a press statement announcing that it was pulling out of the NPL.

Yet today, the president of CAN, Tanka Angbuhang, and Yuvaraj Lama, the member secretary of the National Sports Council (NSC) - which oversees more than 138 sporting associations, including CAN - are together inaugurating the 50-over competition. They shrug off the press release. Already, even before a ball is bowled, it is possible to see three things: politics are an inextricable part of Nepali cricket; there is enough corporate interest in Nepal to support a domestic league; and people all over the country want cricket to be played in their home towns.

In the afternoon, as the Vishal Group Warriors crumble under the onslaught of the Sagarmatha Legends in the tournament's first encounter, I meet Santosh Shahi, the man responsible for bringing the NPL to Dhangadhi. "We built this cricket ground over the past two months," he tells me. "We got the Dhangadhi Municipality to build the road to the ground. We got them to pull an electric supply line. We convinced the community forest user group here to lease us this land. I think they will see the economic benefits of the lease. This is the biggest sporting event this town has ever hosted."

Taking cricket outside the nation's capital is a matter of pride for Aamir Akhtar, whose firm, Zohra Sports Management, owns the NPL brand. "We're trying to decentralise cricket," he says. To his credit, the NPL made a fair effort of including cricketers from the Under-19 and regional teams, and held open trials where an estimated 1500 young men turned out and several got through to the final squads. Akhtar himself is a former Nepal player. Some of Nepal's best cricketers, including Akhtar and Mahaboob Alam, the first bowler to take all ten wickets in an Associate match, have come from the Muslim community.

I ask Shahi, who was also the man behind the Dhangadhi Cricket Academy, what his town of 100,000 people stands to gain from the NPL.

"The tournament gave us this ground," he says. "Now our teams can play here. Before this was built, we'd have to take over the football field." I ask him whether he will make money from the venture. He smiles. "I've been losing money. Maybe in the future people will start paying to come watch matches? For now, I do it for the love of the game."

The cricket team gave citizens something no other sport in sports-crazy Nepal has really given: a chance to cheer their country on the global stage

Shahi's words reflect a popular, and deep, sentiment in Nepal today. Rarely does a sport take on a role bigger than the game it plays. Yet there are times when a sporting team can embody a bigger idea and represent a greater force. From the qualifiers for the World T20 in the UAE in 2013 to the main tournament in Bangladesh this spring, cricket gave Nepal its closest experience of such a moment. Amid the broken promises of a peace process, an inability to articulate an inclusive constitution, disillusionment with development, mass migrations abroad, and fractures along ethnic lines, a nation pining for hope saw in cricket a unified vision of what could be. The moment had been a long time in the making.

Cricket entered Nepal in the kitbags of the Rana aristocracy, educated in various parts of the British Empire. In 1946 the aristocracy established the Cricket Association of Nepal. After the fall of the Ranas in 1951 and the subsequent royal takeover in 1961, the association came under the National Sports Council of the Ministry of Sports. While the association was controlled by aristocrats batting for the king, cricket began to trickle down to the people through a two-tiered domestic league.

By 1996, Nepal was an Associate member of the ICC, and a more equitable but smaller single-tier domestic structure consisting of nine regional teams had been established. Players were selected competitively, and by 1998, cricket infrastructure had improved to a level that Nepal could host the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) Trophy.

Of greater significance were broadcasts of international matches from the 1970s onwards on radio, and after the 1990s, on television. When Sri Lanka won the 1996 World Cup, the victory was beamed throughout Nepal, and perhaps played the biggest role in imprinting the game on the minds of future cricketers. What had begun as a frivolous pastime for aristocratic rulers was on its way to becoming the sport that represented the state of democratic Nepal.

Taking to the streets: cricket has come to be an expression of freedom for Nepal's youth

Taking to the streets: cricket has come to be an expression of freedom for Nepal's youth © Associated Press

Two generations of the Nepali cricket team from the mid-'90s onwards grew out of boyhood aspirations of becoming Laras, Tendulkars, Warnes and McGraths. It was passion alone that allowed them to perform beyond the antiquated structures of the country's cricket management. In playing with their hearts, in becoming better with each game, they were beginning to capture the imagination of an entire nation.

This steady rise culminated in Nepal's qualification for the first round of the 2014 World T20. The team, composed primarily of second-generation cricketers, became heroes. They showed a nation what a group of young and dedicated men could achieve even within the corroded structures of Nepali governance.

These cricketers are unlike any of the nation's past heroes. They are articulate and speak as a team. They know where they are and who they are. It is a clout they have not hesitated to use. Their recent demands for reform and change in Nepali cricket have resonated with a people who experience variations of the same challenge in their own professions on a daily basis. Ask any Nepali and he or she will agree that the team is composed of doers rather than schemers. They capture the voice of Nepali youth - seeking to act even under the weight of corruption and red tape.

Cricket in Nepal is a growing passion. From the high hills to the southern plains, you cannot walk through vacant lots or grounds without seeing young boys thoroughly engrossed in the game. Cheap plastic and rubber balls substitute for the cricket ball, a wooden plank or a plastic pipe takes on the role of a bat, a stack of bricks or three crooked branches make up the stumps. I have seen so many young boys, alone and focused, bowling and fetching, fetching and bowling, repeatedly for hours, as they hone their skills targeting makeshift stumps. In my own teenage years in the '90s, in the absence of any formal cricket, my friends and cousins spent countless hours playing in fallow paddy fields and on dirt roads. When we were not playing, we were looking for bigger fields, better pitches or opposing teams.

Early this June, with a hint of monsoon in the air, I found myself observing a peculiar sight in the touristic town centre of Pokhara in western Nepal. A football field by the majestic Fewa Lake had been converted into a cricket field, encircled by bamboo poles, each fitted with a halogen light. A small crowd had come out after the evening showers to watch the eight-overs, seven-a-side games.

"Until I put on the Nepali team jersey I had planned on trying my luck in India. Then it hit me that I was representing 30 million people, my country" Shakti Gauchan

I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the teams playing was from Baglung, a hill town two hours north of Pokhara, from where I had just come down. There I had met the Baglung captain, Bijay BK, who is in his early twenties. BK is short for Biswhokarma, denoting he is from a Dalit family who were traditionally iron workers. I had asked Bijay about his cricket career. "Pokhara is the regional centre for cricket here, so we go there quite often," he explained. "But for someone from Baglung it is hard to break into the regional team. Since Pokhara controls who gets selected, they prefer the locals." He was disappointed that CAN's regional administrators in Pokhara had not informed them about the NPL trials.

Bijay's team won their match beside the lake in Pokhara. I congratulated him and his grinning team members. In Baglung, Bijay had claimed his team of un-coached part-timers was better than Pokhara's best XI. I had asked him about the state of cricket in the hills. "I don't know about other places, but in Baglung they're crazy about the game," he said. "We don't even have a proper cricket ground, but you can see children playing everywhere. Cricket bats and balls have taken over vacant lots and school grounds. They all want to become cricket stars like Paras!"

Paras Khadka, captain of the Nepal cricket team, is 27 and one of the most charismatic sports celebrities the country has ever seen. In mid-June, the peak of Kathmandu's summer, I met Khadka at the Hotel Crown Plaza in the bustling city centre, where the national team holes up during its intensive camps. The garden was small and the restaurant empty. The polycarbonate roofing above tinged everything around us blue.

The voice of Nepal cricket: Paras Khadka (far left) has never been shy of speaking up on behalf of the country's players

The voice of Nepal cricket: Paras Khadka (far left) has never been shy of speaking up on behalf of the country's players © Getty Images

"I never had any formal training as such, I just loved cricket and kept playing it," Khadka told me. "I never had a dream of playing cricket for Nepal. Maybe now kids growing up do, but that just wasn't part of our imagination." When he was in ninth grade, Khadka's school took part in an inter-school competition. The tournament was part of the selection process for the Kathmandu regional team. Khadka made an impression, was selected and over time made his way up to become Nepal captain.

Two years before Khadka first played for Nepal, Shakti Gauchan made a phenomenal debut in the 2002 ACC Trophy in Singapore. Gauchan was the team's leading run scorer in the tournament, and his two half-centuries and six wickets with left-arm spin propelled Nepal to the final.

Unlike Khadka, Gauchan had his heart set on cricket from an early age. Growing up in Gorakhpur, on the other side of the border, where his father served as a Gurkha in the Indian Army, he learnt to play cricket and was a part of the Khukuri Cricket Club, a team made up of Gurkha children. His natural talent was spotted by a local coach, and while still in his early teens he was sent to the Bhosle Cricket Academy in Mumbai.

"I knew I could do something with cricket in India," Gauchan told me. "Looking back, I recall I was playing in the same Under-15 team as Gautam Gambhir." An illness in the family and a hairline fracture to his finger led Gauchan back home to Siddharthanagar, a town 260km south-west of Kathmandu. Once his finger healed, he took part in a local U-17 tournament. His performances earned him a place in the regional, and eventually the national, U-17 team.

Gauchan is from one of Nepal's smallest ethnic communities, the Thakalis, and has consistently featured and starred in the national team over the past decade. I interviewed him on the phone over the course of two weeks in June as he recovered from a bronchial infection. For a man with a sore throat Gauchan talked a lot, and with a warmth that made you feel like a friend.

The way Khadka and his team-mates have pushed for change has added to their aura of representing more than just the cricket culture of Nepal

"Until I put on the Nepali team jersey," he told me, "I had planned on going back to Bombay and trying my luck in India. It was where the money was. But after I played in the ACC U-17 Asia Cup in Bangladesh, everything changed. It hit me that I was representing 30 million people, a nation, my country. It was then that I decided, no matter the prospects, I would play in Nepal."

When you consider cricket in Nepal back in the early 2000s, it is not surprising that most senior members of the side did not plan on playing for the country. A Maoist rebellion was rumbling in the countryside. There was a general feeling of political and economic stagnation. Lots of youngsters played the game, lots more watched it on TV, but hardly anyone had a proper idea of Nepali cricket. Unless you were directly involved with it, you would not have been able to say how many teams played in the domestic league (if you even knew there was one), who played for Team Nepal, and how you could work your way into it.

The two generations of Nepali cricketers have something in common: they played for nothing, expecting nothing. Had the second-generation stars not achieved what they have done in the last few years, there would be no sense of tragedy. It would have been the norm. But the crazy, amazing and marvellous thing about this generation is that they converted their love for the game into success. They have given their fans and fellow citizens something no other sport in sports-crazy Nepal has really done: a chance to cheer their country on the global stage.

In 2001, Roy Dias, the former Sri Lankan cricketer, was appointed head coach of Nepal and things started to click into place. "Our current team has benefited immensely from the earlier generation," Khadka told me. "We all got to groom ourselves under the tutelage of Nepali cricketers who were already playing at the international level."

The players get a heroes' welcome in Kathmandu after qualifying for the 2014 World T20

The players get a heroes' welcome in Kathmandu after qualifying for the 2014 World T20 © AFP

A few days after meeting Khadka, I was back at the Crown Plaza. A group of college students was interviewing Sharad Vesawkar in the garden. Vesawkar earned a place in the annals of Nepali cricket history after the final-ball win against Hong Kong in Abu Dhabi last year. That victory, in the quarter-final of the qualifiers, sent Nepal through to the World T20 in Bangladesh.

The girls giggled as Vesawkar cracked a joke; one of the boys expressed his indignation at the Nepali government's lethargy in granting him citizenship: Vesawkar was born to a Nepali mother and an Indian father and raised in the UAE before his family returned to Nepal in the mid-'90s. He became a Nepali citizen only in 2013.

Vesawkar told the students that the cricket world was not all that different from the rest of the country - bureaucratic, corrupt and systemically flawed.

The world of cricket was an oval bubble seeking to keep its symmetry within the ragged edges of Nepal's sporting world. After the students left, I spoke to Vesawkar about the ascent of Team Nepal. "It all began with our win here in Nepal during the 2010 ICC World Cricket League Division Five tournament," he said. "More cricket started happening after that and we moved up the divisions rapidly."

And what if Nepal had not moved up to Division 4?

"It's a scary thought," he considered with a laugh. "We never thought about it that way, but perhaps if we had not won that match, a lot of us would have left cricket looking for careers in other fields."

The politics that have defined Nepal have also defined Nepali cricket, and the problems that Nepali cricket faces are a microcosm of the problems the Nepali state faces

Given that even national-level cricketers hardly make any money, cricket is not yet a real career option. Most national players sign temporary contracts a few days before tournaments and are promised fixed match fees - but are quite used to not being paid. The players now are rarely from the aristocratic class. When not volunteering for Nepal, they work for a living by doing odd jobs. Some are employed as cricket coaches for school and college teams, some are fortunate to have family businesses to fall back on, while the more popular ones are retained by the bigger financial and corporate houses to turn out in the yearly corporate tournaments. "We play because we love the game," Vesawkar said, without a hint of regret.

In 2011, Pubudu Dassanayake replaced his countryman Dias as head coach of Nepal. It was under Dassanayake's stewardship that Nepal witnessed their precipitous rise to the World T20.

Khadka, who captained during this period, was generous in his praise of the coach. "Dassanayake's style is modern, demanding and intensive. He brought in technology - we do video analysis of ourselves and of our opponents, we review statistics, identify trends, and practise specific game situations." In a country with only two qualified Level 3 coaches, Dassanayake's techniques were radically different from Dias' old-school approach.

Vesawkar was surprised by the new training regimen. "Repetition was the key; we kept repeating things again and again and again, until it was second nature. Until we no longer panicked in matches. And those hours upon hours of daily practice fed into the team's natural talent." Observing themselves on video and analysing their techniques with the coach lent them a more critical eye. "It makes you aware of yourself," Vesawkar said. "It changes you."

He was to leave for a ten-day meditation retreat the day after we met. He saw the repetition, the practice and the meditation all feeding into his cricket.

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him about the cricket team's very public lobbying, in the media and with the government, to reform CAN. "We do what we can as players," he said, "But in the end we are just pawns. We just hope our actions can bring about positive change."

Change is in the air around Nepali cricket. There is an electrifying mood of excitement and hope whenever the topic of cricket comes up. In the midst of World Cup football, long the treasured sport of Nepal, cricket meant so much more. "Who knows when we will get to a football World Cup? With the way football runs in Nepal, certainly not in my lifetime," said a restaurant owner who held screenings of the World T20 but wasn't keen on repeating it for the football. "It's late, I'd rather sleep. And after watching Nepal play on TV, the excitement of cheering for another country has diminished."

Spectators turn out for a Nepal v USA game

Spectators turn out for a Nepal v USA game © Shikhar Bhattarai

"Our next target is to get one-day international status," Khadka said to me. "We believe that we can get it within the next two years."

After an abysmal performance at the ICC World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand earlier this year, Nepal were relegated to Division 3 but have the chance to move back up to Division 2 in October. "In all sports, you lose some, you win some," Khadka says. "But for us to continue winning we desperately need the kind of support most of our opponents are getting from their national associations. As players, we just want to play. What we are doing is not just for ourselves, it is for the future of Nepali cricket. We want to leave cricket having done something for it. We need CAN to work together, we need them to come up with a plan, we need them to hire competent managers."

Khadka and his team-mates have not hidden their disappointment with CAN. Their stance and the way they have gone about pushing for change - as gentlemen with a grievance - has endeared them to the public and added to their aura as representing more than just the cricket culture of Nepal.

The current Nepali team is surprisingly diverse, representative of its geographic and ethnic make-up - but this was not planned. "It's just the way Nepal is," explains Vesawkar. "Cricket is played all over Nepal." Even a cursory look at the composition of Nepal teams over the past 20 years reveals a healthy representation of minority groups from Muslims to Dalits to indigenous communities. But ask any of the team members and they will tell you that it won't last if decisive steps are not taken to improve domestic structures and the organisational and managerial strategy at CAN. A two-week domestic league that only represents nine regions, covering a small fraction of the areas where cricket is played, is simply not enough.

"There are not enough matches happening at the domestic level to allow for the best cricketers to be identified purely based on performance," Khadka said. Gauchan similarly spoke of the sad state of affairs. "When I started playing in Nepal, you could easily play in 20 to 25 domestic games in a year. Nowadays you will be lucky to play in ten."

The politics that have defined Nepal have also defined Nepali cricket, and the problems that Nepali cricket faces are a microcosm of the problems the Nepali state faces.

Nepali cricket's governance structures remain hostage to their aristocratic origins. The longest-serving president of CAN, Jay Kumar Nath Shah, was appointed under King Mahendra's Panchayat regime in 1966 and stayed put for 40 years without ever holding an election. He was finally displaced in 2006 by Binay Raj Pandey, who himself was ousted in 2011 by a Maoist-led government for his failure to hold elections. Tanka Angbuhang, his successor, is a member of the Maoist youth wing.

The Nepal team's success means that there is more money in cricket than ever before. The controversy around the NPL in Dhangadhi was rumoured to be a result of inadequate greasing of palms. Aamir Akhtar of Zohra Sports Management says: "Technically, CAN should be the one organising these tournaments, but where is the initiative? My company took the lead to make the NPL possible and instead of supporting it, CAN is just getting in the way of Nepali cricket."

There is an electrifying mood of excitement and hope whenever the topic of cricket comes up

There is an electrifying mood of excitement and hope whenever the topic of cricket comes up © ICC/Getty

In June, the ICC warned CAN to immediately hire a professional CEO and finance manager. Infighting among its 30 members, and an investigation by the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) into financial irregularities, however, paralysed the organisation. The CIAA filed corruption charges against 18 CAN officials, including the president, Angbuhang. In light of the charges, these officials stepped aside until the case is resolved. During the turmoil Nepal's head coach, Dassanayake, left after his contract ran out and was not renewed.

In July, Khadka said he would quit cricket if Dassanayake was not brought back. The captain's threat resonated in the halls of Nepal's sport's ministry. After months of uncertainty, in September, Dassanayake signed a contract with the Ministry of Youth and Sports (MoYS) to coach the Nepal team until June 2015. Additionally, he took on the role of a consultant to the ministry on cricket development in Nepal. If Dassanayake's previous involvement with the National Cricket Academy is anything to go by, a stronger youth programme can be expected.

The activism by members of the national cricket team is a source of great encouragement for Nepalis. "We will not rest until we secure the future of Nepali cricket," Khadka told me emphatically. "What would the point of all our achievements be if cricket in Nepal does not take roots now?"

"I've started a cricket academy in my home town," Gauchan says with pride. He still lives in Siddharthanagar, having resisted a move to Kathmandu despite his success. "I had to start it," he said. "I used to have dozens of kids coming to me asking for tips. If I didn't, then who would?"

If the players still believe, the rest of us can too. They know that a nation follows them and is watching, observing. The popular support for this cricket team, seen in the huge turnouts that greet the players on victorious returns, should not be taken lightly by the administration. When it does get its act together, there is hope that all of this passion and player activism will have been for something bigger.

Pranab Man Singh is a writer and editor based in Kathmandu. He works at the Quixote's Cove bookshop and is an assistant editor at La.Lit, a literary magazine (