Asia Cup 2023: Nepal come back from the brink of losing ODI status; to face India on Monday

Scaling peaks isn’t new for Nepalis, having scaled summits that few could even dream of. On the peaks of Mt Everest where centimetres can separate life and death, they are known to pull off heroic rescue acts. For the Nepal cricket team, the past six months or so have been similar on the sporting scale, where from the verge of losing ODI status they went on to feature in the 50-over World Cup Qualifiers and are now in the middle of their maiden Asia Cup campaign where – weather permitting in Pallekele – they are set to face India on Monday.

Ever since they booked their Asia Cup berth by winning the ACC Premier Cup in front of a full-house, they have been waiting for this fixture against India. “It is no doubt going to be a fanboy moment for a lot of them. They watched India play Pakistan on Saturday and I’ve told them when they take the field on Monday they should feel they belong here and got here by their hard work. They should feel equal and these fanboy moments can happen later on,” Nepal’s head coach Monty Desai told The Indian Express.

These moments definitely looked farfetched in February when Nepal, which had gained ODI status in 2018, were on the verge of losing it. In the World Cup Super League 2 points table, they sat at the bottom of it with the climb up the ladder looking more daunting than scaling Himalayan peaks. This was shortly after Desai had taken over as head coach. “It still feels surreal as to how we got there and how we made it here,” Desai said.

Monty Desai Nepal coach With Desai as their head coach, Nepal have climbed new heights in their cricket history that sees them rubbing shoulders against India and Pakistan in the Asia Cup. (PCB/Twitter)

In a 31-day period that included 12 matches, they won them all, beating much more fancied and resourceful Associate members Namibia, Scotland, Papua New Guinea and the UAE not once, but on multiple occasions. In the winner-takes-all clash, which was played in front of thousands of fans at the Tribhuvan International University Cricket Ground in Kirtipur against the UAE, they snatched a thrilling win under fading light.

“To get a result like this, it was all about showing the desire. When you are at the edge of the cliff, you know there is nowhere else to go. So you first had to save the ODI status and when you start winning, the trust gets stronger and you start working and keep tasting it. When you taste the win in the right way with roles defined, you tend to seek more. Each of them completed the role assigned to them. In most Associate teams there is no proper domestic structure. It is all about maximising the resources. So you will find a real team contribution in such teams. Now that we have made it this far, it is all about looking ahead and taking them to the next level,” Desai said.

Forging quick bond

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Having half-a-dozen players, including captain Rohit Paudel, from the Under-19 squad whom he coached in 2017 helped forge a quick relationship which Desai feels helped in the quick turnaround. The World Cup Qualifiers didn’t go on expected lines with the lack of experience and belief in the group showing up at crucial junctures – especially when they played West Indies, Zimbabwe, Ireland and The Netherlands. But Desai feels with experience they are beginning to show signs of change. “The domestic structure in place isn’t great and we are aware of it and it can become good because the age-group participation is huge and there is incredible fan following. The University ground is good, and we are building confidence with batting-friendly pitches. We have to challenge them further and now it is all about building the right infrastructure and building on this momentum,” Desai added.

Having received widespread eyeballs, Desai has noticed how his players have been keenly following the likes of Hardik Pandya, Rashid Khan, Mohammed Siraj, Babar Azam who all rose from humble backgrounds to the highest level. “When you are looking at such names, it gives them the hope that they can get there as well. That is what has impressed me the most about this bunch. They all come from humble backgrounds and they pursue the sport purely out of passion and desire. You need to sustain that in them,” Desai said.

Featuring in these big tournaments means, it also opens the door for Nepal players to be on the radar of T20 franchises. Players from Afghanistan, Ireland, Scotland, Namibia benefitted a lot by featuring in T20 leagues across the globe and Nepal are in a similar position for the first time. “(Sandeep) Lamichhane has already played in a lot of leagues and I know a few of them are being looked at with active interest. With not much domestic structure, playing the T20 leagues where they rub shoulders with the best, means they are getting the sort of exposure they need at this stage of their careers. If more players get that then we will continue to go upwards,” Desai said.

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