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Nepal’s ODI neophytes get off the blocks in familiar fashion

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Nepal_CricketIt took Nepal just two games to register their first ODI win, as they edged out the Netherlands in an exhilarating finish at Amstelveen to square the two-match series 1-1. Not for the first time, Paras Khadka’s band of fighters notched victory off the final delivery, thus adding to the list of their incredible last-gasp wins this year. Nepal came into this game after a frustrating 55-run defeat in their maiden ODI, in which they capitulated from 85/1 to 134 all out in pursuit of a modest 189.

Nepal’s perennial batting woes continued to bog them in the second game as well. Except for Khadka (51), the top order collectively disappointed again, and it was left to fast bowler Sompal Kami, who smote a breezy 46-ball 61 from number eight, to propel the total from 135/6 to a respectable 216. The 22-year-old Kami was not done - he provided Nepal with an early breakthrough by having the dangerous Stephan Myburgh bowled off the second ball of the chase.

However, Daniel ter Braak and Wesley Barresi steered the hosts to a dominant position with a third-wicket stand of 84, and at 114/2, the Nepalese needed something special. The game-changing moment came through 18-year-old leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane, who struck twice in three balls. Lamichhane’s fellow spinners, left-armer Basant Regmi and offie Dipendra Singh Airee, made further inroads, with the latter removing Barresi for 71 to reduce the score to 143/6.

Khadka scalped his opposite number Pieter Seelar, while Lamichhane (3/41) castled Shane Snater to put Nepal on course. When the ninth wicket fell, the Dutch needed 31 runs from 39 balls. The last pair of Fred Klaassen and Paul van Meekeren calmly whittled down the target, and as the overs went by, it started to seem that for a change, Nepal would be at the receiving end of a nail-biter. The last over began with the Netherlands just six runs away from taking the series.

As Nepal’s zealous fan base waited with bated breath, Khadka entrusted himself with the responsibility of bowling the last over. The composed skipper kept things tight, and allowed only four runs off the first five balls to set up a last-ball finale. Klaassen hit the last ball straight to Khadka, who jubilantly dislodged the stumps at his end to complete a nerve-wracking one-run win. Once again, Nepal had managed to squeeze out a triumph from a backs-to-the-wall position.

Nepal attained the coveted ODI status by virtue of their eighth-place finish in the ten-team World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe in March. Their qualification for the World Cup Qualifier was in turn ensured due to a second-place finish in the six-team World Cricket League Division Two in Namibia in February, by the narrowest margin possible. Nepal gave an indication of what was to follow with a tension-filled win in their first game of the WCL Division Three, against the hosts.

After Lamichhane (4/18) helped dismantle Namibia for 138, Nepal made heavy weather of the chase by slumping to 56/6, before the lower order somehow took their team over the line with one wicket left. Nepal’s fourth game, against Kenya, saw more edge-of-the-seat action, as they huffed and puffed to a three-wicket win off the last ball in a chase of 178. But the mother of all heists was to come a couple of days later, in the must-win final group game against Canada.

In a now-familiar script, the Nepalese bowlers gave their all to restrict Canada to 194/8, despite an unbeaten 103 from opener Srimnatha Wijeratne. In reply, Nepal went from 72/2 to 144/9, and all hopes now rested on the shoulders of Karan KC and Lamichhane, numbers ten and eleven respectively. It was Karan, better known for his pace bowling, who conjured a miraculous knock, thrashing 42* off 31 balls to help Nepal pull off an unbelievable jailbreak, again off the last ball.

Nepal already had the experience of international cricket in the Netherlands prior to the recently-concluded series - they made a visit in 2015 for a four-match T20I series, which they lost 3-1. Nepal was also one of the only two teams to have beaten the Dutch (the eventual champions) in the 2015-17 WCL Championship, in their own backyard at that - a 19-run win at Amstelveen in 2016. Like most Nepalese wins, this one too was based around the team’s bowling strength.

Considering Nepal’s shaky batting over the years, the burden to perform has invariably fallen on the bowlers, who, to their credit, have risen to the occasion more often than not. It would not be an overstatement to say that had it not been for their excellent bowling in nearly every important game so far this year, Nepal would have had to endure the ignominy of demotion to Division Three of the WCL, much less make it to the World Cup Qualifier and secure ODI status.

The numbers are a telling indictment of Nepal’s batting woes - in 42 List A games (including the ODIs against the Netherlands) till date, they have crossed the 250-run mark only twice, and both instances were in the second innings in a losing cause. Now that they are an ODI nation, Nepal would do well to produce meatier batting displays so as to be in vogue with the modern dynamics of limited-overs cricket, which are constantly gravitating in favour of the batsmen.

While the promise shown by youngsters such as Kami, Lamichhane and Airee indicates that Nepal’s bowling future is in good hands, the batting still appears to be majorly dependent on the long-serving bulwarks - Khadka, Gyanendra Malla and Sharad Vesawkar. Having said that, the emergence of 15-year-old prodigy Rohit Kumar Paudel, who impressed with his calm approach at the World Cup Qualifier, is a positive sign for Nepal as they embark upon their ODI journey.

For now, Nepal certainly deserve to bask in the glory of what has been an exhilarating road to ODI status, for their players and fans alike. But an improvement in the batting department would go a long way in moulding the team to be competitive against the lower-ranked full-member sides. Also of immense importance would be scheduling frequent ODI fixtures - the lack of which hampered the growth of erstwhile ODI teams such as Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea.

At the end of this month, Nepal will face off against five other teams - the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Oman, Singapore and hosts Malaysia - in the Asia Cup Qualifier to vie for one spot in the Asia Cup, which will be held in the UAE. Should Nepal win the Qualifier, they will play India and Pakistan in the Asia Cup, which would be a massive shot in the arm. It remains to be seen whether we have more heart-stopping heroics in store from ODI cricket’s newest entrants.

 

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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