Rhinos bowled over on a sticky wicket

Despite defeat, the Nepal team won fans all over the cricket world during the T20 World Cup

Nepal and Bangladesh in their last group stage match at the ICC T20 World Cup. Photos: ICC

On paper, Nepal had a terrible time at the ongoing ICC T20 World Cup in the Americas. Three defeats in games against The Netherlands, South Africa and Bangladesh. One game washed out against Sri Lanka. Dumped out of the group stage, with a grand total of just one point.

Yet, Nepal overperformed. None of the three defeats were remotely embarrassing. In fact, in the latest match against Bangladesh, Nepal had a fighting chance right until the last overs. If only a few things gone its way, the Rhinos would have beaten both The Netherlands and South Africa. 

Frenzied Nepali fans packed stadiums in Dallas and St Vincent and the Grenadines. The audience was overwhelmingly blue and red, dhaka topis and flags aplenty. The diaspora had flown in from New Hampshire, Texas, Indiana, and the UK and were the most effective cheerleaders of any of the fans. 

“Even the locals and neutrals wanted Nepal to win,” says Shrochis Karki, who flew from Oxford to watch the matches against South Africa and Bangladesh. 

“You could feel the emotional connection between the fans and the team. There was so much joy at every boundary,” describes BBC Nepali sports correspondent Niranjan Rajbanshi who is covering the games. “Ultimately, the difference in experience between the established test-playing nations and Nepal as an associate country led to the defeats.” 

Nepal fans ICC T20
Nepali fans travelled across the world to watch Nepal play at the tournament.

The tournament seemed to generally favour bowlers and part of the reason lies in the pitches. The US is not much of a cricketing country and despite imported Australian experts, its turfs were not the most conducive for batting. 

“Nepal’s strength has always been its bowling. This is the strongest possible group of Nepali batsmen and they did as well as they could. They will get better at these situations as they play more against good teams,” explains Rajbanshi. 

Nepal had a much better fielding performance against Bangladesh on Monday, with four catches and a runout. Nepal restricted Bangladesh to 106, and was looking at a tough but doable chase at the end of the sixteenth — 30 off the last four at 7.5 runs an over. 

However, tight death bowling from Bangladesh speedster Mustafizur Rahman who went for one run and two wickets in overs 17 and 19 meant that Nepal was all out for 85. Kushal Malla scored 27. Sompal Kami, Airee, Paudel and Sandeep Lamichhane picked up two wickets apiece.

“Dipendra Singh Airee’s game is three-dimensional. He can win the game with the bat or the ball, or in the field,” observed Karki. Airee took six wickets across the three games and today he scored 25. 

Despite the results, Nepal has been The Story of the Tournament. The team showed it is just about ready to play in the Tests - the tradition-soaked five-day epics that are considered the summit of the sport. 

“To become a test-playing nation, you can’t just have talented players,” pointed out Rajbanshi. “There needs to be extensive domestic cricket infrastructure, government support, and stadiums that can host test matches.”

There is progress: stadiums are being built in Kathmandu, Chitwan, Rupandehi and Morang. And Nepal is already planning to tour Afghanistan once the T20 World Cup is over. 

The tournament does not feel like a failure. It has roused sporting hope and given people a rare reason to feel good about the country. 

Throughout the tournament, there were some standout individual performances from the Nepali team.

“I enjoyed the low-scoring thrillers,“ says Karki, who has played cricket his whole life and follows the Rhinos everywhere they play. “The end of the South Africa game was a complete rollercoaster. It was lovely to see battles between bat and ball.” 

South Africa is a top team, ranked fifth in the T20s. Nepal is at 18 on that list. Excellent bowling by Nepal held the Proteas to only 115 — a seemingly paltry score in the IPL era, where 180 is almost below par.

At one point Nepal needed thirty to win and could have gone at a pace of less than a run a ball. Under tremendous pressure, with humiliating defeat looming, the South Africans bowled precisely, triggering a collapse in the Nepali lower order.  

With two required off the last ball, Ottneil Baartman hurled a high bouncer at Gulshan Jha that should have been called a wide. The ball carried to keeper Quinton de Kock. Jha was caught in confusion but as he saw Sompal Kami thundering towards his crease he had to sprint to the opposite end. 

The keeper threw the ball which hit Jha as he ran down the pitch. It ricocheted to a South African fielder, who ran the batter out and won the game. Jha seemed to cut his running abruptly short instead of diving to complete the game-tying run. 

The game against the Netherlands also went until the end, with the Netherlands eventually making 109 to Nepal’s 106 in 18.4 overs. Had the Nepali fielders held onto some crucial catches, they would have won. 

Audience during the Nepal Vs The Netherlands match.

The Nepali batting order seemed to panic and lose control of the games, swinging wildly for boundaries when knocking the balls around for singles or doubles might have been the move. The bowling, on the other hand, was excellent. And pitches in the West Indies have always favored spin, which Nepal has plenty of. 

Captain Rohit Poudel hit 35 runs against the Netherlands. Aasif Sheikh scored 42 against South Africa, and Kushal Bhurtel unusually took four wickets in the same match. 

Leg-spinner Sandip Lamichhane is one of Nepal’s best bowlers, but 23-year old is fighting rape allegations in court back home for which he was ousted from the national team by Cricket Association Nepal(CAN). 

After being convicted by the Kathmandu District Court last month, Lamichhane took the case to the Patan High Court. He was acquitted shortly before the tournament, and put back in the squad. Then he had his US visa denied twice. 

But he joined his team in the Caribbean, and he got there in time for the games against Bangladesh and South Africa. He took two wickets against Bangladesh with googlies.

Karki was disheartened at the support that Lamichhane got in the games and wished CAN had stuck more to the code of conduct which is all-important in cricket. “It didn’t matter to anyone what he had done,” he said.

Vishad Onta