ODI status, and now what for Nepali cricket?
Most sports lovers, like me, read the back pages of the broadsheet newspapers first. Of course, with the advent of social media and internet proliferation, we don’t have to wait for the morning newspapers anymore to learn about latest scores. However, we can’t help but reminisce about the time when we relied so heavily on print media to know what was happening in the sports we loved, both domestically and internationally. There was a time when almost all of Nepal-related sports news was dominated by domestic events. Apart from the odd Athletics, Ushu, Shooting and football exploits of our sportsmen, there wasn’t much at the international level to write home about. However, Nepal’s cricket team of this generation has changed all that.
We have entered an era where almost all sports coverage for Nepal now is dominated by its international appearance. That, too, in only one sport – cricket. While this sounds like a stupendous achievement, it also hides the harsh reality that other sports have taken a back seat and that domestic engagements, even for cricket, have almost been obliterated. This is not good news at all. I will try to come back to this in a while.
First up, let us wholeheartedly celebrate the success attained by our cricket team. They have defied all the odds stacked against them. Attaining ODI status is a no mean feat. International Cricket Council has devised a format for such an entry in a way so they are able to maintain the situation where the exclusive club of elite teams constantly features to play each other, depriving other emerging nations of the same opportunity. This is one of the reasons why cricket hasn’t proliferated much globally beyond its pioneer Commonwealth states. No country wants to play any sport as a second or third-rate group of nations. And realizing your dream to represent your country at the highest level is the single most motivational factor for any youngster to take up a sport and for his/her parents to devote time and resources to support this dream. ICC, therefore, draws a lot of flak for treating Associate nations as second-class teams and for not providing it the resources and forum that these teams need.
The attention and resources from ICC are disproportionate for sure. ICC needs to seriously reconsider this if one of their goals is to let cricket flourish around the world. There are many in the system who seriously believe that cricket needs to remain with the elite group of countries to maintain a “level playing field” and that introducing more teams will “dilute” the performance in the sport. It is this mindset that ICC needs to fight.
Having said that, it is under this same skewed system that Nepal attained its ODI status. So, in a way, we have to be thankful that, although close to insurmountable, such a ladder actually exists for nations like us. We have to still thank ICC that it created this opportunity, albeit not exactly in the shape and size that emerging nations expect, for Nepal to thrive and to reach this new height.
We don’t really boast of a very rich cricketing history and are, at best, an upcoming and very promising addition to the world cricket. Our teams, in different age groups and the seniors, have toiled for a little over two decades now while going from strength to strength. In odd matches, our teams have beaten the most well-established ones. We have shown enough promise to be constantly noticed in the world arena. Despite the extremely poor infrastructure and a mostly indifferent administration, the players have single-handedly carried the torch and pulled off this feat. This, a few years ago, seemed impossible. To add to this, the cricket team carries strong and large die-hard fan base, second to none in the world. The fact that, even in the absence of a live TV telecast, the entire nation, everyone with any interest in cricket and with any kind of internet access, was glued to the ball by ball online live update provided by cricket portals portrays a very positive following by the never say die fans. They can have harsh criticisms when things aren’t going as expected but they never relent or stop supporting their country.
It was smiles all round when Nepal edged towards its ODI status. They got there in style with two consecutive emphatic wins. The fact that the younger ones came to the party in such a big way was the most heartening aspect of this feat. This shows that years of dreaming, building, rebuilding, mentoring, coaching and above all, hard work put in by these players was bearing fruit. It is really not easy to reach this level for a country like ours. We simply don’t make enough investments in the youths and there is little, or no incentive, for the youths to take up the time-consuming sports like cricket. So, all credit to the team that stuck together, remained focused on what needed to be done for the ODI status and outclassed their more resourceful opponents.
I remember my cricket playing days in the late 80s and the first half of 90s. As a 15-year-old, I was lucky to break into the A Division scene after a two-year stint at B Division. I was so lucky in those days because we used to get the opportunity to play a full league season that constituted around 15 teams. This meant we had 14 league matches in our hands every year, great to sharpen our skills. In addition, there would be at least two knockout tournaments, one or two ceremonial matches and the big national league between zonal teams to top it off. That meant a very busy winter for all cricketers. Although we only had the 40-over version of the game (and no T20, for example), it was a still a lot of cricket to play that provided precious match practice. You can play as much cricket as you can in the nets but unless you have played competitive matches, you are not properly tested. I am trying to talk about those golden days to highlight how deprived our current cricketers are in comparison and how challenging it might be for them in the complete absence of a domestic season. If Nepal could have such opportunities 30 years ago, it is unimaginable that we cannot have the same setup and much more, in the present day.
So, we have the ODI status, what next from here? Now that we have attained this coveted status, it is time to put our heads together to make up for our lapses thus far and to create a new future for the sport. We now need more of everything if we are to see that our cricket team will reap the most benefit at the international arena. The following are some pointers:
More than lip service: Despite the delay, this is the time to act, capitalize and make it work for the cricketers. The government, sports administrators, and the private sector need to come together fast-track cricket infrastructure development. The politicians, in particular, who jump in at every opportunity to provide their congratulatory messages, need to put the money where their mouth is. For a country that generates more than Rs 600 billion in domestic revenues and has an annual budget of more than Rs 1, 300 billion, money shouldn’t be mentioned as a barrier to devote more resources to cricket, if we are really serious about the sport. We have the resources, what we need is more political will. What players need is more than the lip service.
More than the blue truck felicitation: Every time our cricket team wins anything notable, they are made to circle around the city, often on a blue truck. This was great when Nepal was first breaking into the international scene. But now, it has attained new, unprecedented heights. The team demands a much bigger acknowledgment and more elaborate respect. It is time for the administrators to think of bigger incentives and better-planned environment for the players, than a mere blue truck felicitation and announcements of small awards. We need a long-term plan and a capable group of administrators who will realize those plans.
More than a signboard that says CAN: Cricket Association of Nepal needs urgently to bring its house in order. It is time for those internal squabbles to end, once and for all. For this, the government might have to take a hardline decision, step in and reformulate the body from scratch hoping this is amenable to ICC. CAN cannot remain a “simply CANnot agency”. It has to lead the redesigning of cricket infrastructure, have a longer-term plan in place and execute it. Adept managers need to be at the helm to steer CAN in the right direction.
More than on and off international matches: Nepal needs more domestic tournaments. This is the only way to develop younger players and manage our bench strength. The secret of any national team performance lies in how the current players are challenged for places by the emerging players. This can only happen if a very large base of players is displaying talent in the domestic and international fora. The domestic formats should include more age group matches so that we are catching our talents when they are young and are helping them to graduate to higher levels.
More than TU in its current shape: it is time to go beyond the annual ritual of having a Finance Minister mention building a cricket stadium in the budget speech. This has happened every year without much to show for. The beautiful cricket venue at Kiritipur, also known as TU ground, needs a facelift including a better pitch and facilities so that we can instantly start to hold international matches. This effort needs to be extended to other parts of the country so that more tournaments and series can be played outside Kathmandu.
More than naming 16-man squad: Cricket is not about naming squads. The names members need to fight for their places. They need better facilities to work on their skills. They need to have access to better coaches who know the art and have the ability to pass their knowledge. More importantly, the administrators need to give cricket a more professional outlook by ensuring better pay and better facilities for the players. No young player will take up a time-consuming sport like cricket or stay with the sport if it doesn’t partly or fully support his/her livelihood. In addition, the teams that we will now be competing with constitute professional players. In every sport, there is always a wide gap between professionals and amateurs. This current gap will stifle our performance if the administrators don’t quickly consider pouring in resources so players have incentives to perform better.
More time spent playing cricket: Better incentives for players can mean better focus on the game. It will also mean better support from the family and the society as well as higher expectations. This will help players consider spending more time actually playing cricket. It is only by spending hours and hours in practice and playing the competitive matches that one can get to improve the skills and take their game to the next level. Cricket is no exception. Therefore, the need of the hour is for everyone to stop talking, put more resources into cricket, have a longer-term plan and allow cricketers to spend more time doing what they need to do, playing