Kathmandu- Being a fan of Nepali cricket is a frustrating experience. Though still in its infancy, we could give Pakistan a stiff challenge as the “Most infuriating team to follow”. The problem is not the inconsistency of the team’s performance or the incompetence of the administration. The first is a natural part of the game. The second is a response to a larger system of “leeni ra deeni” that grips all Nepali bureaucracy.
Cricket followers are most frustrated by our lack of access to the cricket the team plays. Matches at home are infrequent and most matches outside the country are not broadcast on TV or streamed online. Irritated, but desperate for information, we have to rely on the only solution available: reading online updates.
Here is the problem: nothing sucks the joy out of cricket more efficiently and consistently than reading cricket commentaries. Left to the mercy of online cricket scorers, on match-day, the Nepali cricket fan can be seen staring at screens, frantically pressing the refresh button in hope of an update. In fact, these commentaries we read don’t describe, they are merely dry, stripped-down statements of facts. A six is only that: an addition of six runs to the scoreboard.
No talk about the stroke, the ball, or its significance in the game. In such a space, the technique of the player and the hunger of the team is measured only by the final outcome of loss or victory – a system that disheartens the team and makes for thankless fans.
Cricket in Nepal is growing up in times different from when it matured in the rest of the neighborhood. In the first few decades after British rule in Southasia, cricket began to truly blossom in Pakistan and India as people pressed their ears to radio sets for ‘running commentaries’.
From the 80s onwards, when world-cup victories by India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka gilded neo-liberal market forces, TV – with its big advertisements – became a medium of choice to access cricket. The region started to consume the sport as a visual pleasure rather than an auditory one. Though the radio was replaced, it didn’t, and thankfully hasn’t, completely disappear from the region.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, while I was in boarding school in India, I remember strapping a Walkman on my belt, hidden under my dull grey sweater and thick bottle-green school coat. With the tail of the earphones firmly inserted into the radio, the black cord would slither up and across my chest, then down my arms, and finally nestled in the cup of my palm. Listening to radio commentary during class, while India toured Pakistan in 2003-04 is one of my fonder memories from school. As the man with the radio, I had the pleasure of alerting the rest of the boys when the man on the radio indicated that a wicket was taken or a six has been hit.
10 years later, I find myself tormented every time I have to click the refresh page button. As the wheel of patience revolves and the score sheet presents itself on my screen, what do I see? The driest, most offensive, the manner in which this great sport could be experienced.
In the past few months, there have been a number of well-written articles on Nepali cricket, most of them positive about the Nepal story: the passion of the fans, the dedication of the team, the rise of the game in a short time, and what it means for the country and society at large. However, in their optimism, they exaggerate the limited scope of cricket following in Nepal. While passionate, the cricket fan base is largely restricted to urban Nepal and the legions of Nepali diaspora scattered across the globe. And one reason constricting its expansion is its excessive reliance on the internet.
The internet penetration in Nepal is still below 40 percent. Add to that the fact that much of the online scoring happens in English and that number sinks further. In the absence of accessible cricket – through TV or radio – the cricket market has struggled to grow. But here is the catch: to popularise cricket in Nepal you need to expand the reach of the game through TV and radio, but TV and radio channels will only be interested if Nepal has a market for the game. With all its potential and always on the verge of playing in the big leagues, Nepal is a market that needs to be developed.
Take for example the last two Southasian countries to rise in the ranks of international cricket – Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In both these countries, once the potential was identified, a Cricket market was created through more accessible media options. However, unlike Sri Lanka, Nepal does not have a high individual consumption capacity and unlike Bangladesh, we don’t have a collective consumption capacity.
As of now, Nepal TV has the right to broadcast live cricket matches organized in the country. A good start. But until private players are brought into the fray and allowed the rights to broadcast the game, the cricket economy in this country will remain small. There is nothing innovative about the idea. The cricket economy in India boomed after Indian television rights were offered to private channels. A formula that is being repeated in Kabbadi, Hockey, Badminton, and Football (at various levels of success).
And what of the radio? Is radio commentary never going to be possible in Nepal? Or will it have a role to play in expanding the reach of the game to distant corners of the country where the internet and TV are yet to reach?
Sports, a number of studies have shown, have the ability to affect the collective mood of the nation. But for that, it has been important enough to affect the mood, and it has to be large enough to affect a collective. The ability of sports, and cricket, in particular, to affect the collective mood in Nepal is not there yet. We have an impressive cricket team, dedicated fans, and a potential market, there is no excuse that cricket in Nepal cannot be successful.