Abhishek Mukherjee/CC – Nepal shocked the world by defeating Afghanistan in the ICC World T20 encounter.
There has been a lot of hullabaloo — with reason, one must agree — over granting Ireland and Afghanistan Test status. Both teams have performed commendably: Ireland, by beating Pakistan, Bangladesh, and England across two World Cups; and Afghanistan, by rising through the ranks at a breakneck pace.
Nobody cared about cricket in Nepal. Till recently Nepal only appeared in quiz books for its lofty mountain peaks, for being the birthplace of Gautam Buddha, and for being the only country in the world whose flag is not rectangular in shape; when Mahaboob Alam had entered the Guinness Book of World Records for being the “earliest bowler to take all 10 wickets in an ICC international cricket match with limited overs” the news had passed almost unnoticed.
But Nepal braved on; unlike some of the other cricket-playing Associate Nations their side does not consist of non-residential Indians, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans — which put them on the same status as the Irish or the Afghans. However, what held them behind was their lack of consistent performances that held them back from locking horns with the finest.
But the Nepalese battled on, making it to the top level in the shortest format of the sport: they brushed aside Hong Kong easily with Gyanendra Malla and captain Paras Khadka adding 80 in 67 balls and Basant Regmi and Shakti Gauchan picking up six for 23 between them to rout Hong Kong for 69.
Minnow-bashers, the sceptics said. Anyone can beat Hong Kong, they added: what went ignored was the stupendous margin of victory. They lost the match against Bangladesh despite quality performances from Khadka (whose wristy batsmanship makes him a delight to watch) and Sharad Vesawkar, who added 85 in 69 balls and an excellent spell from Regmi.
Thus, when Nepal took on Afghanistan, they arrived with a point to prove. This time Khadka failed, but a patient innings from Subash Khakurel and some lusty blows from Gyanendra Malla and Vesawkar saw them to a decent 141 for five. The real job, however, remained: could they contain Afghanistan, who had beaten Bangladesh in the recently concluded Asia Cup?
The collapse began when Sompal Kami unleashed a skidder to take out Karim Sadiq; Jitendra Mukhiya and Gauchan struck twice each in quick succession, and the Afghans were soon reeling at 50 for five after nine overs. Shafiqullah Shafiq hung on resolutely, as did Samiullan Shenwari, and when the 19th over started Afghanistan still required 30 runs.
Then Mukhiya unleashed one of those magic overs that converted possible victories to triumphs: three yorkers, three low full-tosses, six runs, one wicket; it was straight out of the books of Lasith Malinga — and a trick that has remained elusive of Indian bowlers from some time now.
Whatever followed was supposed to be irrelevant: Asghar Stanikzai tried his best to pull off a miracle, but after scoring 14 off the first four balls from Kami he holed out to long-on. Nepal went on to win by nine runs.
They may not go through to the next round (the nigh-impossible incident of a massive Bangladesh defeat against Hong Kong being the prerequisite for that to happen), but Nepal has already done enough to set tremors down the spines of the elites of the sport.
Ireland and Afghanistan had already arrived on the big scenario: it may be too early to say that a third name has joined the clan, but Nepal have their way up the ladder in a determined, hard-working fashion that has won the hearts of the viewers of the tournament. It may also be the first major step for Nepal cricket towards their ascent among the big guns.
Watch out, cricket: the Nepalese are here.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)