The scorecard could mislead you into believing the “small team” playing the game’s financial behemoth got a hiding. But before you go “I told you so”, Nepal were not entirely brushed aside. Certainly not when they were trying to showcase their collective might with the bat against those whose Asia Cup appearances (six, if India make the final) will be as much cricket as they get to play in a year sometimes.
It started with India’s bowlers needing a good workout with rain imminent. Things escalated rather quickly, with their fielders grassing three catches in the first 30 minutes, much to Rohit Sharma‘s frustration. Shreyas Iyer missed a straightforward offering at first slip, Virat Kohli put one down next ball at short cover, and Ishan Kishan failed to grab a simple opportunity down the leg side as the ball burst through his gloves for four.
Mohammed Siraj was hooked out of the park for six, Shardul Thakur disdainfully driven down the ground, and Mohammed Shami slashed with a sense of fearlessness that stemmed from this being an occasion to cherish. After all, Rohit Paudel‘s team were playing India for the first time in international cricket, and wouldn’t know if and when they would play them again.
Ask Hong Kong, who rocked up at the previous 50-overs Asia Cup in Dubai five years ago and came within 26 runs of upsetting India against an attack that had some highly skilled bowlers in Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal and Shardul. Hong Kong are yet to come up against them in an ODI since.
This was, therefore, an opportunity for Nepal to showcase their skills to their fans who troop their home ground in Kathmandu in droves. To those who climb trees, line up on the streets adjoining the grounds early in the morning for a quick entry, climb neighbouring buildings to get to vantage points that sometimes put their safety at risk, all to watch the Bhurtels, Kamis and Paudels in action.
Just like in the other parts of the subcontinent, cricket is seen as a vehicle of hope in Nepal too. The passion is unparalleled, the following borders on the fanatical. That kind of flavour was visible in Pallekele, right from the time the teams lined up for the national anthems. After all, Nepal’s two games at the Asia Cup are two more than anyone would have given them at the start of the year. And in batting out nearly 50 overs after their drubbing against Pakistan, they showed glimpses of what they can do with a bit more support.
Commentators at the Asia Cup have time and again spoken of the Asian Cricket Council’s mission and vision in promoting cricket in the region. While some of that isn’t exaggerated, what has been missing is the obvious support in terms of match time. Fair, the ACC organised an Emerging Teams’ Asia Cup in Colombo in July as a pathway for the likes of Nepal to test themselves against the top sides, but the question “can they do more?” remains.
Can the BCCI, for example, induct Nepal and one other Associate team – perhaps on rotation – into the Deodhar Trophy, a 50-over domestic competition that has battled for relevance? Or maybe give opportunities to play in high-quality state-run tournaments, such as the Buchi Babu Trophy in Tamil Nadu or the KSCA Invitational in Karnataka.
As Nepal’s innings progressed on Sunday, the gulf widened because of a lack of experience. As India’s bowlers found their lengths and got their bearings, Nepal came to grips with the reality. Kuldeep bamboozled them with the kind of variety they may have not seen much earlier, Siraj roughed them up with some late movement against the old ball, and Ravindra Jadeja proved too hot to handle on a sluggish deck where the ball was turning and gripping.
Yet, Nepal weren’t entirely out of depth. At No. 8, Sompal Kami showed immaculate technique and strong defence to play proper cricketing shots to make a 56-ball 48. The disappointment of missing out on a half-century against a top side was visible on his face. Dipendra Singh Airee showed smarts in lining up bowlers in the death overs to pocket key runs to get Nepal past 200. It wasn’t entirely doom and gloom.
Those fleeting moments of high quality got even better when Karan KC got the ball moving around to trouble Rohit. He got it to nip back twice to rap the pads, and induced the inside edge once. A tentative Rohit was then beaten on the outside edge by one that held its line, the angle creating doubt, he later acknowledged. It seemed as if there would be a compelling contest, a challenge even if not a probing examination, in India’s chase, before the rains took the bowlers out of the equation.
A greasy outfield and a wet ball rendered Nepal’s spinners ineffective as Rohit and Shubman Gill made a mockery of the revised DLS target of 145 in 23 overs. The opening pair slammed fifties, seemingly intent on having fun as the game progressed, before booking India’s berth in the Super Fours. For Nepal, the eventual scoreline – India winning by ten wickets – was not an embarrassment, but merely another reiteration of how much more they can achieve with further exposure and game time.
Nepal have had some massive moments in 2023. Beating UAE in fading light to secure a berth at the ODI World Cup Qualifiers in May and winning the ACC Premier Cup in June to book a ticket to the Asia Cup are among them. On Sunday, they could proudly add their first-ever ODI against India to it.