The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 27 April 2023. Please read the original article here.
Nepal is hosting the ACC (Asian Cricket Council) Premier Cup, the winner of which will qualify to participate in the Asia Cup, the cricket tournament in which Asia’s top six teams will contend for the title. Nepal is only two wins away from winning the ACC Cup. If it wins, it will play alongside India and Pakistan in the Asia Cup in September.
This marks a remarkable reversal in Nepal’s nascent cricketing fortunes. Just months ago, it was on the verge of losing its ODI (One Day International) status.
Unlike other South Asian countries, Nepal is not a cricketing power. But it hopes to be there in the coming years.
Cricket made its way to Nepal via the young Ranas, who came from Nepal’s ruling family and had gone to England and India (then a British colony) for higher education in the 1920s. The game was limited to the elites.
Cricket became popular among the masses only in the 1990s. Nepal became an associate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC), which governs global cricket, in 1996. Since then, cricket has captured the imagination of Nepali youth and has become the most popular sport in the country. Its popularity off-field has matched Nepal’s progress in the game. Nepal has scaled up the tiers of cricket and appeared in an ICC global event at the 2014 ICC World Twenty20, the game’s shortest format.
It gained ODI status in 2018. Currently, the ICC ranks Nepal 14th and 16th in the ODI and Twenty20 (T20) formats of the games, respectively.
Cricket has provided rare national unity and pride among Nepalis at home and abroad. The Nepali team’s performances have sparked hope and joy among Nepalis with little else to cheer for.
In a way, Nepali cricket reflects the challenges that the country faces.
First, there is limited infrastructure. Nepal had only two cricketing grounds where international matches were played for a long time. It has recently added a third ground. All three, however, can hardly be called modern stadiums by any standards.
Second, instability and mismanagement run deep. Monty Desai, the current national coach, is the seventh since 2018. The politicization of the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN), the governing body for all cricket in the country, led to Nepal’s suspension in 2016 for breach of “ICC regulations which prohibit government interference and require free and fair elections.” Nepal was reinstated in 2019. Similarly, Nepal’s rollout of a T20 league, which held the inaugural tournament in December 2022-January 2023, was poorly organized. Some foreign players left mid-tournament over clashes with organizers, while other matches were affected by teams not paying the players’ salaries on time.
Third, corruption remains rife. The inaugural T20 tournament was a hotbed for spot-fixing, a practice of bribing players for specific actions during specific times to influence the betting results. A Central Investigation Bureau investigation unearthed that franchise owners and the Seven3Sports, an Indian company that was the commercial and strategic partner of the league, were engaged in the corrupt practice. Seven3Sports’ cofounder was the mastermind. Two former cricketers were arrested on a charge of supporting the fixers. It felt as if the whole league was organized to help corrupt betting practices.
Fourth, Nepal’s captain, Sandip Lamichhane, was accused of raping a minor and suspended from all cricketing activities following an arrest warrant issued against him in September 2022. Lamichhane, the most high-profile Nepali cricket player, has played in domestic leagues worldwide, including the Indian Premier League (IPL). Following the high court’s decision to grant him conditional bail, the CAN overturned his suspension. Nepali youth marched in protest against allowing an accused rapist on the team. Even the Scottish players refused to shake hands with Lamichhane before a match between the two nations in February.
Despite the challenges, the team has competed well on the field. The cricket-crazy Nepali crowd has provided excellent support. Spectators have flocked to matches, whether in Nepal or abroad, adorned with national flags, making deafening noise of support. Cricket is no longer just a sport in Nepal but a religion.
The cricket team’s challenges mirror Nepal’s struggles and the Nepali people’s hope, regardless of the conditions. Cricket fans have catapulted Nepali cricketers to the status of rock stars. The sport has brought the country together and given something to Nepalis to celebrate.
Even though the British colonizers left South Asia more than seven decades ago, their influence can be fully felt in cricket. Nepal’s rise makes it the sixth country in South Asia among the top 16 globally ranked cricket-playing countries.
Afghanistan’s ascent to the top was even steeper and quicker. In a 2010 meeting with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited Afghan cricket as the model for Afghanistan to follow. “If we [the U.S. and Afghanistan] are searching for a model to meet international challenges with skill, dedication, and teamwork, we need only look to the Afghan national cricket team,” she said. In 2017, Afghanistan became a full member of the ICC, although that status is now imperiled by the Taliban regime’s refusal to allow women to play the sport.
Along with the economic center of gravity shifting to Asia, the center of global cricket has shifted to South Asia, particularly India. India generates around 90 percent of cricket’s global revenues. Add the mad love for cricket in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Nepal — the region is a cricketing behemoth.
While some critics in the West are not comfortable with the dominance of cricket by a non-White country, India has played a vital role in developing the game in the region. Nepal’s progress opens up further opportunities and the need for deeper cricketing cooperation in the region, especially in India. It would greatly support the development of Nepali cricket if India allowed some Nepali cricketers to participate in their domestic trophies. It would give Nepali cricketers greater exposure and a chance to compete with and learn from more skilled players. In addition, Nepal and India need to cooperate more closely to control corruption in the game.