Nepal Unsettled ahead of Qualifier. Can they make it to World Cup?
The optimism of the Whatmore-Malla era has been replaced by uncertainty, argues Rajan Shah
Ten months ago, Nepal’s men’s team surprised the cricket world with a newfound strength in batting. Under the short but impactful partnership of former captain Gyanendra Malla and former coach Dav Whatmore, they registered three of their four highest T20I totals against the Netherlands and Malaysia — that too in a space of four days.
Kushal Bhurtel’s record-breaking exploits, Dipendra Singh Airee and Kushal Malla’s middle order bursts, Sompal Kami and Karan KC’s finishing touches: the fearless batting represented a new hope for Nepali fans. It was a “dawn of a new era,” as I had penned for All Over Cricket after Nepal’s victory in the T20I Tri-Series held in Kathmandu.
Nepal was always a strong bowling team. The batting revolution, however, firmly elevated Nepal as a serious contender to leapfrog fellow associates and challenge lower-ranked Full Members. They continued their good form in ODIs beating Oman in Oman during the Men’s Cricket World Cup League 2. Unfortunately, this would prove to be the last series in the Whatmore-Malla era due to the circumstances that followed.
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Nothing lasts forever
All the good work was undone with a series of controversies that rocked Nepali cricket back home. The key players including former captain Malla, vice-captain Dipendra Singh Airee, senior all-rounder Sompal Kami and young pace bowler Kamal Singh Airee, were all unhappy after CAN, once again, botched the Graded National Contracts. It became a daily soap. Key players were missing from a closed camp and CAN officials leaked statements left and right to the media regarding the dissatisfied players. There were even interventions from the office of Nepal’s Prime Minister. Amidst all the chaos, Sandeep Lamichhane was announced as the new captain.
After a dreadfully extended tussle, CAN took a U-turn and revoked all the reprimands on the above-mentioned players. However, it came with a major cost: It left a question mark on whether this would pummel the team’s morale.
After failing to chase a manageable 128 against Ireland, Nepal captain Lamichhane said in a frank assessment, “The batters need to realize their mistakes. It disappointed us.”
Nepal lost two matches out of three in the Quadrangular Series despite being in a position to finish on top of the table. In the game against Ireland, Nepal needed to chase 128 within the 14th over to win the trophy. However, forget finishing on top; Nepal could only muster 111 runs at the end of 20 overs losing the match by 16 runs and finishing at the bottom of the pack.
Dassanayake expressed Nepal’s batting needs “a lot of thinking” going into the Men’s T20 World Cup Qualifier. “Except for Dipendra [Singh Airee], other batters are not converting their starts into big scores. I am happy that things are happening now, so that, we can fix it in the main tournament.”
Former captain Gyanendra Malla was used at number three, opening and number five, in the three matches he played. Clearly, Malla made more movement in the batting position than the scorecard. Malla, as a captain, had won two out of three international series against the likes of the Netherlands, Oman and PNG. But the momentum was derailed after being accused of ‘creating groups’ within the national team during the CAN versus Players fiasco.
Only a few months ago, Malla was leading a great group of players all pulling in the same direction. Two days out from the qualifier, and he is by no means a certain starter across all three group fixtures or the playoffs if Nepal do manage to get that far.
Young Kushal Malla’s free fall has been sobering for Nepali fans. The prodigious teenager has been struggling to score runs ever since that remarkable Tri-nation T20 series back in April 2021. And now he’s lost his place in the squad for the Qualifier. I was about to write that Kushal might be preferred over Shahab Alam and Sagar Dhakal in the final XI because of his ability with the bat. However, Sagar Dhakal was chosen as the sole left-arm spinner in the final 14-man squad for the Qualifier.
Aarif Sheikh and Vesawkar, dubbed as designated finishers by coach Pubudu Dassananyake, struggled to get going during the Oman quadrangular series.
Whilst Vesawkar had little to do against Oman, he failed to score quick runs in a chase against UAE and fell cheaply against Ireland. Vesawkar had a strike rate of 82 in four innings for Armed Police Force scoring 46 runs in the Prime Minister T20 Cup preceding the Oman tour. In his defense, Vesawkar did have a healthy strike rate of 150 in the EPL before the PM Cup and he still has experience on his side. Yet, Aarif’s inclusion is baffling. He scored a total of 143 runs in 11 innings he played in EPL and PM Cup combined with a below-par strike rate of 114 and 122 respectively.
Nepal’s batters struggled against accurate Irish bowlers whereas Bhim Sharki, who was left out of the squads for both the tri-series and the Qualifier, was toying with the likes of Azmatullah Omarzai and Kesrick Williams during the EPL. He was injured during the closed camp but made his return during the latter stages of PM Cup. He was fit to play but curiously overlooked in spite of a batting line up that could benefit from his proactivity and form.
Bibek Yadav deserves his place in the squad with a string of good performances with bat and ball in EPL and PM Cup. A clean striker of the ball, Yadav did not bat in the first two matches and was dropped for the third against Ireland.
The number seven spot is the most open position in the playing XI right now. Yet, in the absence of Karan KC and Sompal Kami, Nepal will have some large shoes to fill at the death of the innings.
Bowling far from perfect
Opposition teams will likely have a clear game plan: See through Lamichhane’s spell. The onus is on the Nepal skipper to find a way to breach the defenses of opposition batters. With Oman and Canada in their group, Nepal may need more than a wicket in each match from its globetrotter. Similarly, Lamichhane batting at number 8 means Nepal also has a long tail whereas Nepal could bat up to number 10 not very long ago.
To make matter worse, Karan KC was ruled out after the completion of the Quadrangular series. With no Kami or KC, there are question marks for Nepal in the pace department. KS Airee has shown glimpses of brilliance but has struggled with no support bowler at the other end.
KS Airee will be the powerplay enforcer whereas Bohara will take death over duties. Likewise, Lamichhane will take the charge in middle-overs with the bankable support of DS Airee’s off-spin. Having said that, the second spinner and/or pacer’s spells could be the deciding factor in the big fixtures against Oman and Canada.
There is good news for Nepal’s batting with Bhurtel returning to fitness against Ireland. Over the last 12 months, Dipendra Singh Airee has taken his T20 game to the next level and top-scored for Nepal in the quadrangular series in spire of batting at number four, which is widely regarded as the toughest position to bat in T20 cricket.
The form of experienced duo, Malla and Vesawkar will be key if Nepal hopes to replicate the success of last year’s tri-series against the Netherlands and Malaysia.
Nepal still has plenty of talent in the squad to make it through to the semi-final stage, but qualification is by no means a guarantee. As far as Nepal’s passionate fanbase is concerned, the optimism of the Malla-Whatmore era has been replaced by a familiar uncertainty and prayers for the un-retirement of a certain you-know-who…
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