Friday, April 19

T20 World Cup Qualifiers: In-form Nepal eye to seize golden opportunity

Sandesh Sigdel, Kathmandu

“Past. Gone. We’ll take the learning from it. Only focus is on what’s coming next”, Nepal head coach Monty Desai was clear about where his priorities lie, when asked about the Tri-Series final loss against the UAE on the eve of the ICC T20 World Cup Asia Qualifiers.

The ever-striding Nepali Team will be contesting their biggest assignment yet at home. The ACC Premier Cup triumph back in March that booked Nepal’s place in the Asia Cup was the biggest triumph Nepal have had at home, the Qualifiers surely eclipses that.

Nepal’s only participation in the premier tournament brought a drastic change in the cricketing environment of the country. The T20 World Cup in 2014 not only saw celebration across the entire nation but inspired thousands to take up the sport. Now, under Monty Desai’s guidance, the team will look to compete at the biggest stage after a decade.

Skipper Rohit Poudel was one of those who took up the sport after seeing Nepal play in that World Cup. ‘We grew up watching the 2014 batch at the World Cup and we’d like to repeat that’, added Rohit. Skipper, who was 11 at the time spoke about Nepal’s aim to repeat the feat.

Certainly, the Nepali team would be licking their lips looking at the prospect of achieving the dream on home soil. The team has had a resurgence under Desai’s coaching, starting with the near impossible run to protect the ODI status and qualify for the World Cup Qualifiers in Zimbabwe.

But it seems like ages ago now, this group of players have featured against the world’s powerhouse India and Pakistan at the Asia Cup and gave India a run for money in Asian Games too. That was one heck of a story.

The Asian Games was Desai’s first assignment in the T20I format and his boys brought their ‘A’ game, shattering records against Mongolia. That was the perfect shift of formats for this team which had been contesting ODIs for a while, although the word ‘perfect’ might be an exaggeration at this point.

Nepal are termed favorites to win the qualifiers on paper and the head coach himself, as well as the captain and his men, have echoed one thing repeatedly- we have to play the T20 World Cup next year at any cost. The run kicking off from the 11 out of 12 wins in the Cricket League Two up to the recent Tri-Series has surely made the fan army here in Nepal confident, perhaps a bit over than required, oblivious to the challenge that lies ahead. However, the loss against UAE in tri-series final was a timely wake up call.

The biggest takeaway from the Asian Games and the Tri-Series has to be the resurgence of Dipendra Singh Airee, the power-hitter. Airee scored 151 runs in four innings, striking at an impressive 173.56. His return to his level-best is a major boost to the Nepali contingent.

Kushal Malla’s batting prowess is well-known. But his bowling can also be useful for Nepal if required. Malla, used as a part timer had the best economy of any bowler in the series- an impressive 4.36 bowling 11 overs in total in five matches. Nepal’s frailty to finish the innings was evident against the UAE in the final- it might have been an off-day for the Nepali tail but Desai would be concerned to learn from the mistakes that made him lose his first encounter in front of the roaring fans at home.

The Tri-Series final defeat was a “wake-up call”, as stated by Desai. That match likewise disclosed Nepal’s shortcomings in each and every department and laid out UAE as a danger to Nepal, who finished their seven-match losing go against the hosts. UAE are grasped with hard hitters in Muhammed Waseem, the captain, as well as any presence of Asif Khan as shown in the CWCL2 as well as the freshest expansion, Aryansh Sharma.

Aayan Khan’s re-visitation of the side unveiled how great they are with him as well as the capacity he has to make the resistance’s batting orders stoop to his talent. Prior to crossing oceans to land in Kathmandu, the UAE battled against New Zealand at home in three T20Is, overcoming the Blackcaps in one- absolutely something that ought to concern Nepali fans if that final loss hadn’t as of now.

Hong Kong, although arriving late to the party in the series, showcased their mettle getting past the 200-run mark against the UAE- the same bowling setup that Nepal crippled against in the final. The inclusion of the returning Anshuman Rath as well as Martin Coetzee who has had a good exposure in the South African domestic circuit, makes them a threat- on their day, they can topple any team that lie ahead of them in the Qualifiers.

Oman, the reigning Gulf T20I Champions, stand out as potential dark horses in the qualifiers. Their victory over UAE in the final solidified their threat, raising the stakes for the two coveted spots in the West Indies and the USA next year. Adding to the complexity, Bahrain surprised both Oman and UAE in the Gulf Championship, further muddling the situation. Singapore, Malaysia, and Kuwait also loom as competitive opponents.

Given the recent developments, any lapse in performance could lead to an upset for the favorites. Recent events underline a key conclusion: any team is capable of defeating another.

The painful memory of the defeat against the UAE in the previous semifinals has faded amidst recent triumphs, but Nepal now stand on the brink of redemption within themselves. Skipper Rohit put even more clarity, ‘We have forgotten everything that happened in the past. We are focused on present and look forward to the tournament.’ If Nepal are to really proudly roar into the cricketing folklore and march ahead, these Qualifiers are a major stepping stone.

Nepal aren’t just battling against other teams; they are also confronting their own history, the challenges of their past, and the weight of expectations from the passionate fan base. As Karan KC said, “We have to play the T20 World Cup anyhow”. This is the time to make it happen.

Qualifiers, from tomorrow.

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