The national under-19 Nepali cricket team is having a dream run. In 2001 it won the 3rd Youth Asia Cup, followed by a stellar showing at the U-19 World Cup and now the boys have emerged victorious with the 4th Youth Asia Cup.
The onus was on them to defend their title this year in Karachi, and this they did in style. Their win has gone a long way in proving that these boys are no flukes.
They have either won or made their presence felt in every major tourney they played in the last two years. We are on the fast track to becoming a cricketing nation.
Talking to the press at Tribhuban International Airport on his triumphant return on Wednesday, skipper Shakti Gauchan said, "I hope this victory will add a new chapter to Nepal's cricket history and will prove instrumental for the development of the game." We second that.
This success is special for Nepali cricket. Not only were they defending a title, but it was also played 'Away'. The maturity and responsibility our players displayed in the rained out final against Malaysia was commendable. In earlier matches, we often displayed a tendency to falter at crucial matches. This time the team played with precision and passion. Our U-19 team was by far the best team in the tourney, and it's not just saying that. Nepal dominated: none of its opponents scored over a century except in the finals. Even Singapore and the UAE-the two countries thought most likely to defeat us-were dismissed with less than 100 runs.
This second victory was hard won. Batting first on the damp pitch wasn't easy. The responsibility fell on the frontline batsmen to introduce a quick start and accelerate the run rate. After the openers began, Sharad Vesawkar, who had earlier failed to bat in keeping with his reputation, played a gem of an inning cracking off 55 runs in 51 deliveries. He was ably supported by Yaswant Subedi and skipper Shakti Gauchan.
A superb 155 runs in 25 overs was a defendable target, and the Nepali bowlers lead by Manjeet Shrestha ensured Malaysia didn't reach it. Taking three Malaysian wickets, Shrestha showed why he is the strike bowler. His accuracy and out-swinger was too hot to handle for the Malaysians as their three top-orders batsmen returned to the pavilion with only 12 runs on the board. Malaysia did try to make a comeback in the match with a 66 run stand for the fifth, wicket but lost the initiative after Ariffin Bin Ramly and Sathiswaran were out.
In the past Nepali bowlers won the matches. This time, it was the batsmen. Impressive batting performances came from Kaniska Chaugain, Yaswant Subedi and Sarad Vesawkar. Chaugain scored a century against the Maldives while Subedi was consistent throughout the tourney. Vesawkar, promoted in U-19 after his wonderful batting at the U-15 Asia Cup, rose to the occasion in the match against Malaysia.
The other positive thing to come out from this Asia Cup was the emergence of Manjeet Shrestha as strike bowler. His bowling in the final made all the difference. With deadly accuracy, Shrestha put Malaysia on the defence with his three quick wickets.
This win should go a long way in raising the profile of cricket in a country where football is the most popular sport. Media coverage and public accolades are making heroes of these young players. The Nepal Sports Council (NSC) has announced Rs 10,000 will be given to each member, and the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) has already awarded individual awards of Rs 15,000. Other jubilant donors have jumped in.
But cash prizes are not enough. CAN must capitalise on the momentum of what the U-19 team has achieved. There has long been talk of Nepal qualifying for the next Cricket World Cup in 2007 but will the association be able to ensure and maintain steady growth? Is the present infrastructure enough to train our cricketers to compete with world class players from India, Australia and other cricketing nations?
We also have to graduate from one-day cricket to longer versions of the game, and players must have access to more than the sole cricket stadium in the nation. Can CAN find the sponsors?
In the Dream Team
Five Nepali cricketers have found place in the ACC dream team: skipper Shakti Gauchan, Kaniska Chaugain, Sarad Vesawkar, Manoj Katuwal and Manjeet Shrestha. All of them played a crucial role in Nepal's victory. The only player missing is Yaswant Subedi. The tournament organising committee judged opener Kaniska Chaugain and Manoj Katuwal best batsman and best wicketkeeper respectively.