World cricket was given one of its great Cinderella stories in Kathmandu on Thursday.
Nepal, so often Associate cricket’s most likeable if occasionally down-on-its-luck outfit, had been nowhere. But they will get to go to the ball after an extraordinary transformation.
Over the course of the past month or so, they won 11 out of 12 matches to clinch their place at the Cricket World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe in June.
At no point in the three-and-a-half years of Cricket World Cup League 2 had a side enjoyed quite such a spell of dominance. Nepal had found the magic formula right when they needed it.
Amid all the drama at a pulsating Tribhuvan University ground, UAE played the role of Ugly Sisters with great gusto.
They might have lost, amid much acrimony in the gloom of a bad-light-stopped-play, DLS controversy, but they gained much in how they performed.
Finally, it appears they have some fight about them. That quality had been damagingly lacking in a string of supine displays over the past month, which put their own place at the global Qualifier in jeopardy, as well as their one-day international status.
That pluck was best exemplified by Junaid Siddique, the UAE seamer, who bowled eight overs with a suspected broken thumb on his bowling hand.
It was also shown by the UAE boundary riders, a number of whom had plastic bottles as well as abuse thrown towards them, as the tension was stretched almost to breaking point towards the end.
Three Nepal players, including captain Rohit Paudel, had to run to the crowd and appeal for calm at the atmosphere turned from festive to febrile.
Even with the bat, there was much to cheer as the touring batters finally remembered which end of the thing they are supposed to hold. Vriitya Aravind is back. Muhammad Waseem has arrived as an ODI force.
And so, too, has Asif Khan. In the most spectacular fashion. UAE have been waiting for Asif to happen ever since he had his first crack at League 2 a year ago.
The 33-year-old batter is a ferocious slayer of bowling attacks in domestic cricket. He had rarely hinted at being able to transpose domestic domination to international cricket, though – until Thursday.
He flourished to history-making effect, with a late overs onslaught that brought him a century in 41 deliveries. It included a violent spell of 77 runs in 17 balls.
It was the fastest century ever in the format by an Associate cricketer, and only three players have ever gone quicker: AB de Villiers, Corey Anderson and Shahid Afridi.
The last name of that select group is particularly poignant. Asif is known universally as ‘Lala’ – a nickname borrowed from that of his great hero in the sport, Afridi.
“I played against Shahid Afridi Lala in the first T20 in domestic in Pakistan,” Asif said after UAE’s nine-run loss to Nepal.
“I am a big fan of Afridi and the way he smashes the ball out of the ground. I am called Lala because of him.
“Back in first-class cricket in Pakistan, my coach used to call me Lala after I was hitting sixes, and everybody followed.”
Despite the altered mood towards the end of the game, as well as the fact his feat made their own side’s job that much harder, the packed crowd at TU showed their appreciation for Asif.
When he went to field on the long-off boundary, in front of a bank of supporters, they gave him a generous ovation.
“It was very nice,” Asif said. “These people are very good. I have played a lot of times in front of big crowds, in Gaddafi Stadium [in his native Lahore]. So it was nice to play in front of this crowd again.”
UAE now have to try to earn their place at the global Qualifier via a playoff in Namibia next week.
Where Asif will be sent in to bat remains unclear. Over the past month he has opened at time, batted in the middle order, while his salvo on Thursday came from No 7.
“As a professional cricketer you know you have a job to do,” he said.
“The coach said after the last match I would come in down the order to make use of being a power hitter, at No 6, 7 or 8.
“I talked to Vriitya when we had 12 overs left and said I would play out the first 15 or 16 balls, then I got one hit away after that and it was all about confidence.
“I am very used to this type of cricket in the short formats, especially T10 and T20. My mind was clear, and the message was just to go and play my natural game, as if it was T10 or T20.”