Asia Cup: Can Nepal follow Afghanistan and join international cricket’s elite?

Rohit Paudel’s young side had a chastening debut in the continental competition with heavy defeats to India and Pakistan

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Should Nepal be the next side to be granted access to international cricket’s elite club of leading nations?

In isolation, the 2023 Asia Cup group stage might count against them. It would be incorrect to say their performances at the competition demanded consideration for their elevation.

Far from it. Hefty losses against Pakistan and India showed there is a vast gap for them to bridge.

There was enough in each game to provide reasons for optimism, though. Their start with the ball against Pakistan was bright, before they were let down by lapses in the field that were uncharacteristic of a side who are usually electric in that department.

Then they were blown away by a bowling attack comprising Shaheen Afridi, Naseem Shah, Haris Rauf and Shadab Khan. No crime there. That quartet is high class, each of them a world XI contender on their own, and collectively irresistible.

In their second match, Nepal’s batters deserved credit for lasting longer against India’s bowlers, even if it was a curiously insipid and downbeat display in the field by Rohit Sharma’s side.

Defending 230 was never likely to be easy, while a chase reduced by weather almost always favours the side batting second. Given their batting riches, India hardly required that extra advantage.

Sharma and Shubman Gill proceeded to savage Nepal’s bowlers, to the tune of a 10-wicket win. But, as with the sentiment about Pakistan’s bowling attack, there is no disgrace there. Sharma and Gill have done that to eminently more experienced bowlers before and will do so again.

But it is fair to say Nepal’s debut captured the attention in a way rarely experienced before by the qualifying side in the Asia Cup.

That side – whoever they may be – are always on a hiding to nothing, pitted in a group with the might of India and Pakistan, as the organisers do their best to ensure the fixture between those two rivals is perpetuated. The reasons for that are so clearly commercial, rather than competitive.

Between them, the UAE, Hong Kong, and now Nepal have played 12 matches in Asia Cups. They have yet to claim a win.

Not that Associate nations have been entirely without success in the competition. In fact, a win on that stage is usually a portent for bigger things to follow.

Afghanistan beat Bangladesh at the 2014 tournament. Within three years they had been accepted into the Test elite. Now they play at every Asia Cup by right as a result.

Is anyone equipped to follow the Afghans? It feels as though both neutral supporters and cricket’s administrators want Nepal to progress because of the voracious following for the game there.

In a disappointingly sparse crowd in Pallekele, Nepal’s supporters far outnumbered their Indian counterparts. They were a vivid presence both in the city of Kandy before the game, plus on the banks beyond the boundary once it had started.

They were even well represented in the stands at Multan, despite the fact that is not a very accessible venue for supporters travelling from Nepal.

Further, home support for Nepal in Kathmandu has been noted the world over. Wasim Akram, ahead of the Asia Cup, described the passion for the game in the country as “humongous”. Aakash Chopra termed it “unparalleled”.

Yet if Nepal are about to forward their case for acceptance higher up, their peers in continental competition might be minded to say: join the queue.

Oman are arguably the leading Asian side from beyond the Test elite at present, certainly in ODIs. Their runner-up finish in Cricket World Cup League 2, followed by their advance to the knockout phase of the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe, attests to that.

Their facilities might be limited to one site in Al Amerat near Muscat, but they are of the highest spec possible.

Whether their national team’s rate of success is sustainable is unclear. It might well be, but a side who have charged through the ranks of international cricket over the past year are growing old together.

It is impossible to say what will follow the likes of Bilal Khan and Co. Maybe, as with Nepal and potentially the UAE, there is a generation of players ready to take over and improve on what went before them. We won’t know until those players are phased in.

Then there is the case of the UAE, a side who have started the process of rebuilding and have already shown great signs of promise. They have taken a number of wins off full Test nations, thanks in part to the number of opportunities the Emirates Cricket Board has afforded the team to face just such opposition.

The UAE has the best stadia of any non-Test nation – and would be the envy of many in the mainstream, too.

There is also a huge following for the sport in the country, if not necessarily the national team itself.

If there is not one side making an unambiguous claim for elevation then that might be a positive. The strength of Asian competition beneath the elite can help each of the aspiring sides on to bigger and better things.

Updated: September 05, 2023, 1:31 PM