Monty Desai, Nepal’s head coach, is reflecting on his team’s journey from rock bottom to being a step closer to their World Cup dream.
When Desai joined Nepal in February, they were second from bottom of the World Cup Super League 2 points table. They needed 11 wins from a possible 12 matches to secure a berth at the 50-over World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe this June.
They got them, making for a stirring story of how an underdog team with a history of infighting and administrative challenges rose to conquer new frontiers.
“It’s emotional to even talk about it, there are so many stories,” Desai says. “I don’t know where to begin.”
Associate cricket is cut-throat. But it also offers many lessons in character-building and camaraderie, and stories of people who play for the love of the game without knowing if they will be loved back.
The Tribhuvan University ground was teeming with far more people than it could accommodate. Thousands dotted the streets to give the team a victory parade. Nepal’s prime minister hosted a reception for the team.
“It was as if we’d won a World Cup,” Desai says. “But I told the boys the journey has just begun.”
“The spontaneous call from the entire team to be alongside their colleague in this moment spoke of the camaraderie,” Desai says. I could see they cared for each other.
“For Bhurtel to play the role of a son by giving his mother moral support, and then to come back and be clear on his role in the game was a tremendous achievement. He set the tone for the whole team.”
Coach Monty Desai on Kushal Bhurtel’s match-winning knock when his mother was ill
“In fact, it was Bhurtel’s younger sister who insisted he stay focused on chasing his dream and the country’s dream. She is his inspiration.”
When Bhurtel returned, he found himself in the cauldron of a high-pressure chase of 286 against Namibia. He remembered Desai’s words: “Walk into the unknown with excitement.” Bhurtel made 115 off 113 balls to set the tone for a stunning chase.
“For him to play the role of a son by giving his mother moral support and then to come back, focus and be clear of his role [in the game] was a tremendous achievement. He set the tone for the whole team,” Desai says.
Nepal had a small window in which to complete their paperwork, but Nyaupane’s pregnant wife had just gone into labour in America, and he was dealing with the stress of it while being far away.
“I wasn’t aware of his personal situation [and that it was happening] the same morning while we had to submit a report with all evidence in place to the ICC committee,” Desai says.
“All this happened between 8 and 9am in Dubai. It was only around 11am, when we got together for a team meeting, that it was brought to my notice what he had been going through the whole night, while I was chasing him to write a proper professional email to get the job done.
“I thanked him profusely for what he had done. Going back home immediately wasn’t an option for him. Being a proud Nepali, he wanted to be part of this journey; winning or losing was immaterial to him.”
Each step of that 12-match journey was dotted with stories like these, of adversity and the strength to overcome it.
“It is extremely disappointing but also worrisome,” noted Nepali activist Hima Bista said at the time. “The institutional protection for him shows an attitude of normalising gender-based violence,” “The narrative is, if you are a celebrity, you can get away with anything… what about the victim?”
Lamichhane had been instrumental in Nepal going through the CWC tri-series in Nepal, the first four games of their 12-match streak, unbeaten. He took 13 wickets in what was his first set of games since his arrest last October.
“The institutional protection for Lamichhane shows an attitude of normalising gender-based violence. The narrative is if you are a celebrity, you can get away with anything… what about the victim?”
Nepali activist Hima Bista
Despite the misgivings over his inclusion within Nepal, the Cricket Association of Nepal’s decision to field him underlined the win-at-all-cost mindset that can sometimes engulf Associate teams, given that opportunities for them are few and far between. After all, their ODI status, which Lamichhane had helped them gain in 2018, was in jeopardy again.
But long before his inclusion as a replacement, a decision over Lamichhane had been taken internally. Soon after taking over as coach, Desai had sought clarity from all parties concerned upfront, to prevent distractions later on.
“In our very first meeting, Sandeep said, ‘Coach, if anyone feels uncomfortable, you don’t need to bring me into the squad.’ I asked him, ‘What do you want to do?’ And he said he wants to contribute towards the team. This is where he got his identity from. I asked the captain and senior players what they felt. All of them said, if he’s cleared to play, he should be welcomed. So it was a collective call.”
Much of Desai’s philosophy on team-building has revolved around having a “happy dressing room”. Having previously worked with Nepal in 2015, he had a ringside view of the hurdles players faced. Infrastructure was among the major considerations; clashes between players and the board weren’t uncommon either.
“The first goal was to create a happy dressing room,” he says. “I didn’t know how it had been earlier, but I was clear that everyone needed to play for one another as a group. You need to have open discussion about issues, not have a senior-junior divide.
“Experience-wise, they may be different, but when it comes to their views, they needed to have an open forum. I had to impress upon them these things. Among the first things we spoke about was to create awareness, not just cricket-wise but awareness around how we manage emotions, our choice of words, our body language. We had 12 games to shape the team.
“Once I connected with all of them, defined their roles and put plans in place, we were confident of being able to get something out of it. We weren’t quite sure what the end outcome would be. Qualifying for the Qualifier wasn’t even on the horizon then, because you don’t think that far.
“But my Under-19 experience with Nepal told me there was potential. So when we started off, we were clear about rewriting our story. What unfolded in those 12 games was magical – one story after another.”
Much of the change in culture, Desai says, is down to his rapport and understanding with Paudel, Nepal’s 20-year-old captain. It’s a responsibility Paudel has been able to warm up to without allowing it to get in the way of his batting form. Desai is all praise for Paudel’s clarity and calm handling of potentially tough situations.
“In one of the games, I wanted to hold back Rohit, just to have some experience in the middle order, but he was clear he’d bat at his usual number. He had that much conviction.” Desai says. “He walked the talk with a crucial half-century.
“I know with him, there’s a captain who will challenge the status quo if needed. That’s the highlight of our partnership.”
In the final game of this long stretch of matches, Nepal were faced with the challenge of chasing their highest-ever ODI target to win. At stake was a place in the World Cup Qualifiers.
“Among the first things we spoke about was to create awareness, not just cricket-wise but awareness around how we manage emotions, our choice of words, our body language. We had 12 games to shape the team”
UAE’S Asif Khan had bludgeoned a 41-ball century to help set up a target of 311. When Nepal slumped to 37 for 3, some in the crowd started to get unruly. But Bhim Sharki and Bhurtel hit counterattacking half-centuries to lead the rescue.
“We were just behind DLS when Aarif got out. We were suddenly 15-16 behind. The crowd got emotional. Things were thrown, a few UAE players along the boundary were heckled. Paudel, Malla and a few other players appealed for calm. All this cost time.
“We had to stretch to cross the finish line with DLS requirements of 20 runs in the next over or two,” Desai says. “Gulsan played an unreal knock – his first-ever fifty will forever be remembered.”
When play was finally suspended, Nepal were nine runs ahead, with Jha having received support from veteran Deependra Singh Airee. Nepal had done the unthinkable.
“It was the perfect culmination of us winning those one-ball battles,” Desai explains. We realised UAE will come with aggressive fast bowlers. We had mentally prepared for that. We had sessions where we prepared physically by practising ramps – scoops specifically.
“And under pressure, Bhim played two crucial scoops on the leg side, Aarif played a ramp under pressure to a short ball over the keeper’s head. Those are examples of courage shown in one-ball battles that kept us on course.”
After those heroics, Desai enjoyed a short break at home in Mumbai before joining the squad again for the ACC Premier Cup, a tournament whose winner will qualify to play this year’s 50-over Asia Cup in Pakistan this September. The top three teams from the tournament will also play the ACC Emerging Nations Cup, involving the A sides of the big five – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Desai’s next challenge is to work with CAN to develop a robust domestic structure.
“They play the Prime Minister’s Cup, which is their biggest competition. Apart from that, some private T20 leagues, but they’ve agreed to revamp the domestic structure,” Desai says. “There’s also a focus on improving ground infrastructure.
“At our management meeting, there have been some discussions around ensuring windows for A tours, apart from playing some invitational tournaments in India. We will try and reach out to associations like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Vidarbha, who host such tournaments prior to the Indian domestic season. If they can accommodate us, it would be great.
“They are developing two more grounds, and now with ODI status being retained, it will unlock some more funding that will open the doors not just for the men’s but also the Under-19 and women’s team.”
For now, Desai and Nepal have their sights firmly on the present. They aren’t looking too far ahead and are happy to stick to their philosophy of embracing the unknown with excitement.
Five years ago, Desai was part of Afghanistan’s squad as they made a remarkable comeback from nowhere to win the ICC World Cup Qualifiers in Zimbabwe. He, and the rest of Nepal, will be hoping history will repeat itself.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo