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Asia Cup: Nepal fight Himalayan odds to rise up cricket’s pecking order | Cricket News

Lack of facilities and inhospitable climate have engendered tough team spirit and passionate love for the game

Nepal cricket team at the Asia CupMembers of the team Nepal sings national anthem before the Asia Cup cricket match between India and Nepal in Pallekele, Sri Lanka on Monday, Sep. 4. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

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These days Lumbini – the birthplace of Gautama Buddha – is getting popular for reasons beyond that. One of their own, Kushal Bhurtel, who got Nepal off to a blazing start against Indiahas been witnessing a beeline of fans at his residence over the past six months. An MBA graduate when he is not playing cricket, Bhurtel loves trekking, and would often disappear for days with his backpack to the Himalayas. He is known to be adventurous and last March, soon after taking Nepal to the World Cup Qualifiers, climbed up to Tilicho Lake, 4,949m above sea level, with teammates Dipendra Singh Airee and Ima Bohara and planted the Nepal team jersey there as a mark of the journey.

It could have easily been a trek that Bhurtel could have ended up not undertaking. For four nights away from a key World Super League 2 must-win match against Namibia, he had rushed home for an emergency with the team totally unaware of the reason. It was only later in the evening that Bhurtel would message head coach Monty Desai that his mother had suffered severe burns and had to be brought to Kathmandu –nearly 250km away – for further treatment.

It is a night where none of his teammates slept, instead choosing to be with Bhurtel in the hour of crisis. “That night, they showed a different side of theirs. They come from humble backgrounds and, like all middle-class families, give shoulder to each other. They never, ever speak of the adversities they face. They are just proud people, having the desire to do anything to make Nepal proud,” Desai tells The Indian Express.

With a crucial game coming up, as his teammates were leaving the hospital, Bhurtel’s young sister would convince her brother to join the team assuring that she would take care of their mother. And in that game against Namibia, chasing 286 for a win, Bhurtel will make 115 off 113 balls to take them to victory.

The province of Lumbini is not new to witnessing such fireworks from his bat. Over the years, Bhurtel, who prefers to come down the track and whip and flick deliveries to the leg-side, is known to light up the Tilottama Cup tournament back home. He had a huge fan following even before he started playing for Nepal, which also made him an influential figure in social media.

Bhurtel is one of the many players in the Nepal team who have been employed by one of Nepal Armed Forces, Nepal Army or Police, just to play cricket. It is an unheard-of gesture that even professional cricketers from Test-playing teams don’t always enjoy, where they get a good pay cheque just to take care of the game. With the sport gaining plenty of popularity in the hill-locked nation, where the frenzy when Nepal qualified for the World Cup Qualifiers and Asia Cup was similar to what one would witness in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, the Services department is taking special care of the cricketers.

Hardships bring tenacity

With the Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu providing the only decent infrastructure in the county and the one that hosts ODIs, the national capital happens to be the one-stop venue for professional cricket. With most of the players coming from the western part of Nepal and from humble backgrounds, it is the Services which are keeping the game afloat, even fielding teams in the domestic tournaments.

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With weather being a constant issue as it can lead to roads being blocked for days, several players stay away from families for months in a row. “If we keep talking and mentioning about the hassles we face, it is not going to help. ‘Tough it out’ is a message that is ingrained in us because who doesn’t face difficulties and challenges in life? Of course, most of us are from the middle class and face issues that most other people face, but they don’t talk about it, do they?” says Pratis, one of the all-rounders who has broken into the senior side after impressing at the U-19 level.

Coming from a small village in the western part of the country, the 19-year-old Pratis has been spending at least eight months in Kathmandu living in a small accommodation, braving the winter. “It is how it is, and you have to accept it. I’m not suffering alone, there are others as well,” he reminds.

It is this trait of the team that has made them enjoy a passionate fan following back home. At the Tribhuvan University ground, thousands tend to be in attendance as the stands are crowded like a beehive. For Monday’s fixture against India, around 50 fans travelled from all over Nepal, and as the Nepal batsmen were frustrating India in the first hour of play, they were dancing on the grass banks as beer overflowed. And on the field, the Nepal team was having a moment of their own, where instead of being overwhelmed by the occasion, they showed nothing but kid-like enthusiasm.

First published on: 04-09-2023 at 19:53 IST

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