Before Nepal’s openers Kushal Bhurtel and Aasif Sheikh took the wind out of a near full-strength Indian new-ball charge in an Asia Cup match on Monday, the duo had combined to score seven runs against a second-tier team of the Men in Blue during the Emerging Cup in July.
But Bhurtel almost equaled that tally with a single stroke against the senior team – a thunderous pull shot over deep backward square-leg that landed in the parking lot of a ground nestled in the hills of Sri Lanka and echoed all the way up to the high peaks of Nepal.
The folkloric significance of the moment was not lost on the Nepali fans, who ran across the grass bank with the fluttering crimson and blue double-pennon in hand. The six had a redeeming touch too, as Bhurtel had looked at sea against the short ball until then and had been the beneficiary of a dropped catch by Ishan Kishan when going for the pull off Mohammad Shami.
His partner Sheikh’s claim to fame until then had been the gesture of choosing to not run Ireland’s Andy McBrine out last year, which had earned him the Spirit of Cricket Award. But goodwill alone wasn’t going to cut it for the Nepali fans, who had thronged to the ground and even outnumbered their Indian counterparts, an anomaly in most parts of the world.
While Nepal captain Rohit Paudel was looking forward to meeting Virat Kohli after the match in what he had said would be a fanboy moment, the fans weren’t harbouring any such wishes. “Not looking forward to any Indian players, I’m here to look at our players,” a Nepal loyalist, brimming with energy outside the stadium, had proclaimed when asked which India player he was most keen to watch.
Bhurtel and Sheikh ensured it wasn’t just fan bluster and exorcised the ghosts of being bundled out for 104 against Pakistan by powering Nepal to 65 inside the first 10 overs.
Sheikh had set the limit of Nepal’s achievement against India at surviving the full quota of 50 overs. But when he whirled his wrists to flick an overpitched loosener from Siraj for the first boundary and cut Hardik Pandya through point with vehemence for the 50-run opening partnership, that goal, though not quantitatively, had been surpassed in essence.
In what was supposed to be a warm-up for the bowlers ahead of the Super Fours after the washout against Pakistan, Shami and Siraj wheeled away for eight overs without success, not helped by the butter-fingered fielders, who spilt three chances inside five overs.
More than a practice session, it was a lesson in humility. Siraj had stared hard at Bhurtel after beating the latter with a short one following the epochal six. While Bhurtel didn’t budge, Sheikh riposted in Siraj’s next over, pulling and then nudging his wayward lines and lengths for back-to-back fours.
It finally needed Shardul Thakur’s golden arm to break the symphony as Bhurtel edged an innocuous length delivery behind. But as the tedium of tight spin-bowling set in, reality sunk in as Ravindra Jadeja dismantled the middle-order and Kuldeep Yadav exerted a stranglehold.
A humbled Siraj came back to pick three wickets in the midst of Sompal Kami’s defiant 48, but he wasn’t his animated self anymore.
Nepal fell short of battling out for 50 overs before Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill made mincemeat of a rain-curtailed target.
But that the ground staff - which had worked tirelessly through three rain interruptions to make a result possible - was cheering for dot balls and wincing at close misses even during Rohit and Gill’s onslaught, was testament to what that opening hour’s action, inspired by its fans’ background score, had achieved for cricket in the Himalayan country.
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