A couple of 17-year-olds from Kandy are shadow bowling at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium on Sunday as the patter of an intermittent drizzle persists on the tarpaulin covering the ground after the high-voltage India versus Pakistan Asia Cup 2023 clash proved to be a damp squib.
They are here to assist as net bowlers during team practice and are emulating Dale Steyn and James Anderson’s bowling actions but seem a little awestruck after bowling to Suryakumar Yadav and Shreyas Iyer.
Senura, a batter who bowls part-time off-spin, was even gifted a pair of gloves by Iyer but is a Virat Kohli loyalist, through and through.
Moments later, even Nepal skipper Rohit Paudel sheepishly confessed that the contest against India on Monday could turn into a fanboy moment for players, albeit after the match.
“When the game starts and we get on the ground, both teams will want to win. After that, it will be a fanboy moment where the game closes and we get an opportunity to talk with the senior players from India and learn from them. Virat Kohli is an inspiration for all of us. His work ethic and discipline, both on and off the ground, is an inspiration,” Paudel said during a press conference on Sunday, ahead of the game against India.
However, Paudel knows he has a job at hand and needs to put his admiration aside.
“Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma have been superstars for the country for the last 10 years. We have been making plans for how to tackle them. Everybody is doing their homework and hopefully we’ll deliver,” he added.
Paudel, who turned 21 just a couple of days ago, is carrying the hopes of a nation that has been buoyed by stunning scripts of valour – in the field of cricket – of late.
Nepal qualified for its maiden Asia Cup after winning the ACC Premier Cup tournament in May, two months after completing a stunning come-from-behind run of 11 victories in 12 matches in the Cricket World Cup League 2, which enabled its participation in the Qualifiers in Zimbabwe.
“Before playing those 12 matches, we weren’t even sure if we could save our ODI status as we were losing so many matches. We had just come from Namibia and had lost three out of four matches, and one game was tied. We were not expecting to win 11 out of 12 matches. But Monty [Desai] sir came after that and suddenly everything changed. We started believing in each other and feeling confident. The way we chased 270-280 targets three times in a row, gave us confidence to move forward. We were playing each game like it was a final,” wicketkeeper Aasif Sheikh told Sportstar.
A passionate fanbase has been the fuel for the team, which has played high-intensity contests in Kirtipur in front of huge crowds, with some fans even putting their bodies on the line and perching on top of trees to watch their stars play.
“We don’t have much domestic games in Nepal. But the crowd there is absolutely amazing. You can see those people coming even in the rain. It would be much better if we could get some more exposure and more domestic games in Nepal,” Sheikh added.
Nepal was routed by Pakistan in its first-ever Asia Cup match, but Paudel says the fans are as loyal as ever and that the game is taking deeper roots in the country.
“When I saw the videos from the game against Pakistan, I saw a lot of people from different parts of the country were watching together. It makes me very happy that our country also is taking an interest in cricket. As a leader and as players, we all want to grow, and it is an opportunity for us to play good cricket and make our people happy... After the loss against Pakistan, I got a lot of messages from fans. They are sending positive messages and telling us to focus on the next game, supporting us through thick and thin.”
The gulf between the Associate and Test-playing nations is significant, said Sheikh, and while winning would be a bridge too far, Nepal would be happy batting for its full quota of 50 overs.
“When you play against Test nations, you find it a little difficult, being an Associate player. We found it a little difficult to face those bowlers, but we are working on it. We couldn’t bat the way we wanted to against Pakistan. We know we have the potential to bat full 50 overs and we scored 270-280 against good teams. We are looking to play the full 50 overs as a batting side,” Sheikh explained.
It was a dream come true for Sheikh when he got to play alongside his elder brother Aarif in the national team on his international debut in 2021. In 2023, he is set to play against his idol Kohli in yet another career-defining moment.
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