x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

In cricket Afghanistan and Nepal can be better than England-Pakistan

When it comes to exercising their vocal chords, the two nations' expatriate fans fare better in the UAE.

As neighbouring countries to cricketing powerhouses, Pakistan and India, the passion is high among Nepal fans, above, and Afghanistan, below.
As neighbouring countries to cricketing powerhouses, Pakistan and India, the passion is high among Nepal fans, above, and Afghanistan, below.

These are weird times for international cricket. Last month, Afghanistan played their first one-day international against a member of the established elite, Pakistan, a nation noted among the top brass for having the most raucous supporters.

The Pakistani faithful, however, were totally drowned out by the din created by air-horns, drums, bagpipes, harmonicas and the best part of 15,000 bellowing Afghan voices.

Afghanistan owned Sharjah Cricket Stadium that night, but their squatter's rights only lasted around 34 days, before they came under threat from a totally new cricketing force.

When they played Nepal yesterday afternoon, there were around 4,500 people in the ground in Sharjah, of which at least a third were backing Nepal.

The Nepalese might have had less to shout about - their team were eventually comfortably beaten - but they were rarely silenced.

"We are fantastically well supported," Paras Khadka, Nepal's captain, said. "That shows the passion for the game in our country. There are so many people following us and they have expectations of the team doing well."

The winds of change are blowing through international cricket with gathering pace. Who would have thought, say, five years ago that a match involving Afghanistan and Nepal would attract more people than matches between England and Pakistan?

Status quo? The status quo does not even last for a month in international cricket these days.

When it comes to progress Afghanistan have shown it can be done, by reaching the last World Twenty20, and by achieving a competitive standard in general. Maybe Nepal will be next. They certainly have the backing for it.

"Cricket is really popular there," said Pubudu Dassanayake, the former Sri Lanka wicketkeeper who has been in charge of the Nepal national team since October.

"When the national team are playing in Nepal, you will see 15,000 people there, easily. If you go to the websites and Facebook, there are so many people following the team.

"There is lots of hype, lots of young, home-grown talent, so the game is really developing there."

The influence of Sri Lankans in the rise of cricket in the Himalayan nation is an intriguing one. Dassanayake took over the position when Roy Dias, his former colleague in Sri Lanka, decided to step down after a decade in charge of Nepalese cricket.

Each of them had experienced at close quarters the rise of Sri Lanka from cricketing minnows who only played their first Test in 1982, to world champions in 1996.

Is such a rise feasible in Nepal? "You will be surprised - very soon they will climb up," Dassanayake, who coached Canada at last year's World Cup, said.

"If you look down every lane or on every sports ground in Nepal, you can see kids playing the game.

"It is like being a part of India. They are crazy about the game, but the issue is it is not structured well, which is what we need to do."

Nepal's proximity to India partly explains the passion for the game there, with a ready supply of cable TV channels streaming cricket 24 hours per day.

With the increased profile come pressure to perform. It is something Afghanistan's players can empathise with. Their supporters have become used to success at this level - but what they really need is to be entertained.

"Now cricket is a very famous game in Afghanistan," Karim Sadiq, the big-hitting batsman who has been a key figure in their emergence, said after the 34 run win over Nepal.

"We are thankful that they come to support the team. It is good for us, but our people want to see sixes."

Dassanayake cites the physical strength of Afghanistan's players, and thus their ability to clear the ropes when they are batting, as a crucial factor in their success at this level.

It was noticeable in Friday's game, when the Afghans hit twice as many sixes as they did fours, while a variety of Nepal's batsmen holed out on the boundary rope while attempting to imitate the trick.

The Nepalese supporters have six-fever just as much as their Afghan rivals, but the players do not find the expectation to be a burden, according to their captain.

"Everyone is an amateur," said Khadka, whose side continue their pursuit of one of the two qualifying berths for September's World Twenty20 when they face Bermuda today.

"We are not professionals being paid to play cricket, everyone is there just because they are passionate about the game.

"You just want to go out there and do well. There is no fear, there is nothing to lose, there are only things to gain."