Kathmandu - On March 16, a country desperately looking for positive story finally got one. In its debut game at cricket's Twenty20 World Cup, Nepal beat Hong Kong, also playing its first international foray, by an impressive 80 runs in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
To add to the celebration in the Himalayan nation of 29 million, it happened in the middle of Holi, the Hindu festival of colours.
Crowds cheered at outdoor screening venues across the capital, Kathmandu, every time Nepal made a run, or when Hong Kong's wickets fell. Many in the country lack electricity in their homes - Nepal faces 12 hours of power cuts every day - so public gathering points are particularly popular.
"Our boys were hungry," said Nepal's 26-year-old captain, Paras Khadka, explaining the victory.
Cricket commentators say Nepalis are some of the most dedicated fans among second-tier cricketing nations. Nepalis dream of one day of joining the exclusive club of nations playing Test cricket, the classic five-day version of the game.
The young team's skills and passion was on display again on March 20, when they stunned Afghanistan by nine runs, continuing their impressive debut.
Sushil Koirala, the country's newly elected prime minister, issued a press statement, expressing hopes for even greater success "to turn into reality the dreams of kissing the World Cup".
The finance minister, too, piped up on Twitter to say money will be allocated to build a cricket stadium, a decision that will boost sporting infrastructure.
The politics of sport
Tech-savvy politicians from different ends of the spectrum were quick to congratulate the team on Twitter.
The cricketers work very hard as a team, unlike our politicians who can't agree on anything.
"Good job Nepali cricket team! This first brilliant win in the World Cup has raised high the heads of all Nepalese," tweeted Nepal's former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, promptly inviting snide comparisons with politicians who have done little to bring cheer to the people.
"The cricketers work very hard as a team, unlike our politicians who can't agree on anything," said Niroj Banepali, a surgeon who says he makes an effort to watch cricket when Nepal is playing.
Banepali told Al Jazeera he wasn't able to watch Sunday's game because of the power cuts. Another fan who faced the same constraint said he would check game updates online on his phone.
Nepal's rise in cricket makes a stark comparison with the political divisions plaguing the country. In the last two decades, as Nepal climbed from division five to division two and qualified for the Twenty20 World Cup, the country has gone through a Maoist insurgency, a royal dictatorship, and a popular movement for democracy and peace - followed by prolonged stalemate with no sign of a constitution despite two Constituent Assembly elections to write one.
Notwithstanding the current cricket craze, football used to be the sport of choice in Nepal. Well into the 1990s, few students played cricket in high school as cricket gear was expensive and not easily available in Kathmandu.
Back then, Nepal fielded a formidable football team, formidable at least in South Asia. But the sport stagnated as its FIFA rankings slipped from 124 in 1993 to 172 twenty years later.
"Nepalese wanted something to celebrate in the sporting arena and football couldn't deliver," said Bikram Shah, a businessman from Janakpur, a town in southern Nepal close to India. Shah remembers buying cricket gear from across the border and bringing it to Kathmandu where he studied.
|The Nepali captain Paras Khadka has led from the front [AFP]
By 1996, the year Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan hosted the one day World Cup, a cable television boom had hit the country. Soon, names like Sachin Tendulkar, the legendary Indian cricketer, and Sanath Jayasuriya - the Sri Lankan batsman who turned the game upside down with aggressive batting early in the innings - became household names pronounced with awe.
New rules introduced by cricket's governing body, International Cricket Council, further boosted its popularity as it encouraged hard-hitting batsmen to go berserk due to fielding restrictions.
"Changed rules made cricket an exciting game again, just like what Twenty20 games are doing now," Bikram told Al Jazeera, "from a five-day game, cricket is now shorter than a game of baseball."
Nepal started to play internationally in 1996. Two years later, it hosted the Asian Cricket Council trophy, the tournament for non-Test playing countries. But it didn't win a single game, and lost badly to Hong Kong.
Nepal has a long way to go to meet the "South Asian standard" in cricket. Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan have already won the one-day World Cup. Bangladesh joined the three as a Test-playing country in 2000. In contrast, this is the first time Nepal is competing in the Twenty20 World Cup.
Many blame a lack of investment in cricket, and sports in general, as the reason for historically poor performance and a lack of popularity. Cricket has failed to spread to remote mountainous regions.
"We need grounds with international standards, especially outside the capital," Binod Das, former captain of the national team, told Al Jazeera. There is no cricket stadium and no proper indoor training facility.
More money for sports
After years of indecision, the government is allocating more money to cricket, according to one official.
Shanti Ram Sharma, joint-secretary at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, told Al Jazeera that two new grounds, one in the capital and another in Morang, a south-western district, are under construction.
|Nepal commemorates first Everest conquest
Populist governments have also been ready to reward the winning teams. After the division three championship in Bermuda, the government awarded each player Rs. 1 million each (about $10,000), and half the sum to the coach, Pubudu Dassanayake.
The Sri Lankan is a respected figure in Nepal and has helped raise funds for a cricket academy. In his last stint, Dassanayake coached the Canadian national team, helping it to secure a World Cup place in 2011.
Money also comes from the private sector, which has started to support the sport. A cricket league organised by the Cricket Association of Nepal boasts regional teams both from the hilly districts and the plains. Another league, fashioned after India's phenomenally popular IPL and sponsored by Nepal's major corporations, is also planned for this year.
According to Das, cricket may soon be a real career option for talented sportsmen. It was an option that was not available to him. There are other positive signs for Nepalese cricket. The current team, he points out, is young.
Shakti Gauchan is the oldest at 29. He was declared the man of the match in Sunday's game. And the youngest, Sompal Kami, who is just 18, took two wickets.
For now, Nepalese cricket enthusiasts are reveling in their team's entry onto the world stage. No doubt they have huge challenges ahead, but several cricket fans told Al Jazeera that whatever happens next, the team has already earned its place in the hearts of the fans.
"I am proud of our team playing at this level," said Anjan Shrestha, a web designer and a fan.
Source: Al Jazeera