Kathmandu, Nepal – Seven years ago, Sompal Kami was not sure if his decision of returning to Nepal to play cricket was the right one.
His family had migrated to India about two decades ago for work. Kami grew up in Punjab and despite being prolific in school and district-level cricket tournaments, he was not getting to where he wanted.
But as the plane carrying the Nepal cricket team touched down last month at Tribhuvan International Airport, Nepal’s only international airport, Kami was part of the team that qualified to play the 50-over version of the game.
Nepal finished eighth in the ICC World Cup qualifiers. By virtue of that, it attained One-Day International (ODI) status – the team would possibly be squaring up against cricketing giants like India, Pakistan and Australia in 2019.
Kami only wanted to play cricket, a widely popular game in South Asia, for as long as he can remember.
Born in a poor Dalit family in Gumli, a district in the foothills of the Himalayas in western Nepal, Kami’s love for the sport did not go down well with his family. Despite being part of the school team, Kami’s parents were not happy and started pressing him to give up cricket for pen and books.
They wanted him to concentrate on studies and find a good job.
“My parents used to think cricket was for rich people,” Kami, a fan of Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, told Al Jazeera.
“They would often tell me to stay away from cricket. Moreover, my family was too poor to afford equipment let alone enroll me into a cricket academy.
“The academy charged INR 7,000 ($107) per month. My father’s monthly salary was INR 10,000 ($154), just enough for the family to survive. Cricket was out of the question.”
But lack of support at home did not deter Kami, who grew up watching children around him play on the streets. He kept playing and improving. His love for the game and his skills meant that his school administration, friends, teachers and coaches supported him with equipment.
His life changed once he arrived back in Nepal. After three months at district and regional level, Kami was selected for the under-19 team and eventually the national team. Now, Kami is an integral part of the national team that is reaching new heights.
However, there exist plenty of obstacles that hamper the team’s progress.
“We now need professional setup for an improved domestic cricket infrastructure as well as to ensure greater care for the players,” said Paras Khadka, the team captain.
Improving the infrastructure will be an issue. A decade of war and another decade of political instability not only paralysed Nepal’s economy but also took a big toll on sports.
Football remains mired in corruption and irregularities. Cricket has long been a victim of extreme politicisation. Nepal’s cricket board was banned by the International Cricket Council in 2016 due to government interference.
The suspension not only affected the financial support but also stalled the growth of domestic cricket in the country of nearly 29 million people.
Youth cricket is on the rise in Nepal, especially at school level. But the country lacks a well-equipped stadium. Cricket commentators in Nepal, however, hope the ODI status would give a much-needed exposure to the team.
Nepal is now the youngest of 16 ODI nations, but the persistence of off-field problems means that cricket lovers dare only be cautiously optimistic#KathmanduPosthttps://t.co/rpyX0Scd1E pic.twitter.com/MF20KnF1PW
— The Kathmandu Post (@kathmandupost) March 24, 2018
“Getting ODI status is something us fans had been dreaming of since forever,” Yajendra Adhikari, a cricket fan, said.
“Now, the cricket board will try to get the suspension lifted to secure the future of the sport in Nepal. This will usher in a new era for Nepal cricket.”
People in Nepal are crazy about cricket and fill up the grounds regularly for matches. The ICC should consider this and hold a series in Nepal soon, said another fan Arun Budhathoki.
“It’s a huge moment for us but unless our cricket board mends its ways and we don’t get a proper domestic league and structure, it will go down as a waste,” said Budhathoki.
“The Nepal government should work on building stadiums and upgrade the existing ground because the national team’s performance will attract many young Nepalis to play this beautiful game.”
Hours before the national team touched down, fans chanted slogans against the government for doing very little for the promotion of domestic cricket.
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s government, which swept to power earlier this year, ensured the team got a proper reception. Khadka, the team captain, ensured he did not waste that opportunity and the limelight.
“The players have always fulfilled our responsibilities and will continue to do the same,” said Paras after arriving in Nepal.
“The other stakeholders, including the officials and the entire nation, should now be responsible for cricket and to take it forward. If we miss the opportunity now, we will never make it where we want to be.”
In February, just weeks after coming into power, Oli announced cash reward of 300,000 Nepali rupees ($2,886) for each player.
Sponsored by major companies, Nepal has two T20 leagues that have proved attractive for young talent. Realising the growing craze, many businesses are coming forward to invest in cricket.
But critics say the occasional rewards will do make a small difference. They have urged the government to end the association dispute and ensure a strong mechanism for the development of cricket.
In addition, Kami reckoned a complete overhaul is needed. He added the players not only needed to lift their game but the authorities needed to ensure the players are looked after and got ample opportunities and incentives to stay in the game.
“Many players face uncertain future as it is still hard to earn a decent livelihood by playing cricket. There are many senior members in the team who have played for 15 years but they don’t know what will happen once their careers end. This should not happen.”
While attaining ODI status rejuvenated Nepal’s cricketing world and has them dreaming again, it’s still too early to say how much of the dream will come true.
For now, all stakeholders – the cricketers, aspirant players, fans and policymakers – are thrilled with prospect of Nepal taking on the field with around dozen other teams from around the world.