The peaks and passes of the Himalayas do not seem the most obvious place for an aspiring cricket community to flourish. However, in spite of the inhospitable topography the mountain state of Nepal have slowly been developing into a competitive cricketing nation. Cricket was introduced to Nepal from neighbouring India and in 1946 the sport was give official recognition and a domestic structure by the formation of the Cricket Association of Nepal. In 1994 they became members of the Asian Cricket Council, before being elected as associate members of the ICC in 1996. Since then they have been represented at the 2001 ICC trophy and the last couple of Under 19 World Cups.
The national team is selected from the top performers in the national league, comprising of 5 teams. The Cricket Association of Nepal also run regional development programmes to encourage participation and improve standards across the country. They have established themselves as one of the leading performers in the Asian Cricket Council in recent regional tournaments, losing out narrowly to UAE but recording comfortable victories over their closest regional rivals Malaysia and Hong Kong.
In 2001 they qualified for the ICC Trophy, their first international tournament at senior level and the final stage on the path to world cup qualification. They were defeated by Namibia in Group A of the second division and therefore were unable to qualify for the second stage. However, they outclassed their other opponents including Germany and Gibraltar.
In 2004 they were given a further opportunity to develop their game and establish themselves as one of the world's leading associate nations in the inaugural intercontinental cup. This was also the first time any Nepalese cricketers had had the opportunity to play in first class fixtures. They were up against familiar opponents in the form of Asian rivals UAE and Malaysia. They comfortably defeated Malaysia and drew against the UAE but the latter went through to the semi-finals courtesy of a greater number of bonus points. It was a similar story in 2005 as they defeated Hong Kong, who had been drafted in to replace Malaysia, but again fell short of the UAE on bonus points. However, they had shown that they could compete at this level.
It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the development of Nepalese cricket hinged on their performance in two critical fixtures. The first was the final of division 2 of the World Cup Qualifying Series. The victor of this event gained qualification to the ICC Trophy in Ireland and therefore a chance of qualify for the world cup. Nepal fell to a shock defeat to Fiji in the final. The consequences of this single defeat are difficult to quantify. Along with failure to qualify for the world cup the team were also deprived of the opportunity for greater recognition in an international tournament. It may also have had other less obvious consequences such as the levels of investment into the game, media interest and participation at grass roots level. The other game that Nepal simply had to win in order to continue their development was the challenger match to qualify for the 2006 Intercontinental Cup. Their opponents were Namibia, who five years before had prevented them reaching the next stage of the ICC Trophy. The occasion and the calibre of the African side, many of whom had the experience of playing in a world cup, proved too much for Nepal and they slipped to a defeat.
These two defeats have resulted in a hiatus in Nepalese cricket. While they have consistently proved that they are one of the top associate nations in Asia they have failed to take that next step and become a fixture in international tournaments such as the ICC Trophy and Intercontinental Cup. Without exposure the calibre of opponents that these tournaments offer it is difficult to see how the national team players will improve their game. Take for example Binod Das, undoubtedly the brightest star in Nepalese cricket. He proved himself as one of the leading bowlers in the Intercontinental Cup and his performances compared favourably with others in the tournament with prior experience of first class cricket. Now, without exposure to first class cricket he will be limited to playing in the Nepalese domestic league and regional tournaments, neither of which is likely to improve him as a player.
However, despite the failures of the national team in the last 18 months fans of Nepalese cricket were given considerable hope for the future by the form of the Under 19 side. In the Under 19 world cup played in Sri-Lanka in February, Nepal won the plate competition. After the disappointment of being knocked out of the main competition by Zimbabwe by a mere two runs Nepal went on to defeat South Africa and then New Zealand to finish off the tournament in style and bring some silverware back to Nepal. The challenge now for Nepal will be in providing the infrastructure and a competitive playing schedule to enable the heroes of the Under 19 team to continue to develop, make it into the senior side and play a major role in establishing Nepal as one of the leading associate nations. Perhaps then world cup qualification can become a realistic dream.