Too long have Nepalis felt compelled to follow the fortunes of overpaid Indian cricketers as they bully visitors on flat, dusty tracks only to be caught like rabbits in headlights on the lush pacy wickets of more temperate climes. Like our interest in Salman’s puffball pecs and Kareena’s pencil pelvis, this feckless fandom does not square with our natural suspicion of Big Brother. The result is an adulteration of the incandescent purity of sporting emotion. When India wins, we rejoice, but with a hint of guilt. We don’t go cavorting around the room, pumping the air, with a chorus of YEAH YEAH YEAH. When India loses, we don’t break down, break up, or even break a sweat. We snort and mutter about their ghee knees, and flick the channel to Salman and Kareena.
If only we had a team to support.
It seems to me Nepalis never got around to saying this until they did have one. Football was and still is so dominant that we almost never noticed just how talented our young cricketers were. We knew they were making waves in the under-15/17/19/21s, even though we didn’t see them on TV, but by the time the big league came around, our batsmen and bowlers were more likely to be washing dishes in Amrika than training hard for the next tournament. Trying to make a living as a cricketer was probably worse than being a writer.
And then the Paras Khadkas of the youth teams began coming through into the men’s team. Nepali cricket began to grow up. Sure, our fans were still likely to resort to street tactics at home games when faced with defeat, but increasingly, this became unnecessary. Suddenly, we were winning game after game after game. Suddenly, we had a real team. And when we overcame a sluggish start to win the Division Three League earlier this year, we were in with a real chance at World Cup glory.
Still, my father insisted on watching the dreary pyrotechnics of the India v. Australia slugfest. And on the day Tendulkar finally left the building, Nepal thrashed Denmark in our first match of the ICC World T20 Qualifiers. I continued to update him on Nepal’s irregular progress through a variety of grainy youtube streams. Just one more win and we’re through to the World Cup in Bangladesh next year, I exclaimed, while he grunted, Ho ra? Really?
The day arrived. For once, I felt envious of the thousands of Nepalis waving flags in the Abu Dhabi stadium. I couldn’t spot a single Hong Kong supporter in the stands, and perhaps it wasn’t surprising. Who would support a yellow man’s team of brown men led by a white man?
It was a humdinger of a match, as they say, a thriller. It went down to the wire. Hong Kong’s captain bust a finger wicketkeeping in the 18th over, Nepal’s captain committed hara-kiri in the 19th over, and Nepal blasted 13 off the last 6 balls to get over the line, just. As Paras Khadka admitted at the presentation, it was the biggest day in Nepal’s sporting history.
In 1996, rank outsiders Sri Lanka beat Australia to win the ODI World Cup. It was a coming of age, for as Shehan Karunatilaka says, “We had a full-blown civil war, a debt-ridden economy and a 14-year-old Test team that had been hammered around the world”. By the time 2011 rolled around, Sri Lanka was expected to win the ODI World Cup, at least by the Sri Lankans. But yesterday’s Sri Lanka is today’s Bangladesh, the reigning punching bags of world cricket. It must be tough for a Bangladeshi fan who grew up idolizing Indian swashbuckler Sehwag to hear him dismiss the chrysalis of your team as “an ordinary side”. But such is the fate of minnows, and against the tide, Bangladesh have registered a number of famous wins over the years.
Bangladesh, quite possibly, is tomorrow’s Nepal. We will go to the T20 World Cup next year, and we will most likely lose all our matches before being unceremoniously ejected from the high table. It will be gutting, but we will be screaming for our own tribe. When we cheer a batsman for hitting the ball out of the park, we will love him. When we curse him for missing the next ball and losing his wicket, we will hate him. But all will be forgiven, because there will always be the hope of a next time.
I want to feel the pain of being a Bangladesh fan. I want to feel the pain of losing, time after time, always in anticipation of the solitary win that will make it all worthwhile, that shaft of sunlight piercing the leaden clouds to light up just one spot of a grim landscape. I don’t imagine that cricket is the saving of Nepal, no. As Karunatilaka concludes, “Despite the fairytale of ‘96, it wasn’t the cricket that ended our civil war. It was the tanks and the fighter planes.” Yes, sport can bring the nation together for a while, but after the streamers are taken down and the balloons lose their shape and drift about the legs of empty chairs like the wrinkled breasts of abandoned women, we all know there is work to be done, elsewhere. Cricket won’t write our constitution for us, but it will make reality a little more tolerable. Or tangible: the multi-ethnic nature of the Nepali squad may make it easier for Nepalis to feel a kinship across barriers that have been accentuated by the discourse on federalism.
Sport, then, fulfils a function similar to art. It makes us feel bigger and better about ourselves, and helps us transcend the limits of individuality and identity. In that, it can be a thing of beauty. So here’s to the big league. Here’s to a decade of being thrashed by the big boys, and brought down to earth by fellow minnows who we thought we’d long surpassed. Here’s to losing, and losing, and losing, as long as we win, once in a blue moon.