Engrossed in the story, so much so, that I lost track of the people surrounding me. It was a story which was inspirational, it was a story about conquering struggles, a story which deserves documentation; and then a colleague harked, "Nepal have a cricketing team?"
How should have I answered this? Probably by taking the story of a young Nepali, Sandeep Lamichhane; so yes, Nepal have a cricketing team, and their players are hogging headlines. This particular young man, meanwhile, is venturing into the flashy world of the Indian Premier League!
Coming back to my conversation, my colleague had his eyes wide open in shock when I further told him that there is a player from Nepal in the upcoming 2018 IPL auction and he was bought by one of the franchises. So, I decided to quiz some of my friends on whether they are aware of Nepal and their own cricket team and realised that he is not the only one unaware of the development of the sport in the South Asian country.
Development of cricket in Nepal started way back and the country became a member of ICC in 1988. However, it took them almost 26 years to enter the limelight. In 2014, they were given T20I status by the ICC and played in the 2014 ICC World T20 before they were stripped of the status after failing to qualify for the 2016 edition.
If someone had told me that Nepal would beat a star-studded Indian under-19 team or that a Nepal player would take part in the IPL auction a few years back, I would have laughed it off. But, the Nepal colts did indeed beat their Indian counterparts in the 2017 under-19 Asia Cup just before the ongoing 2018 under-19 World Cup.
This indicates that Nepal Cricket is on the rise and the man who is putting them on the cricketing map is their 17-year-old leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane.
Sandeep is a 20-year-old leg-spinner from Nepal who has been gaining a lot of attention of late and has turned a few heads, thanks to his consistent performances.
Born in Syangja, Nepal, Sandeep moved to India when he was a child as his father was worked in the Indian railways. After completing his 4th standard, Sandeep moved back to his homeland but little did he know that the two-three years spent in India would be the turning point of his career.
Yes, during his stay in India, he got his first exposure of cricket and made up his mind to become a cricketer. He watched legendary Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar and became a fan of the whole Indian team.
"I used to watch Sachin Tendulkar and the whole Indian team play. In fact, I am a big fan of them. It was during my time in India that I got an interest in sport and my first thought was I want to play this and represent my country in it. Since then, I have been working on it and now, I can proudly say that I have realized my childhood dream. Initially, I got a little support from my family when it came to cricket and now, they are backing me to do well. My brother and sister used to help me play the sport back home," he said in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda.
Though he grew up watching the likes of Sachin, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, and MS Dhoni, he became an exponent of leg-spin bowling instead of becoming a batsman, thanks to God's gift to him and Australian legend Shane Warne, whose videos inspired him to take up the art.
When asked about the decision to take up leg-spin, he said, "maybe God gifted that art to me and I worked on it. When I was young, I used to follow Shane Warne (on TV and his videos on a mobile phone) and fantasized about the way he bowls. I used to watch him bowl leg spin and googlies and practice them in the nets. I can bowl googlies very well, front flippers and yeah, the leg spinners. If my teammates want something else from me, I will work on that. So far, I am doing well. I have some good very variations up my sleeve. The learning period is never over for a player. I need to improve with every passing day. If I do well today, I have to forget it and concentrate on doing well the next day. This is something that I always want to do."
Sandeep made a name for himself in the 2016 under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh where he ended up as the second highest wicket-taker with 14 scalps in six innings at an average of 17 and an economy of 4.67.
After picking up five wickets in two warm-up games, Sandeep had a decent outing in Nepal's first match against New Zealand, which they won by 32 runs.
Their next match against Ireland saw Sandeep create history by becoming only the fifth bowler in history after Jermaine Lawson (West Indies, 2000), Kamrul Islam Rabbi (Bangladesh, 2010), Harry Conway (Australia, 2012) and Kuldeep Yadav (India, 2014), to take a hat-trick in the under-19 World Cup.
More than his five-wicket haul, Nepal’s eight-wicket win took them to the knockout stages for the second time in their seventh World Cup appearance.
"That was my second match for Nepal. The hat-trick against Ireland was a very special moment for me and my people. Adding to that, we qualified for the second round and it was a big achievement for us," he said about the match.
Nepal's last group game was against India and his team were sent on a leather hunt by opener Rishabh Pant, who scored a 37-ball 78 to help his side win the match by seven wickets with more than 31 overs to spare.
Though Sandeep dismissed the Indian captain Ishan Kishan, his figures went for a toss as he conceded 37 runs in 5 overs. What followed though gave Nepal a lot of confidence going into the second match and also the future.
Former Indian captain and the coach of the under-19 team Rahul Dravid made a surprise visit to the Nepal dressing room to motivate the youngsters after their forgettable day in the office. The Nepalese youngsters took Dravid's advice seriously and went on to beat the Indian under-19 team last year in the Asia Cup. Though a majority of Dravid's first team players were missing (he asked them to play the Ranji Trophy instead of the Asia Cup), Nepal's victory over India is the biggest achievement in their cricketing history to date.
"Rahul Dravid is a legend. It was very good of him to come and talk to us after the game. He just came to us and told us that we all played well. He also acknowledged us and wanted us to keep focusing on the game in the future. He told us about the things we needed to do in order to improve. We just followed it and (sorry to say this) we defeated India in a 2017 Asia Cup match a couple of months back (laughs). Beating the Indian team is the biggest achievement in the history of Nepali cricket," he added.
With his performance in the 2016 under-19 World Cup, he not only made a name for himself, but also secured him a mentor in the form of former Australian skipper Michael Clarke. Immediately following the tournament, Clarke was informed about Sandeep's talent and the wasted no time in picking the teenager to play alongside him for Kowloon Cantoons in the Hong Kong T20 Blitz.
Soon after that, Clarke invited the leggie Down Under to play for his team Western Suburbs in the NSW Premier Cricket season. Since then, Clarke's influence has been enormous in Sandeep's career. Words of encouragements from Clarke, who was a very good player of spin bowling, will only help the 17-year-old in the future.
Talking about Clarke, the leggie said, "He has done a lot of things to me which nobody else has done in my life. I hail from a small country like Nepal where the cricketing culture is different from other countries. Still, he recognised my talent, and gave me an opportunity to train in his academy in Australia. He also helped me get a lot of exposure that helped me play against any side with confidence. He has been a very good guiding light for me and I am grateful to have him on my side. He is a good player of spin bowling and often appreciates my talents. That was a big thing for me. In spite of the good work, he used to ask me to improve further."
One of the biggest positives for Nepal is the support they are getting from their fans. Whenever the South Asian country host a match, people turn up in huge numbers to support their team. The stadium is full and the fans watch the match sitting on trees that are around the ground.
Ever since the fans in Nepal got to know of Sandeep's presence in the final list of players for the IPL auction, he has received wishes from all quarters, with many even praying for him to get picked by one of the eight franchises.
"Fans back home are really passionate about the sport. Whenever there is a cricket match in Nepal, people turn up in huge numbers and support us. As many as 25000-30000 fans used to come and watch us play, something that motivates us whenever we step on the field. Also, the popularity of the sport in the country is increasing every single day. Even now, a lot of people supported and wished me when they saw my name in the IPL auction (laughs). The fan support has been a blessing in disguise for Nepal Cricket," he said about the fans in Nepal.
Sandeep registered his name for the 2018 IPL auction that will take place in Bengaluru on January 27 and 28 with a base price of INR 20 lakhs. He was on the initial list of 1122 players and getting into the final list is not easy as the franchises and GC filter a lot of names from the initial list.
But, Sandeep somehow made it to the final list as well which means there is at least one of the eight franchises interested in him. He didn't expect to feature in the final list and was jubilant when he heard the news.
"I had my fingers crossed when I registered myself for the auction. I was happy when the IPL Governing Council cleared my name for the final list of 578 players. I am thankful to all those who are involved in the process, the GC members, the franchises' think-tanks etc. for showing their faith in me and including my name in the final list. I still have my fingers crossed as the auction is yet to take place. If I get picked, I would like to give my 100% and make my country proud," he said.
After hearing this news, his mentor Clarke admitted that he would buy him if he was a part of one of the franchises.
UPDATED: Sandeep Lamichhane was sold to Delhi Daredevils for 20 lakhs and became the first player from Nepal to be a part of the IPL.
Irrespective of whether he gets picked for the auction or not, his next objective will be helping his team qualify for the 2018 ICC World Cup qualifiers in Zimbabwe scheduled to take place later this year.
Nepal will play in the ICC World Cricket League (Division Two) alongside Kenya, UAE, Namibia, Canada and Oman and the top two teams will qualify for the 2018 ICC World Cup qualifiers.
"We are training every day and everyone is contributing to the team. We are ready to give more than 100% to qualify for the ICC World Cup qualifiers and then the World Cup as this is very important for Nepal Cricket right now," he said about the tournament.
"Coming from a country like Nepal, it has not been an easy road for me. But, if you work hard, then you can achieve anything. If you do well, you will get exposure playing around the world and that is exactly what has happened to me. I would like to do for my country what Rashid Khan has done for Afghanistan," he concluded.
Lamichhane is trying to script his own Rashid Khan-like story in which he will carry the hopes of an entire nation on his shoulders as he vows to be the cricketing hero for the young kids in Nepal. The next few days will shape Sandeep's future as an IPL contract will change his career and the landscape of Nepal Cricket forever.