A spot in ICC U-19 World Cup beckons as Nepal is set to commence their campaign on Monday participating in the ICC Under-19 World Cup Qualifier Asia Division One, 2017 league hosted by Singapore.
Nepal and Afghanistan, teams who previously featured in ICC U-19 World Cup in 2016, lost their respective playoff matches and were shunted back to Asian Division One qualifier. The teams are joined by Singapore, and Malaysia, two finalists of 2016 ICC U-19 Cricket World Cup Asia Qualifier Division Two.
Nepal reached quarter-finals of the marquee U-19 event but was knocked out by Bangladesh. However, they finished 8th (one spot below automatic spots) ranked team in the tournament after the 5th and 7th place playoff loss to Pakistan and Namibia respectively. Afghanistan won the plate championship and finished at 9th.
Namibia is the only associate nation to earn the automatic spot in the 2018 tournament by finishing as a highest ranked-associate team in the 2016 event.
The break-through performer of the 2016 edition leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane is set to lead the team in his second assignment for Nepal after playing the role in Sri Lanka, December 2016. ‘The Nepali Shane Warne’ also made debut for the senior national team after the performances in 2016 and since then has been included regularly in both the senior and the junior team.
The squad has only two primary pace bowlers Rijan Dhakal, former Nepal U16 player, and Kishore Mahato, after they lost Nandan Yadav and Kamal Singh Airee to injuries. Rohit Kumar Poudel, who impressed as a batsman against potent Indian bowling attack in Colombo, will perform the duties of the third seamer in the squad.
Nepal will rely on spin once again to be their strength in pitches which are expected to be slow that will benefit spinners in Singapore. Lalit Singh Rajbanshi and Shahab Alam will continue emulating the economic and wicket-taking legendary tradition of bowling duo Basant Regmi and Shakti Gauchan.
Complementing the spinners by his off-spin and also taking the onus of batting contributions when required, Pawan Sarraf has taken the role of Prem Tamang from the successful class of ‘16.
Vice-captain Dipendra Singh Airee will lead the charge with the bat. His match winning performance in Nepal’s last WCLC match against Kenya is still fresh in memories of fans. Former U-16 cricketer Aadil Khan will be option for left-handed floating batsman. Flamboyant Anil Kumar Sah is highly-rated for his stroke play. Likewise the right-handed Pranit Thapa Magar who was top scorer for Nepal U-19 in practice-match series at Greater Noida, will play key role in the team.
Other alumni of the class of ‘16 Sandeep Sunar has developed into a crucial cog in the top order for Nepal U-19s since the world cup in Bangladesh. He will be partnered by Mohammad Aasif Sheikh, who became a national sensation after scoring a whirlwind century in Everest Premier League (EPL) final, helping his team Panchakanya Tez to win the title. Middle order batsman Prakash KC will don the keeping gloves.
The in-form Nepal U-19 team did well in recently concluded practice-match series against Greater Noida based teams including the Indian experienced players like Anureet Singh and Parwinder Awana. Nepal played five practice-matches winning three, losing one along with one rain interrupted match that ended with no-result.
Airee and Lamichhane are proven to be match winners. Their experiences with the senior team should come in handy to calm some pre-match jitters among team-mates.
Pranit, Anil, and Sunar have consistently made runs in recent practice matches with an eye for big hits in between.
Lalit and Shahab have been two of the most consistent bowlers in domestic teams in which they have represented in last year or so. Lalit also had a successful stint with the team in U-19 qualifiers Nepal played in 2015 before missing out on world cup squad.
The playing conditions at Singapore should help Nepali team structure which will likely feature three to four mainstream spinners. The team management is expecting the pitch to be slow and provide some turn.
Aasif Sheikh has been mostly inconsistent ever since that spell-bounding century in final of EPL that followed in Greater Noida as well.
The raw and unproven pace bowlers, Kishore Mahato and Rijan Dhakal, have a strenuous job in hand to give early break-through. The lack of proper third seaming option might haunt Nepal in flat wickets.
The lack of genuine all-rounders in the team is another concern as Pawan Sarraf and Rohit Kumar Poudel will look to bowl 15 to 20 overs. Airee might have to chip in with an over or two after keeping himself distance with bowling in recent days.
The Probable XI
Head coach Binod Das has hinted to rely on the strengths of the team. Skipper’s leg-spin is set to be the leading strike option in the team forcing one between two left-arm spinners to sit out. None of the batsmen among Pranit, Anil or Rohit were given opportunities to open the innings in Greater Noida that reflects the possibility of Aasif to open with Sunar again. There is an outside chance of Aadil Khan to open after his decent outing in recent practice matches. Prakash KC kept wickets in Noida. Similarly, Rohit was given ample bowling time to mold himself as an all-rounder.
U-19 Head Coach Das is confident about the performance of the team. Das, who is the first captain to represent Nepal in world cups, feels the current team to be one of the strongest he has worked with. He is focused on team's strengths and believes in doing the basic things right. He insists current players to meet the standards that Nepal has always set in fielding in previous tournaments. He feels that this league to motivate players to do well as they will be provided an opportunity to represent Nepal in world cup.
The selection committee retained most of the members that were in the team that went to Sri Lanka in last December. Dhakal made a comeback as Nepal national player after his stint as a U-16 player in 2014. Similarly, Lalit made a comeback in the team after missing in 2016 world cup squad. The already gelled squad should help new recruits Mahato, Shahab, and Anil in smooth transition in the field.
The Asian Qualifier is a double round-robin league. The team sitting at the top of the league table will qualify for the ICC U-19 World Cup 2018 to be held in New Zealand. Nepal will be seeking to make the case as strong as possible winning against two teams from division two, Singapore and Malaysia. The two matches against Afghanistan might be the deciding well factor in the fate of the group if none of these teams falter against the comparatively inferior members of the group.
This is possibly the last time Afghanistan will be playing any sorts of qualifiers to gain a spot in top ICC events. They are set to get an automatic spot after being announced as newest members of elite Test nations recently.
Victory in matches against Singapore and Malaysia, at least a win versus Afghanistan and the superior net run rate in the group table will pave out the way for the Nepali team to qualify for the U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, 2018.