If Aamir Akhtar has his way, cricket could be the next big thing in Nepal and supplant football as the most popular sport in the country – BBC
As Nepali football seems to be headed nowhere, cricket has come up in a big way, saving our face in international team sports. While the ANFA U-19 and U-17 teams have been taking on school teams in India, taking part in the annual Subroto Cup Tournament, bringing home awards and cash prizes and bringing disrepute to the country, the performances of the U-19 and U-17 cricket teams in the international arena has been exemplary. Winning against cricketing nations like New Zealand, the youth teams have generated so much interest that you find kids playing cricket in tiny lanes and dried up riverbeds.
Not far from the banks of the Bagmati, two accomplished cricketers, Aamir Akhtar and Birendra Shah have teamed up not to play cricket this time, but to set up the Shangri-La Cricket Academy (SCA) with the aim of taking Nepali cricket to higher levels. As we found our way to the academy grounds, we were surprised to see many enthusiastic boys already training under coaches barely three weeks after the facility opened. Such an endeavor speaks volumes for the future of cricket in this nation. “We’ve already got 70 plus students coming for training here,” informs Aamir, and that tells us how much enthusiasm there is among the youth, to learn and play the game. Ambitious as they are, the duo also want to introduce women’s cricket and get the corporate world more involved in promoting cricket. “Sponsoring teams and tournaments are not enough, players must be given regular jobs. Only then can we have regular competent senior cricket players and teams who can devote time to cricket and at the same time hold a job,” adds Aamir. The academy’s goals are: School cricket; College cricket; University level; Introduction of women’s cricket at academy level; Corporate/matured cricket players; Professional cricket players. Their mission statement reads ‘To achieve excellence in cricket by creating an environment of learning, competition, discipline and fun.’
The academy is recognized by the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) and has an able staff of coaches imparting basic and high-level knowledge of the game to youngsters. Binod Das, the most reputed cricketer of Nepal in terms of skill, talent and experience is a coach at SCA. He is the current captain of the Nepali cricket team and has been captain of Nepali teams in various age group competitions. He has completed Level 1 specialist coaching course held in Bangkok; Fitness training program; Sports medicine fitness course (Bangkok); Health and Safety training and Special fast bowling course held in Bangkok. Watching him coach the students, one gets to know how much knowledge Binod is passing on to them. Every sentence he speaks is based on his vast experience as a player. He teaches them how to stand, how to move forward and how to be on their toes as they field. In short, Binod is a big asset to the academy.
A very competitive cricketer who has played his entire domestic cricket in Delhi, Manoj Sood is the other coach and has trained at Sonet Club, one of the best training centers in India. He is also the sports teacher at Modern Indian School (MIS), Kathmandu. Walk into the training ground of SCA any afternoon, and you are likely to bump into this dedicated coach taking a keen interest in each individual’s performance. Totally focused into training the youngsters, his enthusiasm is infectious. With his amiable personality, he has the capability of handling school children and imparting his cricketing knowledge effectively.
A former U-19 cricketer of Nepal, Birendra Shah is another coach at SCA besides being part owner of the academy. He played for Nepal at the Youth World Cup 2000 in Sri Lanka and was a member of the first batch of Nepal’s cricket team that qualified to play in the tournament, which was a beginning for youth cricketers of the country. Known for his explosive, stylish batting, he is also a swing bowler. During the ICC Trophy that was held in Canada in 2001, he qualified to represent Nepal on the senior team. Lately, Birendra has been devoting a lot of time to coaching school kids, which gives a boost to Nepali cricket.
Located 500m west of the Bagmati bridge in Kupondol, the academy lies by the road that runs alongside the river. Batting, bowling and fielding skills are all taught here by the three coaches. On any given day, a good number of youngsters can be seen here bowling, batting or getting fielding practice from the coaches. Some practice at the nets under the watchful eye of Binod Das while others get fielding practice with Manoj Sood. Soon after school is over, the boys start arriving, each wishing the coaches “Good afternoon Sir!” They have a lot of respect for the seniors and seem eager to change and get on with the practice. “We want to be strict on discipline,” says Aamir, “ The trainees must be dressed in proper cricket gear and no foul language is allowed here.” Instilling discipline early in their cricketing career is given great importance at the academy. The institute has an air of orderliness of a proper school. Six lanes have been set up for batting practice of which one has a plain concrete/cement wicket; two plain concrete/cement wickets with artificial mat and two turf wickets. Using new technology, video analysis will add to the teaching tools. Watching one’s own action on video will help the players know their own technical shortcomings and thus enable them to improve.
An added facility at SCA is the use of floodlights. These imported lights enable practice to be conducted at night, thus giving an opportunity to those who have time constraints and cannot attend the day training sessions. “Boys who are sent by their parents to improve fitness take advantage of the floodlights and train in the evenings,” informs Birendra Shah. People from the corporate world can avail of the training after office hours and so can students who attend day classes. This enables the academy to encourage corporate cricket culture in Nepal, besides making time for students. Proper care is taken to ensure safety especially among school children. Hence, it is compulsory for the trainees to learn the game using necessary gear like leg guards, abdominal guards, gloves, helmets, etc. There is also a provision for first aid. The academy has a cafeteria managed by Nepali Chulo of Durbar Marg. Hygiene takes top priority and the menu consists mainly of fresh salads, juices and energy drinks.
Having played cricket abroad, Aaktar shares his experiences, “I personally think Nepal could be one of the best destinations in Asia to promote cricket tourism. I have played cricket almost everywhere in the cricketing world (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Namibia, England and Scotland). Kathmandu has got the most conducive climate for cricket. It has a mixture of the subcontinent and England, the ideal breeding ground for county and international standard players. Having good enough knowledge of cricket, I personally feel that cricket in Nepal could be very exciting and technical. The ball swings and seams better here in Nepal than any other south Asian country. This is because of the Himalayas and high altitude; that makes for exciting cricket.” He further adds, “If we are able to make full international stadiums in Kathmandu and Pokhara, I am sure that cricketing giants like India, Pakistan and Sri-Lanka will come to Nepal and play here for a different experience. Imagine our cricket tourism revenues/copyrights if we can get live coverage on TV, etc.”
With an experienced, dedicated coaching staff and a management team also comprising of accomplished cricketers, the academy is headed for success. One look at the facilities, three weeks after opening its doors to cricket enthusiasts tells us they mean business. Training is on, full swing every day with the coaches actively correcting mistakes and teaching techniques while the management team has a hectic schedule meeting First Secretaries, school management and knocking on the doors of sports governing bodies. “So far the authorities controlling cricket in Nepal haven’t shown much interest in my schemes, but I hope they will soon see the light. Nepal has a promising future as a cricketing nation, but we need to go out there and play with the leading cricketing nations. We have two giants in the cricketing world, India and Pakistan as neighbors, and we should take advantage. And our cricket will grow,” says Aamir brimming with enthusiasm. “We are planning to send the age level academy team to tour India (Delhi or Kolkata) and play with the same age level academy teams locally. This will happen during the summer holidays. I am also trying to arrange trips for our boys to play cricket in Pakistan for a start. Our players are talented in their own ways and Nepali players are naturally athletic and fitter. I’m touring Pakistan in March to promote cricket tourism in Nepal and acting as a good will ambassador for Nepali cricket.”
Shangri-la Cricket Academy has made a promising start and has an impressive staff to guide the young cricketers. With a growing number of students taking up the gentle game, there will be room for more competition, which will eventually raise the standard of school level cricket, leading on to the senior level. The academy will play a crucial role in setting standards and teaching the importance of discipline in a player’s life. The institute has an air of ‘no nonsence’ and the students are seen taking their lessons seriously. With rules that disallow even mobile phones during training, total focus on the sport is ensured.
Aamir is seen going all out to promote the sport, and if his dreams come true, Nepali cricket will make giant strides.
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