The year 2018 seems to be Nepal’s year. First, its volatile political situation found a much-needed semblance of stability with the new government. Next, it made history in the cricketing arena, when Nepal gained One Day International (ODI) status earlier this month after beating Papua New Guinea in the Cricket World Cup Qualifier play-offs in Zimbabwe. The Paras Khadka-led team excelled in all forms of the game in the crucial match. This milestone also helped Nepal regain its T-20 status, which it had originally won in 2014. However, this also brings new challenges. Getting regular practice and appropriate exposure at an international stage is a necessity for sustained performance against the major cricketing nations. If Nepal holds the ambition to deliver going forward, it has to groom its players, current and next-generation, to execute at the international stage. This gap in the exposure of playing against the major teams is a key reason why several Associate members floundered over the years, despite the hype of getting the coveted status. Kenya is a case in point, playing at the World Cups till it went into oblivion. Even Zimbabwe is struggling. Afghanistan has been coming into form only recently. Nepal cannot allow this lag to happen, and that is why this is a new challenge.
So what is the best solution? It is to go abroad and play the major teams regularly. But this is not too easy. After all, viewership arithmetic dominates the national cricket boards’ decisions while organising the year’s schedule, and matches against the smaller teams often go without the viewership numbers in stadiums or on the television. Ergo, such matches are very few in number. Most often, those teams only get a regular chance to play at the international stage in the ODI World Cup. But playing after intervals of four years is hardly suitable for the objective being discussed.
This is where the Indian Premier League (IPL) model can be useful. As the famous quote goes—if Mohammed cannot go to the mountain, the mountain must be brought to Mohammed. If it is tough for Nepal to get regular playing experience with international players, it must bring the international players to Nepal. In short, is this the time right to launch a major Nepal Premier League (NPL)? Nepal has the Everest Premier League (EPL) but its foreign players comprise only a dozen second-string Indian players and half-a-dozen from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong. That is hardly the scale of global exposure we are talking about in the IPL-model, hence the call for a bigger NPL. The IPL was conceived on the T-20 leagues of England and Australia, and the tournament has proved a critical success in grooming a wide bench of Indian cricket players for international exposure. This is because they get the chance to play with global big-wigs on the same stage, share their ideas and learn from them while playing. This includes not only the foreign players and the senior players of the national side, but also coaches, trainers and commentators—all of whom come with vast experience. Second, the tournament is organised like any international event, thus making the players acclimatised to a world where the glare of the public and media is more intense than in a traditional domestic format. Third, it creates visibility for their performance, which often opens up opportunities to play for the national side. Many players in the current Indian team are products of the IPL. Had the IPL not happened, many of them may have been floundering. Following the IPL’s success, similar events also started in countries like Bangladesh (BPL), Pakistan (PSL) and Sri Lanka (SLPL). The change amongst their players is visible, with both Pakistan and Bangladesh raising the performances of their national side in recent years. Given the advantages of the IPL model on the performance and exposure of the domestic players, there is a strong case for a major NPL now.
But playing is not the only criteria in cricket (or any sport). Does Nepal have the commercial depth to create the franchise and sponsorship for an international-level tournament? Cricket commerce needs deep pockets, and most South Asian nations still have very few large business corporations who can pledge such sizable deals. It is worth noting that a team like Sri Lanka, a World Cup winning side, saw financial struggles as there were not enough large companies in that country to sponsor its national team. Even India saw some concern after Sahara got into controversies. This is where bringing in foreign interest is key. For instance, the Indian cricket team is now sponsored by a Chinese company, Oppo. Even the primary sponsor of the IPL is a Chinese company, Vivo. Pakistan’s team is sponsored by America’s Pepsi. Incidentally, Oppo also happens to be one of the co-sponsors of the PSL. The Bangladesh cricket team’s sponsor is Robi, a division of Malaysia’s Axiata. Axiata is also the sponsor of the Sri Lanka team, through its local division Dialog. The SLPL was sponsored by India’s Mahindra. In short, bringing in foreign interest holds key to meet the commercial needs of an international-level outfit. All South Asian teams are testimony to this, and Nepal need not be different.
This is where its growing partnership with China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative should be extended to cricket as well. If Nepal can elicit the comfort and commitment for Chinese sponsors to invest in a NPL-style tournament, then the time for a NPL is indeed right. The IPL model brings huge consumer interest into the local economy as a result of the advertising and tourism flows. It also beefs up the financial health of the domestic cricket control authority in the long-run.
In the end, the decision to garner international-exposure for its players through an IPL model is Nepal’s decision. Some nations did it, and the results are visible. With Nepal gaining ODI status now, the iron is hot to strike. But will the country take the bait?
By Sourajit Aiyer
Originally published here http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2018-04-01/greater-aims.html