Well, did you really think they were going to do it easy? Nepal? The side whose alias of “The Cardiac Kids” has been hard earned over years of putting their fans through heart-stopping finishes?
On Thursday, in the last game of 126 across three-and-a-half years in Cricket World Cup League 2, the Tribhuvan University ground in Kathmandu was one big, national cardiogram.
The capacity at Nepal’s international cricket venue is said to be 18,000. But many more were in attendance to see their must-win fixture with UAE.
Two hours before the 9.30am start, the queue of spectators awaiting entry snaked hundreds of metres from the ground’s lone entry gate.
An hour before, ticketless supporters were already scaling the perimeter walls, which are topped with rusty barbed wire, to get in.
Surge after surge of hundreds made it through the main gate, until the police – between them armed with sticks, rifles and riot shields – gave up on that idea altogether. They threw the gates open, and held the line themselves instead.
Thousands watched on from any vantage they could find. Midway through the first innings, fans outside started ripping down advertising hoardings that soared above the walls, impairing their view.
Some hardy souls married two of Nepal’s great loves – cricket and climbing – as they watched from the highest branches of neighbouring trees.
It seemed as though it was a badge of honour for those who ascended to the very top to carry with them a Nepal flag, as though this was some sort of summit climb.
Literally anyone who was anyone wanted to be there. Before the anthems, Nepal’s prime minister was presented to meet the two teams.
Once the songs had played, a single flare emitting a plume of blue smoke was started on the packed banks. It felt like a signal saying: right, enough of all that – let’s get this started.
Nepal were aiming for the nigh-on impossible. As the final phase of League 2 played out, they required 11 wins from 12 to steal the third automatic berth from Namibia for the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe this June.
They dropped one game in Dubai earlier in the month, meaning they had to be perfect thereafter. They managed that until the final day of the competition, when only UAE stood between them and success.
With little of consequence to play for themselves, UAE played the role of party-poopers with zeal, and plenty of skill, too.
A day earlier, Muhammad Waseem had struck his first ODI century as UAE demolished Papua New Guinea at the same venue. He appeared set for a second a day later, as he laced 63 in 49 balls, with six more sixes.
After an extended rut, the national team had remembered how to bat in that game against PNG. Suddenly, the runs were coming in a torrent.
Vriitya Aravind rediscovered his sparkle, anchoring the innings with 94. He had three goes at hitting the six required for three figures in the final over, to no avail.
Waseem and Aravind had set the platform for something historic. Asif Khan – dominator of UAE domestic bowling attacks for years, but yet to do similar on the international stage – was afforded 42 balls from No 7 in the UAE line up.
He required one fewer than that to bludgeon the fastest ODI century by an Associate cricketer. Waseem had hit the fastest by a UAE player a day earlier. His record did not even last 24 hours.
Only AB de Villiers, Corey Anderson and Shahid Afridi – who, coincidentally, shares the nickname of “Lala” with Asif – have gone quicker in all ODIs.
His salvo lifted UAE to 310-6, meaning Nepal would need to make their highest ever ODI total to win. Well, why not? They had already climbed a mountain to reach this point. What is one more summit when you have come this far?
Of course, they did not do it easy. They were 37-3 early in the chase. Khushal Bhurtel and Bhim Sharki rebuilt with canny half centuries.
When they had gone, Aarif Sheikh and Gulshan Jha picked up the baton and ran with it. Both made half-centuries, too.
As if the run of play was not tense enough, the elements wanted their say, too. Both sides bowled their overs slowly, meaning the game stretched right to sunset for the first time in this tri-series.
With 44 overs bowled, Nepal held a nine-run advantage. When the umpires then ruled light was unfair for play to continue, it sparked contrasting emotions.
Beyond the boundary rope and in the home dressing room, it was nothing but jubilation. For the UAE’s part, they were livid the decision had been taken at that stage.
As the hosts departed on a lap of honour, Waseem asked – in animated fashion – for clarification from the match referee.
Whatever was said, it didn’t matter. Nepal had the precious win, to complete mission impossible.
Updated: March 16, 2023, 3:51 PM