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Nepal’s new opening pair that surprises, makes fall in love with

Just few days ago, it was tough to pin point a match where Nepal were so dominant with the bat against any Dutch or a Malaysian side. And its exponentially tough to pick up any game where any Nepali opening pair has decimated a side par to them.

For the last decade, former skipper Paras Khadka has ruled the majority of dominant innings played by any Nepali batsman in the shorter version of the game. The likes of Binod Bhandari, Sharad Vesawkar or Gyanendra Malla have produced cameos.

Paras has dominated, battered and bruised the bowlers on his day.

Take his innings against Malaysia in 2013 ACC Twenty20 Cup at the TU grounds. Paras’ 53-ball 87, laced with 11 fours and three sixes, was the mainstay in Nepal’s total of 163-8 in the slim 19-run victory.

“What if there was no Paras?,” then-coach Pubudu Dassanayake would reply with his usual grin, “its good that Nepal has Paras,” soon after Nepal made it to the semi-finals of the tournament.

They ultimately earned a place in the 2013 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifiers from where the country would go on to make its only appearance in the global showpiece event in cricket, the 2014 ICC World Twenty20 in Bangladesh.

Paras and Gyanendra have both opened innings for Nepal.

Yes, there was/is Paras who has, most of the times, taken his team out from their shell or bailed out from difficult circumstances. His 56-ball 86 not out made sure Nepal wouldn’t cave in from 68-3 while chasing 129 against Malaysia in the first of two-match bilateral Twenty20 International Series in July, 2019.

In September later that year during a Tri-Series match against Singapore Paras smashed a 52-ball 106, in the process hammering nine sixes and seven boundaries, becoming Nepal’s only centurion in the format and chasing Singapore’s 151-3 with 24 balls to spare.

His century came against a side that, for the last few years, has been posing as the thorn in many Asian Associates’ progress in global or regional tournaments, particularly for Nepal.

Fast forward to 2021, April 19, Kushal Bhurtel perfectly connects to pull Syed Aziz for a flat six over deep square leg at the TU grounds in the ongoing Tri-Nation Series. It was Kushal’s second consecutive six against the bowler, against whom he would collect 19 runs in the sixth over, and carry the bat with a 41-ball 61 in chase of Malaysia’s meagre 109 all out.

Nepal win the game by nine wickets. But not for the first time in the series.

One of five Kushal sixes on the day was over the VIP stand. It was a shot that stamped authority Nepal’s new opening pair is batting with.

Kushal and Aasif Sheikh have featured in two century partnerships, one a new record, in the Series. The first one against Dutch was equally clinical where both openers have shown what has lacked in Nepal’s top order — the fearlessness.

Blessing in Disguise

Paras, for the last two years, has switched himself as an opener for Twenty20s to at least ensure Nepal dominate from one side. But he pulled out of the Tri-Nation Series after aggravating a shoulder injury.

Nepal does miss the ace batsman’s mercurial presence in the field but the current openers have not allowed anyone to miss him with the bat so far.

Paras has been watching the two matches from stands, at times animated, and along with him the whole of Nepal and opponents are surprised to see this attitude from the top order. This new attitude even took Netherlands captain Pieter Seelar by surprise.

“We have played them quite a bit but they came up with different sort of attitude than they normally do. To be fair, they were just hundred times better than we were,” Seelar said following Kushal and Aasif’s record 116-run stand in Twenty20 International that drubbed the Dutch.

Nepal’s new opening pair has also taken Netherlands captain Pieter Seelar.

The story, however, is not only about Kushal. Aasif has been equally menacing. Kushal has managed to get more strike and Aasif from the other end is scoring fluently with a better strike rate.

The Tri-Nation Series is the first international tournament under Nepal’s newly recruited coach Dave Whatmore who took over the reins on January. The 1996 World Cup winning coach with Sri Lanka and the most successful coach in the Asian circuit, Whatmore, sees no magic as Nepal appears to be changing fortunes with the bat.

“I wish I could say there were magical sort of words (to define why Nepal are batting this way). It was just a sense and a feeling of just go and play the game,” Whatmore said after the game against Malaysia.

“Probably there are talks about fearless cricket, yes, but having a big trust on themselves and that they are not going to be jumped upon if they play and get out, makes a difference,” said Whatmore the 1996 World Cup winner with Sri Lanka.

Wicket familiarity

The pitches at the TU Stadium has played well in recent times. The domestic matches in the Prime Minister Cup and Mayor’s Cup — both 50 over tournaments — have seen the pitches behave like never before.

Both Kushal and Aasif know the favourite spots to hit the ball. Netherlands and Malaysia, when they play against Nepal, are yet to find out how they can punish the local bowlers. Additionally, Kushal and Aarif, on their international debut, have the luxury to go after the bowlers.

While chasing, they have enjoyed the leniency as well.

“The wicket is conducive for stroke-play and looking over your shoulder when you see there’s a pretty strong batting line up, that also gives confidence,” Whatmore reasons over Kushal and Aasif’s fearless batting approach.

In addition to the familiarity with the wicket, both Kushal and Aasif have prepared themselves to open Nepal innings, provided they get the opportunity. While both have been opening for their clubs in national cricket or teams in franchise tournaments, they were waiting for this opportunity.

Kushal has been opening the innings with Sunil Dhamala for Nepal Police Club.

Kushal and Aasif made national team debuts from same tournament. In 2019, Kushal opened for Nepal in the ACC Emerging Teams Cup tournament in Bangladesh and Aasif’s debut was two years before that edition, also in the same country.

Aasif was particularly picked up after he scored a century in the Everest Premier League, the first edition of the tournament which has now become the biggest franchise tournament of Nepal. The opening duo had waited long for the opportunity and were relentless when they got one.

“There was no pressure because we were playing our first internationals for Nepal. I have worked hard to get this opportunity and since now I have it, I just want to make the best out of it,” Kushal said.

Since the country began playing Twenty20 cricket in 2007, Nepal have seen more than a dozen of opening pair tried and tested.

Since the duo of Paresh Lohani and Mehboob Alam began opening for Nepal in the 2007 ACC Twenty20 Cup, Nepal have experimented with almost every one from the batting order. The Kushal-Aasif duo turned out to be special.

Dipendra Chaudhary, Pradeep Airee, Subash Khakurel, Anil Mandal, Naresh Budhayer, Binod Bhandari, Sagar Pun, Paras, current captain Gyanendra Malla have all opened for Nepal in the Twenty20s.

After 14 years of playing the game, its Kushal-Aasif duo that Nepal have fallen in love with, the pair that has taken everyone by surprise. The country now expects this remains a point where the hunt for an opening pair stalls, at least for few years.

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