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The rise and fall, and reboot of Bhandari

Flamboyant wicketkeeper-batsman Binod Bhandari reckons that the rough patch in his career has turned him into more ‘matured and shrewd’ cricketer and is now looking to use all of his experience in the crucial juncture for Nepali cricket.

Bhandari had a fairytale beginning of his career after he struck a last ball six to force a ball out against Kuwait in the 2009 ACC Twenty20 Cup in UAE. Nepal went on to win that game.

The glimpse of genius have been aplenty. Binod’s whirldwind 51 not out off 23 balls against PNG during the 2013 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifiers had preceded by a power-packed performance against UAE (16 off 6 balls) in the semi-final of the ACC Twenty20 Cup.

His 30-ball 35 was the cornerstone in handing Nepal there first ever victory over the Netherlands in a tense finish during the 2015 ICC World Cricket League Division 2 in Windhoek, Namibia. That crucial victory would eventually earn Nepal a place in the next cycle of ICC World Cricket League Championship.

Years of barren spell

His Division 2 campaign in 2015 ended with a modest 144 runs from six innings at an average of 28.80 but from there on years of barren spell began. A batsman known for his big shots was failing to make connections.

Bhandari’s penchant for proper timing and connection was now eluding.

The slide started with the 2015 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifiers in Ireland and Scotland. In a tournament where none of the Nepali batsmen managed to score 100 runs, Bhandari accumulated just seven runs from four games and even had to face the ignominy of getting reduced to the dug out.

He, however, clung on and all he could do for the team in almost three years was to bring the best score of 40. He had forged a match-winning 84-run partnership with Sharad Vesawkar for the fifth wicket to bail out Nepal from 113-5 against Namibia and hand victory in chase of 196. It was during the World Cricket League Championship match at home.

Bhandari himself admitted that he terribly failed at one stage of his career.

Expected to regain his form, Bhandari was retained for the remaining matches of the series but he even failed to cross the 25-run mark.

The poor form finally took toll on him after he was kept out of two most important tournaments in Nepali cricket history beginning with the 2018 ICC World Cricket League Division 2, also in Namibia.

Nepal finished second in the tournament qualifying for the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifiers in Zimbabwe. Spurred on by decent performance from youngsters, Nepal finished seventh and earned the ODI status.

Bhandari was just in his early days of a long sabbatical when Nepal marked glorius days of its cricket.

“You don’t have any idea how it feels to be outside when you are inside the team. I was tasting that for the first time. It was the most difficult period of my career. Overnight, I was not the part of the group which I had loved for eight years. More than frustration, it was heartbreaking for me,” Bhandari recalled.

The resurrection

As Nepal continued its fairytale journey towards earning the coveted ODI status, Bhandari was leaning back, contemplating what went wrong. The call was not about improving skills but to develop a positive ego to get him back on the feet, on the ground.

He duly responded to that call.

Bhandari came up as a different batsman in domestic tournaments, particularly 50 overs. A batsman who was once enticed to hit every ball was now holding back; building his innings and converting them.

He was among the leading scorers of the Prime Minister Cup with 209 runs with an average of 41.80. In 2019, he was among the top five highest run getters.

“When I look back now, the main reason behind inconsistent performance in the first half of my career was lack of game awareness and poor cricketing facilities at home. Being an international cricketer, practising on the cemented pitch most of time didn’t yield consistent performance,” Bhandari reasoned over his lean patch.

He won back his place in the national team with impressive performance in the domestic 50-over tournaments.

Bhandari’s 2018 PM Cup exploits pushed him back to the camp for Nepal’s maiden ODI tour of Netherlands. He, however, had to wait more. He was also drafted in the final squad for the 2018 Asia Cup Qualifiers but sat out the entire tournament.

It was only during the ICC Twenty20 World Cup Asia Qualifiers that he took to the ground more than eight months after he was axed from the side. But a tournament that included minnows from the region was never going to test his character.

Return of the hit-man

Bhandari regained his touch smacking a 25-ball 51 against Malaysia in the first of the two-match Twenty20 International Series.

The disastrous Twenty20 World Cup Qualifier Asia Region in Singapore remained a tour to forget for the entire nation, but his 48-ball 58 against Hong Kong during the Oman Pentangular Twenty20 Series and crucial 26 in thrilling win against the Netherlands helped instill more confidence in him.

His change in approach and attitude towards the game has helped him gain more confidence at international stage. Since 2017, Bhandari has scored 828 runs in the domestic 50-over tournaments. His average of 45.83 is the best by far in the country’s domestic cricket.

The previous season would remain the best. He aggregated 358 runs in 10 innings including two centuries. His second, 119 off 114 against Bagmati Province newly introduced Mayor’s Cup, goes down as the best innings played by any batsman for a losing cause.

His average last season was 48.06 and it came at a strike rate of 95.47.

Nepali audience has now been witnessing a rebooted version of an old Bhandari.

Runs have come for Bhandari and he has been a match-winner ever since he started with that six against Kuwait 12 years ago in UAE.

The cameo against UAE in the 2013 ACC Twenty20 Cup, explosive half century against PNG in the same year’s World Twenty2 Qualifiers, crucial contributions in World Cricket League ladders to the match-winning 59 against USA in the Cricket World Cup League 2 match in TU, Bhandari has also been the contributor in Nepal’s numerous international triumphs.

But for a Nepali audience that only has the adulation for the ones staying alive during the thrills and chills of last overs, Bhandari has become someone seemingly non-existent. He is someone who has been brutally under-appreciated.

The reality is Bhandari has fought for his place with all his strength.

He is 31. And having put a lot of trials and tribulations behind him, Bhandari does seem to have a good many years of cricket ahead of him.

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