The district of Jhapa in Nepal’s eastern-most corner is fortunate in many ways. The same mountain range that defines the country shelters the district, which is nestled in the foothills of the lower Himalayas. It usually enjoys calm weather, a regular monsoon, and shares a border with India. All this and its fertile alluvial soil has earned it the moniker, ‘Nepal’s grain grocery’. But more than the crops have grown tall and strong under the watch of the mountains.
On July 4, 2009, a daughter of Jhapa made Nepal proud. Representing the national women’s cricket team in her debut tournament, 16-year-old Rubina Chhetri did what no Nepali cricketer, male or female, had done before. She took a hat-trick and won her team the game in the most bizarre circumstances.
In their second game of the ACC Women’s Twenty20 Championship, Nepal looked down and out against Singapore. With Singapore needing only two runs off the last over with five wickets in hand, Chhetri was handed the kind of task that no one wants: be the bowler off whom the winning runs are scored. She started innocuously enough, with a dot ball. Then the unenviable became the unbelievable. She claimed three wickets with the next three balls, a hat-trick she would later say she wasn’t even conscious of. She then bowled a wide, which tied the game. It seemed curtains for Nepal’s fightback, but Chhetri took too more wickets in the next two balls to bowl Singapore out!
The tied game was decided by a bowl out, which Nepal won 2-1.
In the next few years, Chhetri didn’t just climb the cricketing ladder, she pole-vaulted to the top of it. Taught to bowl as a young girl by her brother, she found herself in national colours just a year after she started playing formal cricket. Then, as a 19-year-old, she was handed the reins of the national side, successfully leading the Nepal Under-19 team in the ACC women’s championship tournaments.
The biggest recent story for Nepal cricket is Chhetri’s selection as one of eight Associate and Affiliate ‘rookies’ in the WBBL. She is currently in Melbourne, where she will spend two weeks training with the Renegades, alongside stars of the women’s game such as Rachael Priest and Danielle Wyatt. While she will take no active part in the tournament, her time there is likely to be the most educational two weeks of her life.
“It was amazing to see us win after it (required run-rate) was 10 an over,” she said after Grace Harris blasted 39 off 17 to give the Renegades a come-from-behind win against the Perth Scorchers on January 4.
It is Chhetri’s first taste of a near professional set-up. Back home, those who play for the national team can manage, she says. But those in the districts and regions sides aren’t well paid.
The Armed Police Force, one of the two non-state teams that play in the domestic competition, offer employment to a handful of girls, and Chhetri is one of them. “It’s good for us since we get to earn something,” she says. But the concern in her voice for the next level of cricketers shines through, as she wears her captaincy hat off the field too: “Others go abroad and start earning.”
An appearance by the Nepal men’s team in the WT20 2014 meant cricket fever spread in Nepal like a Queensland bushfire on a windy day. Still, basic facilities are not widespread. In Jhapa, for instance, a city with a population of more than 8 lakh, there are only two cricket academies, one of which has been started by Chhetri and her brother. The only positive of a situation like this is that players who still remain in the game have an uncommon passion for it.
Passion in high quantities is a necessity in a country like Nepal, especially for girls. According to Chhetri, the far western regions of the country still wear the cloak of parochialism. “Girls are not allowed to work. In the eastern cities and in the capital, it’s quite good, we can do whatever we want. If the family supports us, it is easy for us to just go and play our cricket.”
For Chhetri, it is because of her family’s support that she can think beyond cricket as a means of livelihood. After four years with the Armed Forces Police, she recently quit so she can help build her academy, christened the Lord Buddha Cricket Academy. “Since I’m in cricket, I want my full life to be dedicated to cricket only.”
While in Melbourne, she is taking notes, jotting down the things she feels can be implemented back home. “I can go to the management and demand that if you want us to play and you want us to be on top, you need to provide us these kinds of facilities so that you can see the girls team on top as well, not just boys team,” she says fiercely.
Nepal cricket’s administrative body is in flux, having been suspended by the ICC for government interference. They are under the care of the ICC. In this nebulous administration, one of Chhetri’s constant demands has been more matches.
She sees more games as the best way to get to the top of the Asia region table among non-international sides, where Nepal are currently second behind Thailand. In October, they narrowly lost out to the Thai team, by one wicket, in the ICC Women’s World Cup qualifying tournament for Asia. Chhetri picked up two late wickets in the game, but she could not prevent a loss, which meant that Thailand would advance to the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifiers in Sri Lanka in February.
In the ACC Women’s Asia Cup last year, Chhetri had one of the highlights of her career, as she got a chance to meet Harmanpreet Kaur, India’s T20 skipper. Chhetri is a big fan of the Indian allrounder, having spent hours overs her videos online. The same day as the meeting, however, she was given a harsh reality check, as Nepal were scuttled out for 21 by the Indians.
“If,” she says, pausing and repeating the word once more, “if the management make us play more matches, and hold some good tournaments, we can beat Thailand and we can fight against the [top eight] teams as well.”
She is very keen on playing against Indian state teams, perhaps one day even playing in India’s domestic system, much like how Ireland Women played in the England county system. “The management are planning to call a state team, maybe Delhi or Hyderabad, or even Bangladesh. I don’t know how serious they are about this.”
She does not intend to wait for the management to act though. Should the said tours not come about, Chhetri has plans to organise her own tournament, with help from other well-wishers of the game. “If they don’t do, we will do it ourselves,” she says with a shrug.
The name of her hometown means ‘canopy’. With her academy and big plans for tournaments, Chhetri is building a canopy of her own, under which, perhaps, more female cricketers could sprout from Jhapa’s fertile land.