11 Aug 2017
8 min read
On 24 September 2016, a Nepali teenager made his debut in a first grade game in a New South Wales Premier Cricket match in Australia. Playing for the Western Suburbs, he bamboozled the opposition batsmen with his spin and variety, consistently beating the bat and allowing next to no chance for the batsmen to attack him. But on the day, this was not news. In fact, the Randwick Petersham team had been pre-warned that a teenage bowling sensation would be playing against them; the teenage spin prodigy had been brought to Australia by the retired Aussie test captain Michael Clarke. The media presence for such a seemingly low-key match was highly unusual. Most of the other players struggled to shine under the media glare. For Sandeep Lamichhane, however, this was just another day. He was just 16, but he was already used to the hype.
In the summer of 2015, when Sandeep Lamichhane was playing for his school, he was first noticed by Nepal national coach Pubudu Dassanayeke. The coach immediately recognised the potential Lamichhane had. A few months later, Lamichhane was in Kathmandu, training for the national team with his heroes in the national team. Six months later, he was taking wickets for Nepal in international matches. But it was his performance in the 2016 ICC Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, the tournament in which Nepal narrowly missed getting into the semis, that made his fame international. The matches were televised all around the world, and the British media began circulating his bowling videos, titled ‘The Next Shane Warne’. It would have been easy for a teenage boy to let the fame get to his head: being compared to Shane Warne is the holy grail for a spinner. But Sandeep kept working, kept training in the nets, kept listening to his coaches and seniors, and kept bowling marvellously for the national team.
Rubbing shoulders with the heavyweights
The international scouts did not fail to notice his dedication. Sandeep was invited to play the Hong Kong Blitz T20 tournament later the same year, alongside some truly great international cricketers. In fact, Sandeep was the only Nepali player in the tournament. This was when Sandeep’s life took a dramatic turn for the better, because he came in contact with Michael Clarke. The legendary Australian batsman and captain had only recently retired and had agreed to captain a side in the Hong Kong Blitz. It so happened that Sandeep was contracted by the same team. Once again, Sandeep’s talents were hard to miss. By the end of the tournament, Clarke had made arrangements to have Sandeep go to Australia and train and play there. The media, already following the story of the teenage bowling sensation, was now all over him. But thanks to the huge crowd following back home, Sandeep was used to the attention and handled the change exceedingly well. The welcome that Sandeep got in Australia made for a surreal sight: a media team and Clarke himself had come to the airport to welcome Sandeep Down Under. No wonder the Randwick Petersham team were wary of this bowler.
As much as his development makes for a wonderful story, Sandeep’s prowess, and progress, are not mere outcomes of luck. What makes him so special is that all of the attention he has garnered is entirely merited. There are many famous players out there who come into the limelight for a while and then fizzle out: Sandeep is not such a player. For one, despite his age, he has put in over a year of consistent performance. That production speaks volumes about not just his talent, but also his sharp cricketing brain. Being a spinner in the modern cricketing era is hard, even more so when you’re a leg spin bowler. Many cricket pundits would go so far as to argue that the art of true leg spin is dying in the modern version of the game. So it is even more remarkable that Sandeep already shows such talents at such a young age. There are things you learn, and then there are things you are born with. Spin, for Sandeep, is something he’s born with. He does not play the game on just the 22 yards; he plays it in his mind. He can defeat batsmen before the
ball has left his hand. Sachin Tendulkar often said that if you play the game of cricket only on the field, you’re going to lose. You have to be able to judge the situation before the ball has been bowled and outfox the opponent,
he believes. Sandeep sticks to that principle. He does not outbowl the batsmen; he outthinks them.
The spinner’s dark art
If we look at his performance closely, we will see two fixed patterns to how he takes wickets. The first is when he is just too good for the batsmen and they meekly surrender to him: such instances were on display when he bowled in the Under-19 World Cup qualifiers last month, where only the Afghani batsmen seemed to be able to pick him. Sandeep started getting wickets in his first over itself. The second pattern has to do with his complex thinking process, and it’s a treat tracking his mindgame. He’ll bowl innocent, regular balls to begin with. He’ll set the field with his captain so that the batsman cannot get an easy run. He’ll bowl his varieties and check to see which kind of ball the batsman has the most trouble with and the kind that the batsman can easily bat. Once Sandeep has recognised the batsman’s strengths and weaknesses, he’ll bowl the regular balls and sprinkle in the balls that the batsman actually finds easy. And he’ll make a pattern of it. For instance, if a batsman is comfortable with both the regular leg spin and can also detect the googly easily, he’ll bowl five leg spin balls followed by a googly. Next over, he’ll bowl the fifth ball as a googly, and on the third or fourth ball of the next over. Now, the next over, the batsman will be expecting a googly in the first few balls. But what Sandeep will do is, instead of the googly, he’ll bowl the straight one, the one that he already knows the batsman is not comfortable with. And the batsman will, more often than not, play a false stroke and give his wicket away. Essentially, Sandeep spins a web, lulls the batsman into a false sense of security and then traps him.
Now, this is not a new strategy in spin bowling. Every good spinner tries to play in a similar manner. But what Sandeep does so well is that he can execute this plan almost any time. And this comes down to two factors: talent and practice. It’s pretty much a given that no matter how much you practice, you simply cannot hone a skill you do not have. You could call Sandeep ‘gifted’ because he has this intrinsic ability to turn the ball either way, as well as keep it straight, all the while allowing minimal exposure through his wrist. Sandeep rarely lets the batsmen pick him off his hand, which means the major plan to counter his spin has been nullified. The batsman then has to pick it off the pitch, meaning the bowler is already at an advantage. The more I look at his bowling videos, the more I am amazed as to how a 17-year-old can do this. Many test bowlers struggle to hide their change of grip as easily as Sandeep does. While his ability to turn the ball is his natural talent, this masking mechanism is not. Developing this skill took practice and dedication. Sandeep works hard in the nets, focusing on how to grip the ball and how to hide his grip from the batsman. He even does this during lower level matches, where batsmen have no idea how to pick a bowler by his hand. Sandeep does not do this because the skill is essential for winning the particular match he is playing: he does this to make a habit of doing it. It’s apparent that even when he’s playing domestic matches, he’s thinking of the bigger picture, thinking of improving his abilities.
Adding a little more polish
And his abilities have improved to a great extent, even though there are still a few chinks in his armour. Funnily enough, the one skill that he has improved a lot and the one that he still needs to improve by a long way are the same: consistency in variations. Sandeep still has to learn to bowl a variation at will. With his strategy being to outfox the batsmen, he cannot afford to not bowl the wrong’un at the precise time when need be. He also needs to be able to control his spin variations better: he can, right now, change his spin, but he also needs to be able to control the angle of spin and outfox the batsman that way. High-level batsmen will, over time, learn his patterns of variations. His arsenal will not be enough for, say, a World Cup Qualifier match, should Nepal qualify. If he wants to make a mark, not only will Sandeep need to be able to bowl a flipper or a top spinner on demand, but also bowl the same identical leg spin, but with a little less spin than in his last delivery, so that the next ball does not beat the bat but takes the outside edge. Sandeep has the potential to be not only the best spinner in Nepal, but also succeed internationally, on the biggest stages. And there is no other way for him to get there, but through practice, and preferably match practice. Alas, such opportunities are hard to come by with our cricket team, thanks mainly due to the administration being where it is.
Making the most of an awful pitch
Right now, Sandeep is back home in Chitwan, playing with his friends and enjoying his down time. Perhaps he is practising alone in his backyard, working on his variations. Perhaps he watches cricket news and sees Rashid Khan, the Afghani spinner just a couple years older than him, playing the IPL and doing wonders. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t feel disappointed that it is not he that has not gotten that chance, that if he had the support of a good board and an international agent, he too would be playing on that stage, learning and rising all the time.
During one interaction programme, Michael Clarke was asked about Sandeep’s potential. Clarke said, referring to the opportunities for growth in Australia, that he wished Sandeep had been born in Australia. Sometimes I wonder, with the current situation of CAN and the barely existent training facilities here, if there will come a time when Sandeep too will allow the ground reality here to get to him. For the sake of our cricket, I hope not.
Lack of match practice and a lackadaisical management approach are letting our youngsters down
Our cricket has been on an overall decline for quite some time now, and this malaise has finally crept all the way down to the Under-19 level. This is heartbreaking to see. The national team’s decline started way back in the World Cup Qualifiers in New Zealand, in 2014, when we failed to get the ODI status. This was followed by our failing to qualify for the Intercontinental Cup for the 2015-19 cycle, which would have meant a lot of funding and additional guaranteed fixtures. Then came the mediocre performance in the World T20 Qualifiers in 2017, where we narrowly avoided getting the wooden spoon. Despite all this, and the suspension of CAN from ICC, the U-19 team did show sparks of promise. In fact, Nepal had been so very close to clinching a semi-final spot in the last edition of the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh in early 2016. But with no management and no training, we failed to even qualify this time around.
Whether or not the decision of the ICC was fair in its decision to make us play qualifiers while giving a bye to four nations that finished below us (in the case of Australia, they did not even play the last edition of the WC) is a matter best debated another time, but the fact remains this flawed system has always been in place, and we had always managed to exceed expectations at this level. There’s no point in dwelling on the past, but it cannot be ignored that our U-19 team beat the then U-19 teams of England, South Africa and New Zealand to win the plate championship back in 2006, and we had been performing similarly ever since. To be sure, the fact that the majority of the U-19 players from those countries play tests for their senior teams now is a testament to the raw talent and skill our players possess. But with the administration being less and less interested in the grassroots and there being next to no structure to groom our talents, we are failing to come up with players of the needed calibre. It is foolish to sow no seeds and expect to reap a bunch.
Our batting was horribly exposed in this edition of the U-19 World Cup Qualifiers. What we saw was further proof that the main problem with our team is lack of match practice. We saw our batsmen fail to maintain any kind of partnerships. They were neither able to judge when to take singles nor set specific roles for each other during the middle overs. Even our bowlers, who excelled when bowling simple lines and lengths, struggled against good batsmen. This obviously points to lack of match practice. Bowling good balls or hitting big shots might come from natural instinct, but you need to be well trained to be able to rein in your hitting ability and steal singles and doubles as per the situation of the match. A good batsman does not try to take on a good bowler: he realises the best thing to do is take a single and get off strike. You do not always need to dominate the game; you need to win. Such things can only be learned from match practice. Similarly, even our bowlers struggled when the batsmen were set. Our bowlers, talented though they are, were inconsistent. The opposing batsmen were quick to exploit this flaw. With the exception of Sandeep Lamichhane (who finished as the highest wicket taker and also set a new record for most wickets taken in a single tournament by a Nepali bowler), none of the other bowlers seemed to know what to do if the batsmen played well. It was clear that it was Sandeep’s international experience that helped him perform at such a high level. Everyone else struggled so much it was painful to watch.
But we can’t lay the blame at our players’ feet for this. Our teenage team met for a closed camp only a few weeks before the tournament, played a handful of matches against some local teams in India and then played the qualifiers. The Afghani team, meanwhile, came from a rigorous school and club cricket structure. We had no hope. And if we don’t correct course now, outings such as this is the fate our team has in store unless the administration steps up and does something. The ball is, to use the cliché, in their court.