Exotic minnows in the T20 mix

Dale Steyn remains prone to injury. (Gallo)

Dale Steyn remains prone to injury. (Gallo)

The presence of Nepal and Hong Kong in the first round of the ICC T20 World Cup has provided an undeniably exotic twist to an otherwise unremarkable tournament in Bangladesh.

While the top eight Test nations play practice matches during the first week, six minor nations are fighting it out alongside the host nation and Zimbabwe for a place in the main draw.

Ireland has featured on the international radar for years with the obvious highlights being qualification for the Super Eight stage of the 2007 World Cup and a dramatic victory against England in India four years later. Nobody was really ­surprised to see them upset an under-prepared Zimbabwe in the first match of this tournament.

The Netherlands, too, have enjoyed their moments in the limelight, never more so than victory over England at Lord's in the 2010 version of this tournament.

A club league in Amsterdam and the Hague has existed for over half a century but they remain cheerfully amateur.

All the more so in this tournament for the absence of born-and-bred Capetonian Ryan Ten Doeschate, who chose to prepare for the IPL by playing domestic cricket in Otago, rather than international cricket for the country of his father's birth.

Fairytale journey
Afghanistan's fairytale journey from the obscure depths of the ICC's seventh division of affiliate nations has been well told and they continue to impress across all three formats.

The United Arab Emirates almost exclusively employs immigrants from Pakistan and India and, from time to time, they form a useful combination.

But this team owe their place on the big stage to the fact that the qualifying tournament was played in their own country.

The real surprises, however, are Hong Kong and Nepal – although the latter, perhaps, shouldn't be as they are perennial qualifiers for the under-19 World Cup.

The Hindu Rana dynasty, which ruled the country from 1846 until 1951 – and were synonymous with all manner of debauchery, exploitation and religious persecution – also introduced cricket to the country.

Obscure pastime
It remained an obscure pastime for the elite (who were often educated in England and India) until the 1950s, when the royal family regained power and the first attempts to popularise the sport began. Now there are over 400 registered clubs, 17 of which have grass pitches, most in and around Kathmandu.

The formation of a regional, six-team Nepal Premier League last year signalled the greatest advancement yet in the domestic game.

Unsurprisingly, the game remains strongest at junior level between under-15s and under-19s before players have to face the real world and earn a living.
But that is finally beginning to change with the help of ICC development grants and the country's first sponsors.

National captain and top-order batsman Paras Khadka played in three under-19 World Cups from the age of 15 and was groomed for the senior job he took in 2009 at the age of just 21.

Every member of the 15-man squad was born in Nepal and the oldest, left-arm spinner Shakti Gauchan, is just 29 years old. Their youngest player, Sompal Kami, has just turned 18.

Online awareness
A gradual increase in the amount of coverage and, of course, social media has helped to raise awareness of the players' exploits. It has raised the profile of the game to such an extent that it is now regarded as the second most popular sport behind soccer.

Though the region may be best known worldwide for Mount Everest, Khadka says cricket is catching on fast. "We are in the south Asian community with India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, so all the TV channels we get at home are full of cricket."

"Our biggest strength is our team spirit," Khadka told reporters in the build-up to the tournament. "We have amazing camaraderie. Most of us have come through the ­junior ranks and have played under-19 World Cups, even beating Test nations at that level, but this is the biggest stage of all."

Cricket in Hong Kong can also be traced back well over a century, although it remains heavily dependent for its best players on those born outside the country, mostly in Pakistan. The first "interport" match was played against Shanghai in 1866, 15 years after the Hong Kong Cricket Club was founded.

Cricket on the island became marginalised soon after the communist takeover of China in 1949, but they played in the ICC Trophy for the first time in 1982. The advent of the famous international "Sixes" tournament at the Kowloon Cricket Club – a decade later – ensured the games' exposure and popularity.

The minnows have all made their mark already, although all but Ireland are likely to disappear before the real action starts, which, for South Africa, is on Saturday when they take on Sri Lanka in Chittagong.

Two teams progress to the ­semifinals from each group, so victory in the opening match is not necessarily critical. But the following fixtures against England, New Zealand and probably Ireland would then become "must-win" games.

The Proteas are rated between sixth and eighth by most bookmakers to win the tournament. Hashim Amla's recent comments about "still learning how to play T20 cricket" may have been typically honest – and modest – but it does beg the question: Is this the right place to be learning?

Dale Steyn remains prone to injury and AB de Villiers, the most likely match-winner with the bat, continues to be "hidden" down the order when he should be batting at number three.

All in all, bookmakers usually have a decent grasp of which teams are most likely to succeed.

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