I met Mr Dias, who has rightly earned the title of The Godfather of Nepal, at the recent semi-final between Nepal and Malaysia and the pleasure has been all mine. A gentleman in every aspect, I cringed when he told me of an interview he did with the BBC after his first ACC Championships six years ago. He was patronisingly asked, “How do they even play cricket in Nepal, aren’t there hills everywhere?”. He then told me that this “poorly educated Englishman” was supposedly serious. “I guess he’s never seen the incline at Lords” was my reply and Roy’s deep chuckle echoed onto the busy street outside at the mere mention of the vagaries at the international home of cricket.
Roy has been asked about yesterday’s final against Afghanistan continuously - won by Nepal in a tight low-scoring match - so I switched the conversation to his playing career and particularly his one and only match at the famous ground. It was the first Test match in England between the MCC and Sri Lanka and Roy conveyed that the then inexperienced Lankan squad were “nervous and excited” about the prospect of playing a Test at Lords.
“It was a wonderful occasion and I’ll never forget the standing ovation we received from the crowd after our captain Duleep Mendis twice turned down offers of bad light on the first afternoon.” I asked if the English skipper did likewise and Mr. Dias just smiled and raised an eyebrow. He told of how “Mr Gower” sent the Sri Lankans in after winning the toss and how nobody, including their own supporters, gave them a chance even though England had failed to win any of their previous dozen Tests.
His eyes sparkled as he reminisced of how the then minnows “declared close to 500” and how they cleaned up England for “around 350”. The match was drawn but it was the game that “signalled the arrival of Sri Lankan cricket to the world”.
“Everyone was very proud” but it still took another 17 years (2002) before England would engage Sri Lanka in anything more than one-off Tests at home. This “snub” still rankles the elder generation of Sri Lankan cricketers. They had played multiple Test series against every elite nation by 1989 and why England “were afraid of them” is “not understandable” I piped in something about England’s tour of Australia and recent World Cup performances being “of minnow-like proportions” and Roy’s hearty belly laugh once again resonated throughout the neighbourhood.
After some more well-wishers and a dozen autographs Roy settled back in his ornate wooden chair and mused about the future prospects for cricket in Nepal. He relayed plans to build a high-altitude Academy with help from the ICC and others. Many Asian athletes train in Nepal and Roy thinks that cricketers could also benefit from working on their fitness and skills at altitude.
He spoke at length about elite cricket being played “90 percent with head and heart” and how it is this aspect of the game where the Nepalese lads really excel. “What distinguishes Nepal is that they never give up and keep fighting with a passion to the very end. Gurkha spirit, underdog spirit, call it what you will. While other teams in the region may find it hard to summon the necessary desire and self-belief for whatever reason, to a man, the Nepalese cricketers have what it takes.”He spoke passionately about the demographics of Nepal and stated that 40% of the population were aged under 15. He said that in his six successful years as coach that he had “barely scratched the surface” in terms of the talent available. He emphasized this point by sharing the little known fact that the U/15 ACC winning championship team only had two lads that had played in a competitive match and yet they won the regional tournament undefeated. With only “15 turf wickets” in the entire country and most of them situated in the south close to the border with India, The Godfather of Nepalese cricket is eyeing the rugged north of the country as a vital untapped resource that needs investment so that Nepal can take the next step up on the international ladder. Roy was deadly earnest when he said that he “would like to take hold of those boys who think nothing of going up and down mountains for miles to get their milk”. When facilities are available to these lads he assures me “that Nepal cricket would even be stronger”.
He then went on and used his home island as an example, “The Sri Lankan national team made some major improvement once they started recruiting from the outstations. That’s where they find the fast bowlers. They don’t need gym or strength work. It’s all natural.” I had Roy’s head nodding and his belly bubbling once again when I mused, “Well if you are scaling a mountain and wrestling a yak before breakfast mate, bowling 20 overs into the breeze should be as easy as sipping chai”.After winning his fourth straight undefeated Asian U/19 Championship only 36 hours ago Coach Dias was understandably a busy man. He drained his cup and with a warm handshake and friendly smile he wished me well and quickly blended into the seething mass of humanity on Kathmandu’s sunset lit city streets. It was a pleasure to share half an hour with this remarkable living legend and once again I was reminded of the marvellous camaraderie and cultural respect that the game of cricket can create amongst it’s participants. Something, I am afraid to say, that mere spectators of this grandest of games seldom learn nor appreciate. Namaste.