The giggly boy wonder from Sauraha

May 13, 2018

Agencies, My Republica Daily, 12 May 2018

On paper, there is a slew of diamond-encrusted bullet points that stand out about Sandeep Lamichhane. National team debut at 15. Nepal's leading wicket-taker at the 2016 Under-19 World Cup. Personal invitation from Michael Clarke to train in Sydney.

First player from Nepal to be selected in both the IPL and CPL.

In person though, what stands out most - aside from his diamond-stud earrings (a la Clarke) and bright neon green trainers - is the giggling. No matter what the situation is around him, laughter, joy, just pure unadulterated fun follows the teenage legspinning phenom just about everywhere.

"What kind of questions are you going to ask me?" he asks.

"Well, what kind of questions do you think I'll ask?" replies the reporter.

"Ones in Nepalese? I love those!" he shoots back before rocking back laughing. "You've gotta say, 'Kay chhaaaaaa. Kay chha.' It means, what's going on? Kay chha?!'"

What has been going on for Lamichhane? Quite a lot in the last three months, actually. A Player-of-the-Tournament performance at WCL Division Two - in which he took 17 wickets as well as played a vital role with the bat in two heart-stopping one-wicket wins to propel Nepal into the World Cup Qualifier - was sandwiched around his successful INR 20 lakh (US$31,000) bid from Delhi Daredevils at the IPL auction on January 28 and a 13th round draft selection by St Kitts & Nevis Patriots (for $5000) in the CPL draft on March 1.

Though the flurry of franchise T20 interest from the IPL and CPL in the first quarter of 2018 has heightened his profile recently, these history-making news bytes were actually set in motion a few years earlier through the first of many fateful occurrences for the giggly guy known to his friends and team-mates as "Sandy".

Born in Syangja, a province about 70 kilometers south of Pokhara, Nepal's second biggest city, Lamichhane and his family moved to the Indian state of Haryana when he was young before returning to Nepal when he was 11. The family - Sandeep is the youngest of four children with two older sisters and a brother - eventually settled in Sauraha, a tiny village of a few thousand people in Chitwan district, about 150 kilometers west of Kathmandu.

Despite its small population, Sauraha's reputation has grown in recent years as a resort hub for tourists coming to visit the Chitwan National Park, famous for its Bengal tigers and one-horned rhinos. In the midst of all this wildlife, a rare species known as the disciplined wristspinner was reared.

"When I first met Michael Clarke, he was like, 'Hey Sandy, how are you?' I was surprised he knew my name. He told me everybody from Cantons talked about me"
Sandeep Lamichhane
"I used to play with plastic cricket balls in my childhood and could bowl both offspin and legspin," Lamichhane said. "When I saw people struggle with my legspin, from then on I bowled legspin every time. I told myself to stay positive, work hard and you'll be a good spinner in the future."

"It's hard to get good facilities in Nepal. I used to practice at my academy, Cricket Association of Chitwan Academy. My coach, Mr Raju Khadka, helped me a lot. He used to bat against me to make me perfect."

Outside of Kathmandu, which has the country's best turf wicket facilities, the cricket infrastructure lags behind, making it difficult to identify the best talent even though there is ostensibly a pathway with regional and district feeder tournaments at junior level. If a player doesn't make it into one of those events, it might take a stroke of very good fortune to get noticed.

It took a wedding celebration for one all-time great Nepal bowler to open the door for discovering the next one. In the autumn of 2014, then Nepal coach Pubudu Dassanayake was traveling to attend left-arm spinner Basant Regmi's wedding when he made a stopover in Chitwan.

During his brief stay, some of the local coaches rounded up players for Dassanayake to observe during a training session. One of those was Lamichhane.

"Chitwan is a smaller area, but there are talented guys from outside Kathmandu. It was just a matter of finding them," Dassanayake, now coaching USA, said.

"When I saw him, his action and his fluency the way he was bowling, I told our technical analyst Raman [Shiwakoti] that this guy is going to be the best bowler for Nepal in a couple of years.

"I had to struggle a bit with the board and selectors to bring him in. He missed the ACC Cup when he was 14. They didn't select him because he didn't have a passport and they were not interested because he didn't come through the system playing regional tournaments."

Dassanayake was keen to fast-track Lamichhane into both the U-19 and the senior teams. Even though Lamichhane had spent time in India in his youth, the border relationship between the two countries is such that he says he never needed a visa or passport to go back and forth. Now, his lack of a passport was the main thing holding up his international debut.

Dassanayake says that while Nepal were playing the 2015 WCL Division Two that January in Namibia, he spent time on the phone with Lamichhane and administrators back in Nepal trying to do what he could to get the legspinner's passport sorted.

Though Lamicchane missed the Asian Cricket Council Qualifier for the U-19 World Cup and the global qualifier in Malaysia, he got his passport in time for the main event in January 2016 in Bangladesh. The team's training session at the HPCA ground in Dharamsala was the first time Lamichhane was playing in a major stadium. But he says he was too excited to be nervous.

"I never felt nervous because I always think this is the dream you work hard for," Lamichhane said. "This is the thing and you are living your moment right now, so stay positive, stay focused every time. Don't feel nervous. I used to say every time all these things to myself."

It's that abundant confidence that propelled him to 14 wickets in six World Cup matches for Nepal, twice as many as his nearest team-mate and good for second overall in the tournament at the ripe age of 15.

Group stage wins over New Zealand and Ireland - a game in which Lamichhane picked up 5 for 27 - took Nepal into the quarter-finals, their best performance at the tournament since defeating New Zealand to win the Plate Final in 2006.

The success in Bangladesh helped Dassanayake convince others in the Nepal set-up that Lamichhane was ready for the senior team. The young bowler held his own when handed a senior cap a few months later, in April 2016, against Namibia in the WCL Championship, taking 1 for 37 and 2 for 39 in a pair of wins in what was Dassanayake's final series in charge of Nepal.

"The truth is I hadn't done much coaching for him," Dassanayake said. "He has so much natural, raw talent. Anyone who knows about the game could see that he's a different level of bowler."

But despite all the strong signals of impending stardom, perhaps the most serendipitous moment in Lamichhane's journey came a few months earlier. Picked to play in a Nepal XI against a touring MCC side in Kathmandu in November 2015, Lamichhane made an impression on one of the visitors - a former English county second XI player in the process of qualifying for the Hong Kong national side: wicketkeeper Scott McKechnie.

"I bowled him out twice in that tournament," Lamichhane said. "He came to me and said, 'You are a fantastic player. If there is any tournament, I'll invite you, for sure.' He told me later there was a tournament going on in Hong Kong called the Hong Kong T20 Blitz and asked, 'Would you like to play for us?' I said yes straightaway.

"Being a Nepalese cricketer, it's hard to get opportunities and exposure. I got that opportunity and felt lucky at that time, playing for Kowloon Cantons, and thank everyone there for inviting me to play for their side. Fortunately I met the legend Michael Clarke. He's a fantastic player, very kind, humble. Whatever I say may mean nothing because he's a legend."

Lamichhane only got to bowl once in front of Clarke due to torrential rain spoiling most of the tournament. But he knew he better make the most of the opportunity because it might not come again. His 2 for 27 made enough of an impression on the former Australia captain to take Lamichhane under his wing.

"I wasn't nervous, I was excited and just said to myself, 'Sandy, you are playing with a legend player. Don't mess this opportunity up. Show whatever you can,'" Lamichhane says of the match against Hung Hom Jaguars.

"When I first met Michael Clarke, he was like, 'Hey Sandy, how are you?' I was surprised he knew my name. He told me everybody from Cantons talked about me. He and I were on the same floor in the hotel and were going out for lunch and dinner, spent a lot of time with each other and got to know each other. From there, I felt there may be something for me in the future."

That something in the future was a trip to Sydney in the subsequent Australian summer to play grade cricket at Clarke's club, Western Suburbs.

"We were talking with each other for a long time on Whatsapp," Lamichhane said. "Before inviting me to Australia, he told me in Hong Kong that he would call me over because you're a good bowler and I'll help you groom your cricket. It was fantastic.

"He came to the airport himself to pick me up. I was wondering if it was a dream because I was so surprised."

Clarke's famed batting prowess against spin, not to mention his own left-arm spin bowling skills before back problems forced him to give it up, meant Lamichhane spent plenty of time picking his brain to get the most out of the experience.

"He always used to tell me, 'Just be yourself. Get advice from everyone but be yourself. Whatever you like, do it in your own way,'" Lamichhane says of the main advice Clarke gave him.

"He used to say: 'just be honest with your cricket because if you are, cricket will give you everything.' He would tell me how to vary pace, how to bowl on flat or spinning wickets. Everyone knows he was a masterclass player of spin and from there I learned how to bowl better on flat pitches."

By the end of the WCL Championship in 2017, Lamichhane had established himself as a regular in the Nepal line-up. He finished third for Nepal in the wickets chart during the three-year long tournament used for World Cup qualifying, with 12 wickets in nine games, just a few behind Regmi and Sompal Kami, though both senior bowlers appeared in four more games than Lamichhane.

Nepal have a rabid local fan base, with matches regularly drawing in excess of 15,000 fans to Tribhuvan University Stadium, the team's national ground in Kathmandu. Already a household name at home, Lamichhane was soon about to become a global phenomenon when his name was called out at the IPL auction in January, a situation that even he seemed surprised about, not least because of the hasty and haphazard trial he had with Delhi Daredevils.

"Bhawana ma'am [Ghimire, former CEO of Cricket Association of Nepal] registered my name and after that Amir Akhtar dai and Raman Shiwakoti dai told me, 'Delhi Daredevils is calling you for trials'," Lamichhane said. "I was like, 'Trials? Seriously?' I just came from practice and they wanted me to travel the next morning at 6 am to Delhi.

"I didn't pack anything because I thought it was just one day. When I landed, it was raining and they were searching for places to see my bowling. There wasn't any indoor facility.

"After several hours, they found a small indoor place and brought me there and said, 'Can you bowl here?' It was a short space. I couldn't even take my full run-up, just three steps. They were asking me everything. 'Can you bowl googly? Can you bowl flipper now? Can you bowl legspin? If this is the situation in the match, what will you bowl?' I was explaining and they told me to just bowl like that."

On the day of the auction, Lamichhane was in Dubai at a team training camp ahead of Nepal's tour of Namibia for the WCL Division Two. Having arrived from Kathmandu the night before, the team was just beginning their morning training session when team analyst/manager Shiwakoti came running onto the field.

"He's not someone who likes to run, but at that moment he ran from far away and was tired and breathing very fast and said, 'Sandy, congratulations! You've been selected by Delhi Daredevils!' I was pretty sure he was not going to lie to me because it wasn't a moment to make a joke.

"There were no words. Whether it was a dream or what, I was just thanking God and everyone who made their contributions for me. Everyone congratulated me, hugged me. It was fantastic.

"Representing IPL from Nepal, whether it's me or anyone else, it's a proud moment for us. Being the first Nepalese player to get into the IPL itself is a big achievement. I have to prove it further in IPL games."

While there were celebrations in Nepal, Lamichhane stayed grounded in the team training bubble, far away from being overwhelmed by hordes of well-wishers back home. In fact, he wasn't even able to speak to his family due to complications with bad phone lines and time zone differences until eight days after the auction when the team landed in Namibia for the start of Division Two.

"That was when I first called my parents," Lamichhane said. "They told me, 'Finally we got the chance to talk to you!' I was like, 'Don't say it like this! I'm your son, you can call me any time!'"

He may not have the well-disguised, zippy googly of Rashid Khan, but Lamichhane's accuracy is a standout feature of his arsenal. It allows him to contain and build pressure while still continuously challenging the outside edge.

Though he may be a constant giggler, the majority of the time, when he has the ball in his hand, his intensity comes through in the howls, gasps, oohs and shouts every time he beats the bat, a nod to his legspin idol Shane Warne.

The threat Lamichhane poses is something his former Kowloon Cantons team-mates - Netherlands head coach Ryan Campbell and Hong Kong head coach Simon Cook - will be stressing to their squads in preparation for any showdown with Nepal in Zimbabwe.

"He's a very confident lad," says Nepal captain Paras Khadka. "His skill is there. We are glad that he has made it to the IPL. Other than that, he has to do well for the country as well. Looking at his work ethic and the amount of hard work he puts in, I'm sure he has a very, very bright future ahead. He just needs to focus.

"Sometimes at a very young age, if you get too many things, things could fall apart. But we believe in him. He's a very solid kid. Hopefully we can guide him through."

If any more proof was needed that Lamichhane wasn't getting carried away with a big head, wandering into IPL dreamland, he showed nerveless composure by hanging on for 18 balls in a 51-run last-wicket stand to beat Canada on the final ball of group play at Division Two and cement Nepal's place in the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. Well after the magnitude of the moment had sunk in, Lamichhane couldn't help but fall into his usual fit of giggles as he recounted how the only thing that scared him in the final overs was how hard his partner Karan KC was smashing the ball past him.

Yet, what shone through most about Lamichhane in that winning moment against Canada was his humility. After collapsing to the ground, overcome with emotion following the winning run, one of the first things Lamichhane did was to walk over and console Cecil Pervez, the 33-year-old medium pacer who bowled the final ball.

No matter how many great things happen to Lamichhane, whether it's going to the IPL or qualifying for the World Cup, he strives to maintain the lessons his parents taught him back home in tiny Sauraha.

"I'm still Sandeep. I don't feel anything is to be changed. I don't want to be changed. I'm just thinking all the time that you need to be a good person rather than a good cricketer because that will describe yourself for a long time. I'm just thankful to God for all these moments."



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