"What brings you to Nepal?" asks the restaurant waiter.
"Cricket," is the response. But in the dinner-time rush, it gets mistaken for something else.
"Trekking," the waiter responds. "Which mountain are you trekking?"
In some ways the two pursuits could be said to be the same. This is a cricket team that embarked on an eight-year climb from Division Five in the World Cricket League to ODI status in 2018. As much as the players are in the limelight, the fans' unparalleled passion every step along that journey is just as noteworthy.
So Wednesday was just as much a celebration for the supporters as it was for the players themselves.
Though Nepal made their ODI debut in Amstelveen 18 months ago, this was the first time they were playing ODI cricket on home soil. Back then their fans travelled to the Netherlands to witness a dramatic series draw. They did so again six months later in Dubai for Nepal's first ODI series win. February 5, 2020 was the first chance, though, to remind the rest of the world that the support Nepal receives on the road is but a smidgeon of the passion at home.
That passion begins with a trek to the ground - literally.
Located on the outskirts south-west of downtown Kathmandu in the Kirtipur section of the city, Tribhuvan University Stadium is a 750-metre climb uphill from the entrance gate of the university off Dakshinkali Road. A popular mode of transportation is the motorbike. Even the country's most revered player, ex-captain Paras Khadka, can be seen riding one to and from team training sessions. On game day, they line a makeshift parking lot adjacent to the stadium gates.
But most fans make the journey on foot, trekking up the western pathway, bundled up in thick coats on 5° Celsius mornings. Some of them wear the crimson-and-blue Nepal team jerseys underneath. These are increasingly available in the popular Thamel neighbourhood in the city centre. Others bring the distinct red double-pennant national flag featuring the moon and sun, queueing at ticket booths to buy a 200-rupee general admission pass.
The facility itself is bare bones. The fans carve out their own places to sit or stand on what is essentially a grass embankment with a few terraced stone walls creating the impression of tiered sections. There are no designated, reserved chair-back seats. There are no luxurious concourses with plasma-screen TVs to distract and entice visits to merchandise and food vendors. The only DJ music that gets played is between innings, and the public address announcer does not need to exhort those in attendance to "Make some noooooiiiiiiise!!!!"
The fan experience at TU Stadium is visceral, raw, pure. It is spontaneous. It is joyous. It is the envy of so many other countries in the Associate sphere, and these days, perhaps of a few in the Full-Member world as well.
At 9:25am, when the players and umpires take the field, a roar erupts from the early arrivals. By the start of play, there are no more than 2000 people. But the numbers feel exponentially greater judging by the euphoric screams when medium-pacer Karan KC bowls Oman's Jatinder Singh to end the first over of play. Before long, chants of "Ne-PAL! Ne-PAL!" are ringing out.
Ten years ago, the local fan's passion was at times blind and uncontrolled. A legendary match against USA in World Cricket League Division Five was infamously marred by rioting. The crowd's simmering rage boiled over after a six hit by USA vice-captain Sushil Nadkarni brought up his half-century. The fans marked the milestone by heaving rocks and other debris over the fence and onto the field of play, causing a lengthy delay.
Fast forward to 2020. Mohammad Nadeem is out in the middle for Oman. From 57 for 5, he has revived the visitors' innings with a gritty and mature knock. The crowd enthusiastically rise to their feet to offer riotous applause when Nadeem reaches his half-century in the 48th over, by which stage Oman are 168 for 8. It is a scene perhaps inconceivable a decade ago for those who played against USA, including the current Nepal captain Gyanendra Malla.
"We are blessed with lovely fans, not only here but lots are following online as well," Malla said after yesterday's game. "It's good to see them applauding other opponents' efforts. As the game grows up here in Nepal, slowly they are starting to catch up to the spirit of the game and the laws of the game, and they understand it better."
But there's still no doubt as to where their loyalty lies. In the field, the biggest roar was reserved for Khadka when he came on to bowl spin for the first time, in the 16th over. During the chase, the yelps turned fevered each time Sharad Vesawkar and Sandeep Lamichhane found the boundary to take Nepal to 162 for 7 after 43 overs, within striking distance of the target of 198. Ultimately, the chase unravelled in the next two overs as both were dismissed in the space of seven balls.
A great irony on this day was that all the noise and energy, loud as it may be compared to that in home venues for Oman or the USA who are lucky to get triple-digit fan attendance for their home ODIs, felt underwhelming by Nepal standards in some ways. Due to ICC protocols in place for venue safety and security, ticket sales were capped at 10,000. In the past, twice that many people have been packed into TU Stadium. Ticket capacity has been set at 12,000 for Saturday's match against USA.
"It was less crowd," said Utsav Sigdel, a Kathmandu native now living in the USA who flew from Maryland with his wife Deshna to be at this week's tri-series. "Maybe we will see more crowd on Saturday. But every time, win or lose, it doesn't affect our enjoyment. We always love the cricket. We always love Nepal."
Unconditional love. It's the intangible trait that has made the Nepal players and their adoring fans capable of scaling previously insurmountable peaks and makes them such a treasure in the Associate community.