As the ‘golden generation’ of Nepali cricketers that helped the country reach unprecedented heights on the pitch slowly begin to hang up their gloves, Dipendra Singh Airee has emerged as the new face of Nepali cricket. He represents a new generation of Nepali cricketers who will be hoisting the Nepali flag in the international arena. A right-handed batsman and medium fast bowler turned spinner, Airee is now a settled name in what is otherwise an ageing senior national team.
For the first time in many years, the national cricket team has been more than its Big Three that comprises of Paras Khadka, Gyanendra Malla and Sharad Veswakar.
The senior trio has been instrumental in Nepal’s progress in the world cricket’s ladder, although the country’s glorious history in the game is usually written on the back of strong bowling attacks, particularly spin.
Since Nepal cricket stepped into international cricket, batting is the only Achilles’ Heel for the country with their Big Three bailing the team out of the trouble most of the time. But with the arrival of Airee as a middle order batsman, Nepal has breathed a sigh of relief.
In Nepal’s only victory over India in any form of cricket during November’s ACC U-19 Asia Cup in Malaysia, Airee had given almost a one-man show with the bat scoring 88 runs in a total of 185. Airee’s name was written all over that historic victory after he returned with the ball to pick up four wickets, bundling out the youth team of the Test playing giants for just 166 runs.
It was not the first time that Airee hogged the limelight for Nepal in age group cricket. He is used to performing for any side he plays for, whether inside the country or on foreign soil. Hardly noticed in the mainstream media when Nepal played the 2016 ICC U-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, Airee, and probably rest of the Nepali youth side was eclipsed by leg spinning sensation Sandeep Lamichhane who made the
U-19 World Cup his own hitting global headlines as the ‘Nepali Shane Warne’.
Now, a year after participating in that U-19 World Cup, Airee has now become a crowd favourite. He is among those lucky and talented cricketers of the country—after Mehboob Alam, Binod Das, Shakti Gauchan, Paras Khadka and Sandeep Lamichhane—to receive a raucous welcome everytime he steps upto the crease.
After becoming the only skipper of the country under whom Nepal ended the Indian hegemony in cricket, irrespective of the nature of the tournament, Airee’s popularity has further soared. He also performed and led the team to glory finding a maiden semi-final spot of the ACC U-19 Asia Cup.
Former national team skipper and U-19 captain Binod Das was the coach of the Nepali side that beat India. Under Das, Airee has played three age group tournaments, leading the team in two of them. Das takes Airee as the representation of the new generation of Nepali cricketers.
“He (Dipendra) is one of the greatest finds that Nepali cricket has at the moment. In a short span of time, he has already broken into the national fold. There are many other youngsters with potential and Dipendra represents them,” said Das.
Airee’s cricket was in its infancy when Nepali cricket’s biggest achievement was marked by the country’s maiden appearance in the ICC World Twenty20. But those who witnessed his cricketing prowess then knew that the diminutive boy from the Far West was going to be a big asset in the future.
Sudeep Sharma, who runs the Great Himalayan Cricket Academy in Kathmandu, was one of them. “This young man is one of the most athletic cricketers I’ve seen in the country. He enjoys his game and gives more than 100 percent in every department of the game. He is surely going a long way,” Sharma had said back in 2015.
As an upcoming cricketer who was throwing himself at almost everything in domestic competitions, inside and outside Kathmandu Valley, Airee went on to make his debut for the Nepali team with November’s ACC U-19 Premier in Kuwait in 2014. But in a middle order that was packed with former skipper Raju Rijal, Aarif Sheikh and Yogendra Singh Karki, Airee was hardly the man to watch.
Batting down the lower middle order, the cameos that Airee produced would not make news. He began cementing his place in the U-19 team after making 85 against Kuwait during the 2014 ACC U-19 Premier.
In the 2015 ICC U-19 World Cup Global Qualifiers final against Ireland, Airee forged crucial partnerships with Sheikh and Saurav Khanal, helping the country book a place in the World Cup for a seventh time.
The turning point in Airee’s career was the 2016 ACC U-19 Asia Cup in Sri Lanka where he made a composed 90 against the hosts, nearly handing Nepal their first ever win over the island nation in any version or age group of the game. Nepal had lost that game by one run but his knock was enough to draft him into the senior fold.
In his debut tournament with the senior national team during ICC World Cricket League Championship against Kenya at home, Airee slammed a brilliant 62 from where he has hardly looked back. He has so far hit three half centuries with the senior team in a time frame of less than a year.
Airee is now the hot property of Nepali cricket. A sharp fielder with unbound athleticism in the field, Airee is gradually shaping himself to be a backbone of the team’s middle order. Such has been his importance that he was drafted in as a marquee player for Everest Premier League side Chitwan Tigers where he has been leading, both in terms of a batsman and a captain.
Das believes Airee has a long way to go in his playing career. “He is talented, there is no doubt about that. But he needs to learn to use his talent and turn it into tangible performances. He has been making runs every three or four innings. But to be another Paras, Gyanendra or Sharad, he has to perform in every other match he plays in. If he shows consistency in the game and continues to contribute in the team’s victories, he could establish himself as one of the greats of the Nepali game,” said Das.