Nepal leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane says his breakthrough Indian Premier League deal will give him the chance to play alongside the cricketing elite and promote the sport back home.
Lamichhane, 17, became an overnight hero after becoming Nepal's first cricketer to enter the lucrative IPL, with Delhi Daredevils picking him in a mega auction on Sunday.
His name was splashed across front pages of national newspapers and thousands took to social media to express their excitement. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba tweeted, "Not just me, but the entire nation is proud of you."
Lamichhane, who has been likened to spin legend Shane Warne, made the meteoric rise to the IPL just two years after being selected for Nepal's national team.
"If you get the chance to play in the IPL, lots of players will be there who are very experienced guys and I think I will learn a lot," Lamichhane, the son of a railway worker, told AFP in Dubai.
Lamichhane's Delhi teammates will include Australian all-rounder Glenn Maxwell and pacemen Trent Boult (New Zealand) and Kagiso Rabada (South Africa), among others.
The teenager is expected to make Nepal more of a force in international cricket. They are the only South Asian nation not to have Test, ODI or T20I status, barring the isolated kingdom of Bhutan.
Lamichhane credits Nepal's senior players with popularising the sport among young people in a football-mad country.
"The senior guys have done something for the new guys who are coming right now into the teams, and their contributions have made our country a cricket-crazy nation," he said.
Lamichhane's talent was first noticed by former Nepal national cricket coach Pubudu Dassanayake, who spotted him at a training camp in 2015.
The spin-bowling sensation then attracted the attention of Australian great Michael Clarke, when he played alongside the former captain in a Hong Kong Twenty20 Blitz tournament in 2016.
Clarke invited Lamichhane to train at his cricket academy in Sydney, an experience the teenager described as unforgettable.
"Playing with a player like Michael Clarke is such as a big thing. It was amazing and sharing a dressing room with him and getting experience from him, it was something like a dream come true," he said.
Lamichhane is currently in Dubai training with Nepal's national team ahead of the World Cricket League Division Two tournament in Namibia next month.
Nepal must finish in the top two to take part in the World Cup qualifiers in Zimbabwe in March. It has never qualified for the World Cup.
The sport's development has been hampered by the country's turbulent recent history, including a 1996-2006 civil war, and endemic corruption. The Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) was struck off by the sport's global governing body in 2016 for political interference.
Lamichhane's base price contract of $31,499 may be small fry in the cash-rich IPL, which shelled out a total of $70 million for 169 players during the two-day auction.
But back home, many hope his success will revive the country's scandal-tainted domestic cricket.
The controversy had hampered Nepali cricket and young talented players were losing out, said CAN's Chumbi Lama.
"(Lamichhane) is a young talented cricketer and an impressive leg spinner," said Lama. "If he gets good guidance his future is very bright. He will lead Nepali cricket to new heights."
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