History beckons for Netherlands and Nepal

Four years ago in Bangladesh, Nepal and Netherlands arrived at the World T20 seemingly walking on diverging paths.

Nepal were playing in a major ICC championship for the first time, marking their status as an Associate team on the rise. Netherlands on the other hand had the makings of a team in decline, their streak of three straight World Cup appearances broken by virtue of being knocked out before the Super Sixes of the World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand which resulted in a crippling loss of ODI status, not to mention reduced ICC funding.

"We weren't sure of what was ahead of us," current Netherlands captain Pieter Seelaar tells ESPNcricinfo. "We were out in the dark for a bit, not knowing whether we were going to play representative cricket ever again."

Nepal ended up with two wins in three matches of the opening round, knocking off Asian Associate rivals Hong Kong and Afghanistan while also giving Bangladesh a decent workout. Netherlands also notched two wins in the opening round, and how. Needing to chase a target of 190 in 14.2 overs if they wanted to overtake Ireland and Zimbabwe on net run-rate for a spot in the main draw, a dreamlike Dutch display followed as they secured the target with three balls to spare.

In different ways, the results showed that the future still had so much to offer both countries, in spite of the obstacles in front of them. Nepal have had administrative difficulty that has left them under ICC suspension. For Netherlands, it was competing to draw level with and eventually overtake other Associates who had access to more funding by virtue of ODI status.

The fruits of four years of hard work since that World T20 in 2014 will be showcased at the VRA Ground in Amstelveen on Wednesday at the start of a two-match ODI series. It's a celebration for both the hosts Netherlands, who will play their first ODI in more than four years, as well as for Nepal, who will play their first ever ODI.

Each team slogged arduously to get an opportunity to play this historic ODI against each other. Netherlands did it through discipline and consistency, losing just twice over two and a half years to win the World Cricket League Championship, clinched with a match to spare against Namibia in Dubai last December.

"It was probably the only time I've seen Peter Borren shed a slight tear," Seelaar says of the now retired former Dutch captain. "It was pure happiness first followed by the thoughts and deeper feelings where people had to sit down and take a step back before we had a pretty good night celebrating what was a memorable tournament. 2009 at Lord's [where Netherlands beat England in the World T20 opener] was a great achievement, but it was a moment itself. Over the course of three years, winning the competition, regaining ODI status back, it was probably after Lord's the best feeling I've had on a cricket field."

Nepal did it through guts and resilience. After being relegated from the WCL Championship in December, they responded with a series of heart-stopping wins at WCL Division Two in Namibia. Then after starting off with three straight losses at the World Cup Qualifier, Nepal fought back once more in a pair of must-win games to outlast Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea, snatching away ODI status from them in the process. All of this was done while their governing body, Cricket Association of Nepal, has been under ICC suspension.

And so it is that Nepal and Netherlands are playing what is classified by status as their highest standard of Associate cricket. Yet paradoxically, Wednesday's historic encounter comes with arguably far less pressure tied to it - as a bilateral series - than anything either has experienced over the last several years in the promotion and relegation sphere of the World Cricket League.

"Because of ODI status, you are at least secure for four years," Nepal captain Paras Khadka says of the freedom his squad now enjoys. "We know coming through the World Cricket League system, every game you had to go out there and win. One bad day, we as players thought, 'Was it the end of our careers? Yes? No?' I mean we've gone through all the ups and downs and we are here today playing our first ODIs. Obviously it is special for us.

"If the results don't work in your favour, you can again go back to the drawing board and work things out and come back stronger. The pressure is not as big in terms of relegation and promotion but in terms of our first ODIs, we would like to start off with a couple of wins. That would be fantastic. It's a historic occasion for sure."

But even the locals acknowledge this match is drawing extra attention because of the visitors. Anywhere from 500 to 1000 fans are expected to show up tomorrow, the majority of them Nepalese. Meanwhile, Kantipur TV channel in Nepal has paid 4.5 million NPR (approx. USD 40,000) according to sources to simulcast a KNCB produced video web stream onto TVs in homes throughout Nepal. It means the KNCB are hoping to at least break even, maybe even pocket a little bit of money, by hosting the matches, a rarity for an Associate series.

Netherlands enter the two-match series as the favourites and the higher ranked side by virtue of their status as the 13th team in the ODI League set to begin in 2020. However, Nepal are not shy about reminding observers that they handed Netherlands one of their only two defeats in the 2015-17 WCL Championship cycle.

"The last 50-over game we played here, we beat them," Khadka says. He should know better than most having top-scored with 84 in Nepal's total of 217 that was defended by 19 runs. "Fond memories, but it's part of history. Coming to Netherlands, we've always liked it here. It's good playing conditions."

At least 16 players will be making their ODI debuts on Wednesday, possibly as many as 18 depending on who makes up Netherlands' starting XI. For Seelaar, it highlights the bittersweet nature of a number of stars who made major contributions from 2014 to 2018 to help get Netherlands their ODI status back but won't necessarily reap the rewards, least of all Borren but also Ahsan Malik, Mudassar Bukhari and Michael Swart.

"I've played a lot of cricket with those guys and I think lately you tend to forget the guys who have also contributed quite a lot in those four years," Seelaar says. "I guess it's the nature of playing sport at the highest level that people will fall out and new people will come in. That's just the way sport works.

"It's a shame that those guys who were obviously very good players and did a lot for Dutch cricket are not able to get those rewards. But in the end it creates new opportunities for new guys who work as hard and are about to leave their own legacy and hopefully we'll do those guys proud by making some good contributions to Dutch cricket in the years to come."

However, Seelaar says he's not at all preoccupied with all the pomp and circumstance that may be happening with various new cap pre-match ceremonies. When asked what he's looking forward to most tomorrow, the Dutch captain was very straightforward.

"Winning the game of cricket," Seelaar says, underscoring his side's focused preparation on the eve of the first match. "Whether it's an ODI or not, it shouldn't matter much. Whether it's a List A game or you just play a friendly so to speak, it shouldn't matter because we're here to win every game of cricket we play.

"I think we're in a very good frame of mind altogether. We're starting to work our new style of play rather than what we have been playing over the last few years. People are starting to feel that a bit more. Also we haven't played a lot of 50-over cricket as a team lately because we've been focusing on T20 for the next year's qualifiers. So it should be nice to play 50-over cricket again with the boys and what I look forward to most is winning our first ODI back."