|| AFP ||
Sandeep Lamichhane is set to play a key role in Nepal's bid to seal a place at the one-day World Cup for the first time despite the former skipper being on bail for an alleged rape.
Nepal face hosts Zimbabwe on Sunday in Harare at the start of a qualifying tournament pitting 10 teams fighting it out for two prized spots at the World Cup in India in October.
Sri Lanka, the West Indies, Ireland and the hosts are among the favourites but Nepal -- who only gained one-day international status in 2018 -- hope to spring a surprise.
Central to their chances is 22-year-old spin bowler Lamichhane, once the poster boy for the rise of cricket in Nepal.
"Lamichhane is a crucial player for our team," said Britant Khanal, general manager of the Cricket Association of Nepal.
"He has performed very well in the last few matches despite a case against him in court."
Lamichhane is accused of raping a 17-year-old girl in a Kathmandu hotel room in August last year. He denies all wrongdoing.
He was suspended as national captain and arrested, but was freed on bail in January and Nepal then lifted his ban on playing.
Under his bail conditions, Lamichhane is able to travel abroad.
In the capital Kathmandu there is excitement about the qualifiers, with many fans on social media backing the inclusion of Lamichhane -- and only a small number against it.
Nepal go into the qualifying tournament with momentum.
They won 11 of their last 12 matches to take third spot in World Cup League 2 and reach the tournament in Zimbabwe.
Top-order batsman Aasif Sheikh told the International Cricket Council that there was confidence within the squad.
"We believe that if we play our best cricket on that day, we are going to win," he said.
Khanal was more measured, calling Nepal's hopes of reaching the World Cup "a long shot", before adding: "But we are confident that our team's performance will be outstanding."
Part of Nepal's success has come from playing in front of packed houses at their home Tribhuvan University Cricket Ground -- something they will not be able to rely on in Zimbabwe.
"Our team shows extraordinary performance when they are playing in the home ground, but when in a foreign stadium, the performance has not remained satisfactory," Khanal said.
"Another weakness is our overreliance on two or three players -- including Sandeep Lamichhane -- which should not have been the case."
After meeting Zimbabwe in Harare, Nepal will play the United States, the West Indies and the Netherlands as they try and make their World Cup dreams come true.
On Tuesday they suffered a three-wicket defeat to fellow World Cup hopefuls the UAE in a warm-up match in Harare.