Ajay Reddy (C) with India's blind cricket team © PTI
Ajay Reddy (C) seen with Team India © PTI

The popularity of senior men’s cricket team is second to none when it comes this sport in the nation. It had all started with Kapil Dev’s side scripting history by lifting the 1983 World Cup. The image of the former Kapil receiving the trophy from Chairman of Prudential Assurance, Lord Carr of Hadley is etched in every Indian cricket fan’s minds. It will surely appear in the cover page of India’s rich cricketing history. Nonetheless, let me ask: had everything been the same if Kapil and co. not been crowned world champions at the Lord’s balcony on June 25?

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“Not many were positive towards women’s cricket in India”, Mithali Raj had complained after winning the Sportswoman of the Year (Team sport category) in India’s Sports Honour. Then what led to the change?

After years of struggle for ‘recognition’, Indian Women finally appeared on the front page for the first time following their heroics in the 2017 World Cup. Prior to the tournament, only a few were aware that they were runners-up in 2005 (of course, a wider coverage of the entire tournament ensured more eyeballs). Their spirited performance led to a flurry of endorsements deals and advertisement offers.

Does success guarantee adulation?

Viru Sahastrabudhhe (portayed by Boman Irani) made a valid point in 3 Idiots: “Nobody remembers the runners-up.” Indian cricket would certainly have been different without the major titles and emphatic performances. One may argue that the women’s team came second in the World Cup, but their impressive showing won accolades.

This is what we have achieved by virtue of cricket; i.e. “chance”

If major triumphs pave way for immense popularity and nationwide acknowledgment, are we doing enough for the blind cricket team? For records, they are the only side to win Blind T20 World Cup (twice). Their cabinet also boasts of a World Cup (2014) and a T20 Asia Cup (2015). Why, then, are we not inclined towards their cricket? Is it because they are specially abled? Is it because their game doesn’t ensure to be a big money-spinner, and rides on no glamour quotient? Is it because their cricket is played under-arm?

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Ajay Reddy, Indian blind cricket team’s captain, is as successful as MS Dhoni. He has won everything to compete for, and carries himself on the field like Virat Kohli, wearing his emotions on his sleeves.  I saw him in the tournament opener of 24th National Blind Cricket of India at Shivaji Park, Mumbai. While leading his state Andhra Pradesh, his childlike involvement and passion was palpable.

I later got a chance to interact with him. He spoke about why Indian blind cricket should be called Men in Blue contrary to the ridiculous Other Men in Blue. In addition, he gave insights on his journey, ups and downs and why it is paramount to promote blind cricket.

CricketCountry (CC): How and when did you take interest in the sport?

Ajay Reddy (AR): I was always inclined towards cricket. Nonetheless, because of the eyes, normal cricket wasn’t possible. At the age of 12 (in 2002), I saw a blind cricket match. Later in 2006 I was taken aback watching our former skipper Shekhar Naik play. That propelled me to take up the game seriously.

CC: How did you get visually impaired? What were the consequences that followed?

AR: My visibility declined when I was four. It got worse when I could not read and write properly. Only then, I was asked to shift to a blind school. As a result my family gave up farming and moved closer to the school in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh. They set up a small stall (selling south Indian food along with tea and coffee) for income.

Note: Reddy is completely blind from his left eye and cannot see beyond two metres with his right.

CC: Your father is a farmer. Did he support your dreams? Is he a happy man now?

AR: My father also has similar (eye) problems. He, thus, understands my plight. He always acted as a pillar of support. My mother used to be apprehensive to begin with, but my father backed and reminded me of the importance of wearing the blue jersey. He was ecstatic when he saw me on television for the first time, in 2012. He gave me a long 10-15 minute hug; that reflected his emotions.

I just made a point that there is no ‘Other’ Men in Blue: we play the same sport, represent the same motherland and don the same jersey

I have always been close to my father. I can share anything without hesitance. When I was younger, I used to stay back at my friend’s place on injuring myself while playing. My mother used to cry seeing me in pain, and I avoided facing her. Later in the evening, dad visited me for updates and check on my injury. Mothers are very possessive about their wards, but fathers always want their children to push harder for success.

CC: How did you rise up the ranks and gain prominence? Any game-changing advice you still remember?

AR: In our widely-talented country, there is no dearth of competition. I used to get bogged down by failures amidst this competitive environment. This was where my seniors assisted me. They recognised my potential and instilled a fearless approach to go forward. This led to a significant change, and I was Man of the Match on national debut.

CC: Describe the feeling on donning the Indian jersey for the first time.

AR: Every cricketer would give you the same answer. It is the ultimate high for a person in this field. It was a moment of pride, and my dream of serving the nation was getting fulfilled.

CC: Blind cricket has been there for a while now. However, it is still an unknown phenomenon. Can you tell us how it is played?

AR: There is not much of a difference. Let me begin by explaining three grades of players in our line-up. B1 players are totally blind. On the other hand, B2 are partially blind (can see up to 3 meters), and B3 players can spot up to 6-8 meters.

Our team combination reads four B1, three B2 and four B3 cricketers. There are more rules. For instance, if the openers are B1 and B2, No. 3 has to be B3. You have to stick to the rules. Our game is all about giving chances.

After all, this is what we have achieved by virtue of cricket; i.e. “chance”. There is not much of fielding. Bowling is done underarm. And sweep shots are most common.

CC: How tough is it to manage players from different grades and disabilities?

AR: We constantly talk to our players, remind them to honour the jersey and take up any role for the team’s cause. Even being the 12th man shouldn’t deter their approach as even greats like Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag have performed these roles.

CC: Cricket Association for Blind in India (CABI) does takes promoting and managing blind cricket seriously. Shed more light in this regard.

AR: CABI is our driving force. They have faced it all, yet deliver on most occasions. They know our pain and strive hard to keep many like us afloat. From financial constraints to lack of sponsorship to empty stadium, they have seen it all. Every member from CABI deserves applause.

CABI organises many state tournaments. They then select the top players from zonal competitions and put them in a group of 50. From there, some are picked for the Indian team. It is not an easy task, but they deliver in all fairness.

CABI faced several issues while hosting the last T20 World Cup. They wanted to involve multiple cities and needed sufficient funds. As a result, they took a loan of INR 1 crore from banks and successfully hosted the tournament.

Trivia: CABI is a non-profit organisation formed in 2011. It promotes blind cricket and serves as a platform for the social and physical development of the visually impaired. It gets financial support from various private and public organisations.

CC: How active has BCCI been towards blind cricket?

AR: After our 2017 T20 World Cup victory, BCCI rewarded every player with INR 3 lakhs. Before that there wasn’t much involvement. But we sincerely thank them for their gesture.

CC: Sehwag referred to you guys as the Other Men in Blue after the T20 World Cup victory early in 2017. You made it clear that this team also wears the same jersey and represents the same nation, and shouldn’t be differentiated…

AR: (Laughs). It became a controversy. There was nothing like of the sort. Like you mentioned, I just made a point that there is no ‘Other’ Men in Blue: we play the same sport, represent the same motherland and don the same jersey. Indeed, there is nothing to differentiate.

CC: On the field you are similar to Kohli. You appear to be very passionate and animated. Is winning the ultimate thing for you? Are these qualities instilled since birth?

AR: Cricket brings out the best in me. I am a serious person otherwise. Cricket somehow brings the child in me. I think I do that to keep the team involved. If I cut loose, others will follow. I try to keep every individual proactive. More than winning, effort and process is the ultimate thing.

CC: Dhoni used to tell his troops to keep it simple during high-pressure encounters. Kohli demands ruthlessness. What do you say in the team huddle ahead of a must-win clash?

AR: Firstly, to not take pressure in high-intensity games. I tell them that we have come a long way in the tournament, have adapted to alien conditions and are away from home only to get the better of the opponents on such days. I advice them to give their all, and if we do so, we will emerge victorious.

CCName a few favourites from Indian men and women teams.

AR: Tendulkar, Sehwag and Rahul Dravid-Sir. From the women’s team, Mithali. I saw the Women’s World Cup final. The match was in our grasp, but the girls got under pressure. It happens. We did our best.

CC: Media hasn’t been too receptive towards blind cricket until recent times. As the leader of the pack, what do you expect from the press and crowds?

AR: Media has been doing wide coverage. In the T20 World Cup, they were present in good numbers. It helped in spreading awareness in major cities. In addition, some corporate houses have also shown inclination. IndusInd Bank has been our sponsor for three years.

Players will come and go, but blind cricket will remain

The crowds have been buzzing in some stadiums. During our World T20 match against England in Holkar Stadium, Indore, we couldn’t hear the (rattle) ball due to a nearly-packed stadium (chuckles).

Note: Rattle balls are exclusively used in blind cricket. The noise generated from it helps cricketers in judging the ball.

CC: Earlier in 2017, Indian blind cricket members graced their presence in the widely-popular The Kapil Sharma Show. Was it a planned strategy to gain more traction for blind cricket?

AR: Whatever we do, we do to ensure the betterment of blind cricket. Players will come and go, but blind cricket will remain. Yes, it was a well-planned strategy to visit the Kapil Sharma show for more prominence. It is a well-received family show, and we wanted to make a mark among them. We went there to promote blind cricket, not our players (pauses).

CC: Where can Ajay Reddy be found if not on the field? What are your other interests?

AR: I am an Assistant Manager at the State Bank of India. They have helped me in every way possible. I am grateful to them for their support and graciously granting offs during match-days. I owe them a large part of my success.

I have always been inclined towards serving the nation in any which way possible. I wanted to be a soldier, but my eyes became a hindrance. Years later, the same ‘hindrance’ has brought recognition.

CC: Team India have made Yo-Yo fitness test a significant criterion for selection. Is it the same for your side?

AR: We have a 25-day coaching camp (mostly in Bengaluru) ahead of any international fixture. Of these, ten days are dedicated entirely to fitness. We do this to ensure the body is back to shape, gaining rhythm slowly and steadily. Once that happens, everything else falls in place. We are not regular players, and hence give essence to fitness ahead of any series.

CC: Did the eye defection create enough ruckus to contemplate retirement at any point?

AR:  I had thought of quitting in 2013-14. My vision was deteriorating. I couldn’t judge the ball properly. Nonetheless, I had talks with my coach Patrick Rajkumar. He insisted that I shouldn’t retire if I continued to perform. I gave it another try and worked harder on my hand-eye coordination. The result is there to be seen (smiles). I hope to carry on till 2022.

CC: Any chance interaction with stalwarts of Indian cricket? If yes, how did it pan out?

AR: On my way to Delhi, I met Rahul-Sir in Vijayawada airport. At first, I hesitated to approach as the crowd could have hurt my eyes. But, as fate would have it, he was standing right behind me in the queue during security check. I introduced myself, and he congratulated our side for the top performances. I was overjoyed. I wish I can meet Sachin and Sehwag soon!

CC: You mentioned yourself as a serious guy who concentrates on ‘process’ rather than ‘results’. It sounds familiar to Dhoni’s mantra. Has your journey been anywhere close to his, especially since taking over?

AR: Yes, it has been similar to Dhoni’s. In his early days he got rid of senior players and brought in fresh legs to prepare for future. I did the same while captaining Andhra. When I was made captain I made it clear that even if we lose, I want young and inexperienced players who are more enthusiastic. The thing is: even if you lose, youngsters learn a thing or two.

It wasn’t easy. I had a few arguments with the selectors. Nonetheless, they relented when I mentioned shifting base. We worked hard on building the team. We kept an eye on the players performing in different zones and picked them. The team was revamped from scratch. Since 2012 we have dominated and won several domestic tournaments.