The heart-wrenching account of India s visually-challenged cricketers a team that won the T20 World Cup

The Indian Blind cricket team (above) which won the T20 World Cup has got no recognition from the BCCI, no financial support from corporates and hardly any encouragement from the fans © CABI

By Bhavesh Bhimani

The Indian cricket team is currently going through its best phase. It comes as no surprise that cricket-crazy India fans are cock-a-hoop over their team’s recent performances. However, far away from all this limelight, another bunch of national cricketers have made their country proud as well, but sadly they are struggling to get any recognition for their toil.

The Indian blind cricket team comprises players from all over the country who play the game with as much passion and zeal as any other sportsperson, standing on a threshold to make a name for themselves in the country. The team won the inaugural T20 Blind Cricket World Cup in December last year, but despite their brief moment of glory the situation of blind cricketers in India today lies by a loose thread.

The reason for this is manifold; from being ignored by the government and the Sports Ministry, to not getting any sponsors and most importantly striving to get affiliated by the world’s richest board — the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI).

Before we delve deeper into the subject let us understand the world of Blind Cricket in brief.

What is blind cricket?

Blind cricket is version of the game that has been adapted to cater to the needs of the visually-impaired cricketers. Though this form of cricket was first played way back in the 1920s, it found some recognition only in the mid-1990s when the World Blind Cricket Council (WBCC) was established in 1996. At that time their primary objective was simple — to promote the game globally.

When blind cricket was initially invented, it was played with a tin can and a stick but now the game is much proper with audio balls and metal stumps being used to make it more advanced. The ball used for this cricket is a little larger in size than the average cricket ball and is filled with ball bearings that helps the players in sensing the direction of the ball and play the game. The stumps in this game on the other hand are made of metal and make a sound when hit with the ball. The game has introduced many other modifications too which suits the needs of the blind cricketers.

Over the years the WBCC has done well in its goal and now comprises 10 full members.

Blind cricket in India

So if blind cricket is developing all around the globe, what is the issue with India? The unfortunate answer to the question is that almost all other international blind cricket teams like England, Australia, and even Pakistan are affiliated with their respective country’s boards. That, however, is not the case with the Indian blind cricket team. The BCCI hasn’t even been keen to recognise the country’s blind cricket team. Their reason? Blind cricket involves underarm bowling which doesn’t go by the laws of normal cricket. The other country’s boards have amended their laws to affiliate their blind cricket teams but the BCCI is still reluctant.

So who manages the blind cricketers in India? The Cricket Association for the Blind in India (CABI) has been looking after the affairs of the Indian blind cricket team since 2011. Prior to them, the Association for Cricket for the Blind in India (ACBI) took care of the team since the establishment of the WBCC. The ACBI disbanded in 2010 over monetary issues and its work was taken over by CABI which was formed the very next year and is now working full time to enliven the dreams of many blind cricketers in India. It is essentially an autonomous body and is the cricketing wing of Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled — a non-governmental organisation based in Bangalore.

The men who matter

The men who matter though, the cricketers themselves, are probably the simplest people you will come across. The team comprises players from different parts of India like Kerala, Orissa, Maharashtra and Gujarat among others. Coming mostly from extremely poor backgrounds the tales of these people are heart-wrenching and motivating at the same time.

Take the example of the captain of the team, Shekar Naik. The 27-year-old talented all-rounder, who has the highest individual score of 198 not out in an One-Day International (ODI) game, was born in a small town in Shimoga, Karnataka in the year 1986. For the first eight years of his life Naik was completely blind. By a fortunate chance he got his eyes operated at the age of eight and after which he got 60 % of the vision back in his right eye. Nothing however could be done for his left eye and now Shekar can see in a range of 4m-5m in front of him.

After the operation, Naik was admitted to the Sharda Devi Blind School in Shimoga. Naik’s mother, who was completely blind, hated the fact that her son was ridiculed many a times in their village for being blind. She hence wanted her son to excel in life and make a name for himself. But even before Naik could start on the path of achieving his mother’s dream, she expired a few years later. Now, a 12-year-old Naik was left orphaned as his father too had died a few years prior to his mother’s death.

“Though I was shattered from the inside, I managed to inspire myself by following my mother’s dream,” says Naik from his Bangalore residence where he lives now. At the Sharda Devi School, Naik’s Physical Education teacher soon found out his raw talent in cricket and encouraged him to take it up seriously. Boosted by that, Naik kept working hard and was finally selected for the Karnataka blind cricket team in 2000. He never looked back ever since and gradually got selected for the national team in 2002. He was the man of the series in the 2006 Blind Cricked World Cup and was made the captain in the very next year. He has now led the team to victory in the inaugural T20 Blind Cricket World Cup. “No matter what happens to me now, I am very proud of myself. I have lived my mother’s dream. I shall remain the first captain ever to life the T20 Blind Cricket World Cup,” says Naik, now a proud father of a beautiful young girl.

His colleague Mohammad Jaffar Iqbal from Bhubaneswar presents a much graver picture of the current situation of blind cricket in India. “Even though we won the World Cup nothing has changed. The government did not give us a single penny even after we lifted the trophy for our country. Even the U-19 Indian cricket team got so many prizes after they won the World Cup. I am not trying to be greedy but if the Government recognizes us we will come into the public eye and which will ultimately lead to sponsorship for our team. But for now there is no infrastructure for blind cricket in our country and no one is willing to spend any expenditure on it,” says 25-year-old Iqbal thoughtfully from his residence.

Like Iqbal and Naik, the other members of the team have similar grievances. They do not want hefty gifts from the government. Some remuneration for their play, government jobs and affiliation from the BCCI would make them content. Their desire is not unwanted as most of them come from a very poor background and cricket for them is currently not a profession. The players do not get any fixed salary for playing the game and outside the realms of cricket they are normal people who are struggling to survive in this world. It is only their passion and love for the sport which makes them keep working hard and try to achieve their collective goals.
 

The men behind the players

The CABI is doing its bit by helping the visually-impaired players and providing them with opportunities as much as they can but without the help of the BCCI and the Sports Ministry, even their hands are crippled beyond a point. However, the players under them feel very blessed and consider the CABI as their own family. The reason is that the CABI, over the years, has taken smart, measured steps to improve the standards of blind cricket in India. One of those was to appoint Patrick Rajkumar as the coach of the team in early 2012. Patrick is a professor from a government college in Bangalore and has also got more than 10 years of sports training experience in colleges. The players of the team credit a large part of their recent success to Rajkumar’s innovative schemes which helped them clinch the trophy. An example of this was asking the players to go through a laughter session on the morning of the finals of the T20 World Cup against Pakistan. The move was aimed at relaxing the player’s nerves and it worked wonders as the team went on to lift the trophy.

Rajkumar believes that the passion and determination among the players is the same as any other sports team. “They have tremendous cricketing sense and their commitment to the team is stunning. Tough they are visually-impaired their other senses are unusually vibrant. Moreover they make up their deficiency by their superb attitude,” says Rajkumar who believes that it is the players who have taught him valuable lessons of life rather than the other way round.

Despite all this, the team does realise that they are swimming in unknown waters until the matter of affiliation is taken care of. The CABI management though is very hopeful. “We had met Mr. N. Srinivasan in December last year. He gave us a positive response and said he will take the matter [of affiliation] forward. We are hopeful that something good will definitely happen soon,” says the CABI manager John David, who himself is partially blind and is an ex-blind cricketer of the Maharashtra blind cricket team.

The future?

It is precisely this positive attitude by the management and the players that makes one hopeful about the future of blind cricket in India. The players of the team too, despite having their complaints against the government, are happy and proud to be getting the chance to represent their country. Playing cricket, according to them, has helped them learn many different facets of life. And now they want to contribute towards making the game better. Most of the players in the team nurture the dream of getting into the administration someday and help in the growth of blind cricket in the country. Naik in fact wishes to help all blind people in the country after his retirement and give their life a proper meaning. 

It is hence rather surreal to comprehend the positive attitude these people have towards life and they are truly an inspiration for everyone. Despite their deficiencies they have no regrets from life, “Why should I have regrets? In fact I am thankful to God that he made me blind. Otherwise I wouldn’t have got the opportunity to play for India and captain the country,” says a cheerful Naik.

The great Helen Keller had once said, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” Here is hoping that the necessary powers that be in our country develop that ‘vision’ to give blind cricket the requisite support sooner rather than later.

(Bhavesh Bhimani is a freelance journalist who got hooked on to cricket after watching the 1996 World Cup. His Twitter ID is https://twitter.com/bhaveshthetiger)