They are both small-town guys who play the game of cricket. Both have also won the T20 and one-day World Cups as captains of the national team. But the comparison ends there.
While Mahendra Singh Dhoni has become an icon in India and the country’s richest sportsperson with an estimated monthly income of Rs 16 crore, very few have heard about Shekar Naik, the captain of the national blind cricket team.
His monthly earnings? Just Rs 15,000.
“Despite representing India for 13 years, I don’t get any money for playing cricket. It’s my NGO, Samarthanam, where I work as a sports co-ordinator, which pays me Rs 15,000 as monthly salary,” Naik told Hindustan Times over phone from Bengaluru, where he is based now.
But 29-year-old Naik’s achievements are staggering, earning comparisons with none other than Sachin Tendulkar, acknowledged as the best modern era batsmen till date.
The highest run-getter among all blind cricketers in the world, Naik has played 63 matches across all formats and scored 32 centuries and 15 half-centuries.
He has also led India to two World Cup titles, first in the T20 format in 2012 defeating England in Bangalore and then the 2014 Blind Cricket World Cup against Pakistan in Cape Town.
In the T20 final, Naik had scored a blistering 134 runs off just 58 balls, which ranks among of the finest exhibitions of power-hitting by any visually-impaired cricketer.
“Despite my contribution to Indian cricket over the years, I am still waiting for a government job. The salary I draw is not enough for sustenance,” lamented Naik, adding that not a single official from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has come forward so far to help him.
The Cricket Association for the Blind in India (CABI) is also yet to get recognition from the BCCI, which is facing a massive crisis over the conduct of some of its officials.
“Even small countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are recognised (by their boards. . .Despite sending several letters to the BCCI in this regard, the board never gave us anything more than assurances. If Dhoni and his team-mates can get recognition and earn crores of rupees, why can’t our players? They too play for the same Tricolour,” said CABI president SP Nagesh.
Naik, however, remembers his team’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi after coming back from South Africa. “Modiji promised us that he will attend the opening or the closing ceremony of the next year’s World Cup (to be hosted jointly by India and Pakistan).”
The school boy who cut classes to pursue his passion rose through the ranks to break into the national side for the 2002 World Cup, and fulfilled a life-long desire in 2010 when he took the reins on a tour to England.
Born to a poor family at a nondescript village in Karnataka, Naik was mercilessly teased by many for his blindness.
But it was his mother’s words, asking him to do "something special in life" and set an example for the villagers which changed his life. His mother passed away in 1998, the same year got his first call up to play for the state. He was 12 then.
Following consistent performances at the school level, Naik was named in the Karnataka team in 2001 and then included in the Indian squad for the World Cup in 2002.
He now has only dream left -- to meet former India batsman Virender Sehwag, one of the most explosive batsmen to have graced world cricket.
Naik said that though his friends and colleagues call him the next Tendulkar, he saw Sehwag’s reflection in his own batting.
"I wish I could meet him one day. I would like to invite Sehwag for the next T20 World Cup," Naik added.