Flying Blind: Meet the ‘Men in Blue’ who’ve brought two World Cups home

A farmer, a postman, a teacher. Meet the Blind Cricket World Cup champions, discover what drives them, and find out why they still need day jobs

more lifestyle Updated: Mar 18, 2018 08:07 IST
Jayati Bhola
Jayati Bhola
Hindustan Times
Blind cricket,ODI world cup,Blind cricket team
India’s blind cricket team poses with team officials at the Sharjah stadium in Dubai, after winning the World Cup in January. Ours is the only team, apart from Pakistan’s, to have won the Blind Cricket World Cup twice.

There’s the swish of a ball, a tinkling sound, the crack of a bat and pandemonium. Deepak Malik, 22, has played the final shot that wins the Blind Cricket World Cup for India.

Draped in the Indian flag, the men take their victory lap around the half-empty Sharjah stadium in Dubai.

“Everyone had tears running down their faces, you know, happy tears,” says team captain Ajay Reddy, 27. “It was emotionally overwhelming to win the world cup and defeat Pakistan.”

Later on, at the hotel, the team had a celebration. “We danced and ate a lot,” says bowler Jafar ‘Jaffy’ Iqbal, 29. “Sunil Ramesh scored the much-needed 98 runs. Reddy guided him really well and they had a great partnership,” he adds.

This was the team’s second ODI World Cup win since the tournaments began in 1998 (there have been five Blind Cricket World Cups so far). The 17 men on the team are all technically blind. Some have blindness in degrees; some are categorised as partially sighted.

So who are these men? What drives them? What does it take to go from a blind teen who’s never been on a plane, to a globe-trotting international player with a claim to the ultimate prize in his sport?

  • A blind cricket team has three categories of players — B1 (totally blind, they wear patches to cover their eyes), B2 (partially blind) and B3 (partially sighted).
  • A team must have at least four B1 players, three B2 players and not more than four B3 players.
  • The game works on sound. The bowler must call out ‘Ready’ and wait for the batsman to say ‘Play’ before he releases the ball.
  • The ball is full of metal bearings, which make a squeaky noise so the batsman can track it.
  • Runs scored by a B1 player are doubled.
  • All wicketkeepers are B2 or B3. Other B2 and B3 players can call out directions to guide them towards the ball.
  • “The boys are highly dependent on audio signals – go left, go right – and the wicketkeeper plays an important role while fielding,” says coach John David.

Meet the men

Reddy remembers crying a lot in the months after he damaged one eye in a household accident during a power outage. He was 4, and he had lost vision in one eye completely and faced declining vision in the other.

Growing up in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh (AP), where his parents farmed and delivered milk for a living, Reddy was determined till age 12 to join the Armed Forces. “When my brother explained to me that being blind, I could never join, I refused to study any further. It was a horrible time,” he says.

Captain Ajay Reddy (bowling), is partially blind, but he says the difficulties he and his team face have nothing to do with sight. He led the Indian team to defeat Pakistan at the Blind Cricket World Cup this year.

It was at his blind school, though, that he rediscovered cricket. By Class 10, he was playing at the national level, for Hyderabad.

He began to dream again. “I loved sports. I loved cricket. I began to dream of playing for India and beating Pakistan. I learnt a lot from the senior blind players. They made me believe even I could play for my country,” he says.

Those dreams came true, and so did others. Back in AP, he has a home, a wife and a two-year-old daughter. He also has a job with a bank in Hyderabad, but we’ll come to that later.

Iqbal, on the other hand, was born blind, in Odisha. “In my school, there was cricket everywhere,” he says. “We did our own commentary and played all the time, even during Ramzan.” He lost his father, a government servant, at 12, and became determined to build a career. “I did not think of taking up cricket professionally, I just enjoyed playing it,” he says.

“The way they play, by sound, is truly remarkable. If the BCCI could assist them, it would be great. But it also has to come from the people of the same society as them, support them, come out to watch them play and engage with them. Otherwise it looks like charity, and that’s not the point of the sport,” says Ayaz Memon, veteran sports journalist

In 2010, he was made captain of the Odisha blind cricket team and the game became his career. He played in the first world cup in 2014 and works as a procurement officer with the state government.

Also on the World Cup-winning team are a call centre worker, a farmer, a postman and a teacher. Blind cricket still doesn’t pay in India.

Paying to play

The World Blind Cricket Council (WBCC), which organises the World Cup, was established in 1996 and has 10 full members — Australia, England, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the West Indies.

South Africa beat Pakistan to win the first World Cup for the Blind, in New Delhi, in 1998. Pakistan won the next one, in 2002; and won again in 2006.

India is the only other country that has won twice (its first win was in 2014).

Pakistan got official recognition from their government as a result of the 2002 win. This means the players get salaries, government jobs and rewards when they represent Pakistan internationally. The England team also has support from their cricket board.

In India, blind cricket remains a largely voluntary enterprise. All team members have full-time jobs because playing earns them less than Rs 5 lakh in a good year.

Some state governments give cash rewards to their players for big wins.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which governs the sport in the country, has been awarding prizes for big wins since the team’s T20 World Cup win in 2017, but offers no steady pay as it does for its sighted players at this level.

So most players have jobs, and take leave without pay in order to make it to matches.

“The difficulties my team and I face have nothing to do with sight,” says captain Reddy. “We’ve played with broken bats, on rough fields. It hurts that even the Pakistan team has backing from the Pakistan Cricket Board. We’ve won twice, and we are still surviving on sporadic funding.”

“Every kid has, at some point, picked up a bat and ball and felt that rush. The excitement, the involvement and sense of aspiration are the same in blind cricket. It is their sport as much as it is Dhoni’s or Kohli’s. I do believe the BCCI can take blind cricket under its umbrella,” says Harsha Bhogle, cricket commentator and analyst

The team mainly relies on private, non-governmental and corporate sponsorships like that of IndusInd Bank, which has been sponsoring the team and their travels for two years.

The Cricket Association for the Blind in India, which was set up and is backed by non-profit organisation Samarthanam Trust, is now rallying for official recognition from the BCCI — which is, incidentally, the richest cricket board in the world.

When asked for his comment on this effort, BCCI CEO Rahul Johri extended his congratulations to the team. “The cricketers have proved their mettle by winning the World Cup, twice. We at BCCI are really proud of their achievement. They are an inspiration to all,” he said.

Ear to the ground

Commentary is the game when it comes to cricket for the blind.

During matches, the play-by-play will run full blast in the waiting box — it’s the only way players can keep tabs on their score and on how their opposition is doing.

“This is also a good reason why blind cricket should always be on the radio; it gives almost everyone the ability to enjoy the sport,” says Harsha Bhogle, cricket commentator and analyst.

Deepak Malik, 22, is an all-rounder. All members of the team have varying degrees of blindness.

Wicketkeeper Prakash Jayaramaiah, 34, the son of a lorry driver and a tailor, was a teen when he first heard a match between two blind cricket teams unfold on the radio. Seniors from his blind school were playing.

“That was the first time I think I realised, in my heart, that I could play,” he says. “My parents were worried I would injure myself. They are so proud of me now.” Jayaramaiah, incidentally, works at a call centre.

“Cricket has given me style, personality and friends from around the world,” Jayaramaiah adds. He has two dreams now: to defeat Pakistan in Pakistan; and to mentor young cricketers as his seniors mentored him.

The first thing he would teach: Confidence. “It takes so much belief in yourself to even pick up the ball and throw it for the first time, and often on the pitch too,” he says.

For Ganeshbhai Muhundkar, 29, an all-rounder from a farming family in Basan village in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, the attention he gets in his village is a highlight of playing for Team India.

Muhundkar injured one eye when he fell off a cycle at age 4. In 2000, he joined a blind school. It was here that he was first picked, for the Gujarat team, in 2005.

“Cricket has always been a passion. I would play it in my free time, out on the streets, but now that I’m playing it professionally, it feels great,” he says.

“There wasn’t much awareness about blind cricket before and now a small ground in my village has been named after me where kids can play cricket.” All he wants now is a stable income and a government job.

Talking shop

A big challenge on India’s blind cricket team, interestingly, is communication. Many players are fluent only in their mother tongue, and hail from different states across the country.

“Kannada is my language. Also on the team are Bengali-, Gujarati- and Odiya-speakers,” says Jayaramaiah. Broken Hindi is a common thread. “Touring together does give us some time to learn each other’s languages too,” he adds.

Pakistan and India have the strongest rivalry on-field. “That’s because both the teams are equally strong,” says India head coach John David, 44.

Relations with all international teams are friendly off the field though; “after all they all have shared experiences and a passion for cricket in common,” David adds.

Jayaramaiah says he’s considered a “terror” among the Pakistani players. “But that’s all during the game. Once they’re off the field, friendship ensues. “They joke with each other and discuss how they all played,” adds David. “We use WhatsApp and Facebook to stay in touch with players from other national teams,” says captain Reddy.

David, who is partially sighted and the co-founder of the Samarthanam Trust, also acts as travel coach and tour guide. “Many of the players have never travelled by flights before their first big game, and travelling internationally is even more complicated,” he says. “We help with all the formalities. While touring, we listen to music and we give the players a running commentary about tourist landmarks and sights that we’re passing,” he adds.

It’s not just cricket

India’s attitude to blind cricket has much to do with our society’s attitude towards disability overall, says Vimal Denga, honorary secretary of the National Association for the Blind (NAB) and also visually impaired.

India’s attitude to blind cricket has much to do with our society’s attitude towards disability overall, says Vimal Denga, honorary secretary of NAB and also visually impaired.

“We are sportspersons but we don’t get the same treatment as other mainstream sportspeople in the country,” Reddy says. “I do think it is because we are blind.”

In a country where the game is virtually a religion, it should be even more remarkable that a team of blind men is winning globally, particularly given the lack of support, Denga says.

“In a country where it is so difficult to secure an education and livelihood if you are physically challenged, blind sportsperson need to be recognised by the government,” he adds.

“These players’ stories and successes are already arousing confidence and hope in visually challenged people. They have the power to inspire many more.”

Support from the BCCI, says Mahantesh GK, founder of the Samarthanam Trust, would not just empower the players and blind youngsters across the country but also free up the team and the management to focus on the game, and not worry about bare minimum requirements.

“It is a very positive thing for us to feel proud; to be able to contribute to the country and represent the country internationally,” says Denga. “We often ask ourselves, what is our contribution to the nation? Our men in blue are paving a way for that identity now.”

First Published: Mar 17, 2018 20:00 IST