NEW DELHI- They are brilliant exponents of India’s best-loved game, a sport that routinely produces millionaire superstars.
But none of the cricketers competing in the recent final between Gujarat and defending champions Andhra are going to get rich from the sport any time soon. That is because they are all blind.
Unlike their sighted counterparts, who are wildly popular and grandly feted, these exponents of the country’s favourite game remain largely unknown. They still have day jobs. No one mobs them in the street.
“That’ll be the day,” says Vineet Kumar, the captain of Haryana, which lost in this year’s semi-final.
Kumar’s team-mate Rambir Singh, who has also played for India, concurs.
“Things are improving for blind cricket and are a lot better than before,” he says. “But we don’t have the same facilities as sighted players and should get the same support that they do.”
That day may still be some time away, but after a string of international victories blind cricket in India is increasingly coming into its own.
In the past five years India has won a One Day International (ODI) World Cup and two T20 World Cups, despite not having a professional structure. After the team won last year’s tournament, hosted at home, the government disbursed cash rewards of Rs 7 lakh (£8,100) to each member, while the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), gave out Rs 3 lakh (£3,474). Some state governments also rewarded their players. The state broadcaster Doordarshan telecast the final, bringing the game to a wider audience.
Buoyed by the increased appetite for this format, the Cricket Association for the Blind in India (CABI), the governing body for the sport, is gearing up to introduce an Indian Premier League-style competition next year. Efforts are underway to nurture and train women players too.
“The game and the standard has grown by 50 or 70 times since I played,” says E. John David, general secretary of CABI. In the 90s, players were bundled together in a single dormitory; at this year’s nationals they were given air-conditioned rooms and travelled in first class coaches. “Our next goal,” says David, “is to be able to fly them in.”
But despite the accolades, enthusiasm and improved opportunities compared to two decades ago, this remains a largely voluntary enterprise. Funding for travel and tournaments is often erratic and there is no formal support from the BCCI, CABI claims. Support would help them access more grounds and allow players greater opportunities, says David.
Moreover, players don’t receive salaries as per a pay grade as they do in Pakistan, for instance. “Cricket is our passion, so we somehow manage,” says Mohammed Jafar Iqbal, who has played for India, captained his state Orissa, and works for the government as a procurement inspector.
“Winning three World Cups in a row is no easy task. If it’s professionalised further, we can do even better.”
The game has been steadily growing at grassroots level, offering an outlet for expanded dreams. Ganesh Muhundkar, who was born in a small village in Gujarat, began playing when he was in Class 8 (age 14) after a childhood spent following radio commentary. When asked whether he considers himself a batsman or a bowler, he shot back: all-rounder. “I hope to play like the others that I have seen play,” says Muhundkar, whose main source of income is farming. “If Virat Kohli can, then so can we.”
But there are things that sighted cricketers would have simply never have had to think of, given the shared assumptions of a uniform ability to see. Different players not only have differing playing strengths – as with any team sport – but different gradations of vision, so coordination is even more important.
“It’s difficult but we keep practicing,” says Iqbal. “What might be considered hard we have made easy for ourselves.”
Coaching blind or partially sighted players also means things others may take for granted – posture or batting strokes – have to be taught with special attention. At the nets, repetition is crucial for fine-tuning players’ awareness of the noises of play around them.
The ball is filled with bearings and offers audio clues, and the stumps are usually brightly-coloured metal although wood or plastic are also used.. Sometimes though, the animating sound is simply the familiar one of sledging. “Of course we do a little,” says Gujarat player Neerav Dake, smiling as he watches his team-mates on the field. “But we play in the spirit of friendship.”