India’s blind cricket team’s winning streak6 min read . Updated: 06 Apr 2018, 03:44 PM IST
No match fees, no salariesand yet India's blind cricket team has won four world cups in six years. Can BCCI support improve its prospects?
In a dusty school cricket ground in the early 2000s, 10-year-old Ajay Kumar Reddy would spend afternoons fending off bouncers, and barbs from teammates. For Reddy, who had lost vision in the left eye in an accident, those post-school cricket games with sighted peers were a tedious affair. Tracking the bounce of the ball was tricky, while fielding was often an exercise in guesswork. His teammates’ words stung. The universe felt unfair. He would cry every day.
“People would say things," says Reddy, now 27, of those days in Gurazala village in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district. “I used to get very upset. I’d tell my parents I don’t want to study, I don’t want to go to school."
Nearly two decades later, Reddy has morphed from hapless schoolyard bait into the successful captain of an Indian national team. In January, he led India to another One Day International (ODI) World Cup victory when the national blind cricket team defeated Pakistan in the final of the fifth edition. This was the fourth world cup victory for the team in six years—they won the Twenty20 World Cup in 2012 and 2017, and an ODI World Cup in 2014.
Two of these victories, as well as an Asia Cup victory in 2016, have come under Reddy’s captaincy. He has played 57 ODIs and T20s (there are no Test matches in blind cricket), taking 110 wickets and hitting 12 centuries (he doesn’t know his career total of runs).
“He has been wonderful as a captain and a player," says E. John David, general secretary of the Cricket Association for the Blind in India (Cabi), the sport’s governing body. “I have seen his commitment and cricketing qualities from his early years."
Reddy, a tall, burly man with a power of minus-9 in both eyes, first got selected for the national team in 2010. In 2012, he was appointed vice-captain, and, in 2016, captain. In recent months, as the victories have started piling up, the profile of the blind cricket team has slowly begun to grow. For, though India has a devoted cricket-watching public, exponents of this form remain less known.
“Occasionally, someone will recognize me," says Reddy on the phone. “Someone may say, ‘you are the man who won the world cup cricket, aren’t you?’ and ask for a selfie. It makes me happy, very happy."
Blind cricket has been played in India for more than two decades. The first world cup was held in 1998 in Delhi. The broad principles of the game are the same as for the sighted, though the details differ. For instance, bowling is underarm and the bowler must call out to the batsman before releasing the ball. Players are categorized as B1 (totally blind), B2 (partially blind) and B3 (partially sighted), depending on their degree of vision.
Reddy is a B2 player. His parents, who were landless farmers, were initially concerned about him playing. When he was 12, his family left Gurazala to move to Narasaraopet village, since it had a school for the visually handicapped. Jobless, and barely able to survive, his parents opened a tea stall, expanded it into a food stall, and, in the process, began to accrue loans.
For Reddy though, the transition was seamless, and he began to settle in at the school. His teenage years were spent watching cricket on television or listening to radio commentary, shaping and sharpening a love for the game. Those years were spent using borrowed kits, hand-me-down shoes, and lugging the burden of family debts that were soaring with accumulated interest.
Being picked to play for the state team, once he joined college in 2006, solidified his desire to play for India. In November, he led Andhra Pradesh to victory in the nationals, the state’s third victory in four years, and the third under his captaincy. Reddy has been an opening batsman and an opening bowler, and holds the record for the second fastest One Day century, off 33 balls against Sri Lanka in 2014. Nowadays though, he prefers to let others open the batting and bowling, stepping in when the situation becomes critical.
“The more serious the situation, the better the player he emerges," says Mohammad Jafar Iqbal, an India teammate. “He is decisive as a captain but also takes others’ suggestions on board."
Cabi estimates that more than 30,000 people in India play and follow blind cricket, a number that has increased steadily over the years. David says that if they were able to officially get the support of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the prospects of blind cricket could improve drastically. The two governing bodies have been in talks.
With every victory, things have improved, with the Centre, and sometimes the state governments, announcing cash prizes for players. Each person on the 17-member squad that won the World Cup in January was awarded Rs2 lakh by the Union government. In contrast, though, members of the Under-19 team, which won the World Cup in February, got Rs30 lakh each from the BCCI. Members of India’s 2011 World Cup-winning squad got Rs1 crore each from the BCCI, in addition to state government awards.
As Reddy’s career has flourished, he has hauled his family out of debt, paying off over Rs8 lakh in loans last year. Many of his teammates too have had modest beginnings, coming as they do from working-class or farming backgrounds. Some now have government jobs.
Rambir Singh, who lost his mother when he was 14, grew up in a farming family in Haryana. Now he helps support his family. “We had difficulties in the early years but things have changed considerably since I began playing for India," says Singh.
Playing for India is a voluntary activity, since players don’t receive match fees or draw a regular salary. Cabi has a sponsorship deal with IndusInd Bank at the moment, but additional sponsorship often has to be sought. “We play under the same Indian flag as the sighted team but we still don’t get the same support," says Singh.
Blind cricket requires more than the usual teamwork. Given the varying levels of vision among players, it calls for a tremendous amount of trust and coordination. And since much depends on hearing, players must focus on blocking out all extraneous sounds. At the nets, working on muscle memory through repetition is standard procedure. “Improving hearing power is crucial," says Paresh Bhavsar, a sighted coach from Gujarat.
“You need strong concentration power," says Reddy. “If there is a crowd, (you need to know) how to handle yourself, how to focus.... We talk a lot (on the field). On every ball, we alert the fielders." This amplifies the role of the captain. “You have to focus on other players rather than yourself. Depending on players’ sight, we have to plan accordingly. Captaincy is not that easy," says Reddy .
Whatever the form of cricket, matches between the two countries always carry that sizzle. “The body language changes, every player gets involved," says Reddy. “In a normal match, you can take it lightly, but here there is no option." Pakistan have now lost to India in four consecutive world cups.
Blind cricket in India, unlike in Pakistan, does not have a contract system. Nor do most of the other 10 full member-nations of the World Blind Cricket Council.
Reddy himself holds a day job at a bank in Guntur. He started as a clerk in 2011, even giving up one bilateral tour for fear of losing his newly-found position.
Though the success of the team has helped, the lingering feeling of being treated like a stepchild remains, and comes up frequently in conversation. Still, cricket has its restorative powers. “When I’m very depressed, I watch cricket," says Reddy. “When I play, I forget about my eye problems."
And as blind cricket enters potentially wider avenues—there is talk of a T20-style league, for one—Reddy envisages playing for another five years or more. His vision has deteriorated over time, with his status changing from B3 to B2, but that has not had any impact on his cricketing goals. “Until I am in form, I want to keep playing," he says. “Until there is blind cricket in India, we should be on top, that is my goal."