The recently concluded Indo-Pak Petro Cup Blind Cricket series between India and Pakisan received a fair amount of media attention. While excited about their 4-0 win over the Pakistani team, Indian players are concerned about livelihood issues and the lack of institutional recognition of blind sportspersons. Anand Vivek Taneja reports from the field.
The fifth and last match of an India Pakistan cricket series. Predictably, the crowd cheers, and the players give superlative performances. The action on the field is classic one-day cricket. The bowling is accurate. The hits are big. The stops are sharp. The running between the wickets is really fast. The fielders throwing at the stumps in from the deep are really accurate, and the batsmen are lucky to make it to the crease. This is as good as India-Pakistan cricket gets. Especially since India wins the series 4-0. And the players from both teams are visually challenged.
Watching the action on the field, you can’t tell. Because the game is as swift, as exciting and as demanding as the more mainstream version of the game. The biggest change is the ball. Instead of leather it is made of hard plastic, with pieces of metal inside, which give the ball its distinctive sound, without losing any of the swing and bounce of the original leather. The game is largely played by following that sound. And in the past couple of decades since the introduction of the ball, with two World Cups, one Test Match, and two India-Pakistan series for the blind, the game has been played superbly.
Winning the four match series comfortably, Manvendra Singh Patwal, the captain of the Indian team says modestly, “We’re just trying to salve the wounds of the mainstream cricket team’s loss.” He says it with pride. After all, they’ve achieved this feat against the world champions, Pakistan. Syed Sultan Shah, on the other hand, is disappointed. It is his last match, his last series. He wanted to leave a winner. But a winner he already is. As are all the members of the Pakistan cricket team for the blind.
For the Pakistanis have been the world champions at this form of the game. And it has done wonders for the game and for the image of the visually impaired in Pakistan. As Syed Sultan says, ‘We are the world champions. That made people in Pakistan sit up and take notice. They realised that blind people could be sportsmen, and be well educated and have jobs, like being members of the blind cricket team. [They realised] that we are not dependent on anybody. Before this the general attitude was that a blind person would be associated with religion, that he would memorise the Quran or become a mendicant. Now people think differently of us.” Just how differently is shown by the popularity of the game in Pakistan, where crowds of thousands turned up at stadiums in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Sheikhupura last year, to watch the India Pakistan friendship match a month before the mainstream teams played the same game. The noise that the crowds were making was so loud that the players couldn’t hear the ball!
That sort of popularity might take a while to catch up in India, but it will happen. This year’s matches were held in school and college grounds rather than stadiums so that young people would get to interact more with the players. Students coming up and taking autographs from the players was a common sight. D.D. Sports showed a one-hour package of each match during prime time, making this exciting form of cricket available to its viewers. And corporate sponsorship from the major oil companies like Indian Oil, Hindustan Petroleum and GAIL has been generous.
But problems remain. The Association for Cricket for Blind in India (or A.C.B.I.), the institutional body promoting cricket for the blind in India, is not affiliated to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (B.C.C.I.). This is unlike the case in either Australia or Pakistan. Without the affiliation, the game perforce remains amateur, with players not being able to concentrate on training, and having to be concerned with livelihood issues. As Manvendra says, “I work with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment as a stenographer, and it is a struggle for me to get leave for matches. And we need to get involved with the B.C.C.I. and get a higher profile. You know, even in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, people had the image of blind people as someone with a big tapping stick, wandering around in dark glasses. And this with the Ministry of Social Justice! So it’s only after I joined, and my colleagues learned about me and my cricket, that their attitude changed. And though they try to help me a lot, it’s still difficult to get leave to play matches because the A.C.B.I. is not yet recognised by the Sports Ministry. For inter ministry matches, ‘normal’ players can take Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 15,000 worth of kit and benefits, but I can’t take anything because they’d be breaking the rules by giving me equipment, as the A.C.B.I. is not on the list.”
Despite being hampered by the lack of institutional support, the blind cricketers of India are pioneers and pathbreakers in more senses than one. Their trip to Pakistan last year was a month before the mainstream cricket team, despite security risks. Manavendra recalls, “We went ahead and were positive, and when you do something as positive as that, it can’t go wrong.” It didn’t. They had two weeks of wonderful hospitality and great cricket, and paved the way for the mainstream team to visit for the historic series. Syed Sultan doesn’t find that surprising. According to him, “The blind community has no borders and no sense of discrimination, whether it is people from Australia, Pakistan or India. And blind cricket just makes that clearer.”