Karnataka’s Shekhar Naik, who became the first blind cricketer to be conferred the Padma Shri, talks about the game
The year 2017 has been a momentous year for blind cricket in India. After having won the inaugural T20 World Cup for the Blind title in 2012, India captured the second too, beating Pakistan in the final in early February.
What was also special was the fact that the Indian skipper in 2012, Karnataka’s Shekhar Naik, was awarded the Padma Shri on the eve of the 2017 edition. Naik, now 31 and retired, became the first blind cricketer to be conferred the award.
“When I started playing cricket I never imagined I would achieve such a feat,” says Shekhar. “Looking at me now, other blind cricketers are motivated to strive hard and achieve just like I did. I hope this honour helps the cause of blind cricket in India.”
According to Shekhar, 2012 was the turning point. “There was a lack of basic facilities prior to that. The players had to buy their own gear. There were times when I have played without footwear and batting gloves. People did not even have proper awareness that there was a blind cricket team in India.
“Things changed in 2012. It was the first-ever T20 World Cup for the Blind was hosted by India. During the camp prior to the tournament, our coach Patrick Rajkumar would say that we should win this competition as people would remember us for generations to come as the country which won the first-ever T20 World Cup. This gave us a lot of determination to win the tournament”.
No one perhaps took it more seriously than Shekhar as he scored 134 off 58 balls in the final to guide his team to the title.
Though the situation improved after this victory, Shekhar, an international with 58 caps, feels more could be done. The victory brought created awareness about blind cricket, but the Board of Control for Cricket in India, unlike its counter-parts in Australia and England, still doesn’t recognise the team.
“It is sad that even after winning three T20 World Cups, two Asia Cups, and an ODI World Cup, something which our country’s BCCI senior men’s team has not achieved, we still do not have enough support. If Cricket Association for Blind in India (CABI) gets affiliated to the BCCI, then the players representing our country will be paid match fees as well as salaries. This will not only motivate them but will also improve the quality of their life as most of them come from a very poor background”.
Shekhar knows this the best. His life, from his childhood in Shimoga, was a constant struggle. If not for his mother Jamila Bhai’s support in the initial years, and Ambika, his teacher at the blind school, poverty would have consumed him. Even though he calls blindness “as a gift from God,” no one will be happier than Shekhar if a proper system was in place rather than a dependence on individual acts of kindness.
“To this day, there are current Indian players who make a living by selling tea at railway stations, trains and doing menial jobs in factories. I hope that this situation will change one day.”
Shekhar, now a mentor for the Indian team, and sports co-ordinator of Samarthanam, a trust for the disabled, wishes that stars like M.S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli will support blind cricket just like how Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid did for the last two World Cups in India.
“When a great player like Dravid, who has a lot of fans, supported us, we got a lot of attention and publicity. It helped us a lot in terms of creating awareness. If it happens in future too, it will boost the morale of the players and help get good publicity and sponsors.”