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By Suresh Menon
“What superb collections down the leg side,” exclaimed Syed Kirmani, sitting next to me. And soon after, “Wow! What a brilliant stumping, again down the leg side.” Kirmani was merely putting into words what the spectators felt.
Would this young wicketkeeper, Prakash Jayaramaiah, play for India?
In fact, Prakash was already playing for India – in a T20 match against Australia in Bangalore. Watching him and others it was sometimes difficult to believe that it was a cricket match for the blind that was being played. The white ball, with the sound-maker in it had to be rolled to the batsman by the bowler. Yet a moment after the ball had been bowled, if you happened to chance upon the match, it would have been impossible to say that the players were visually challenged.
The left hander looked graceful, the technician got behind the line of the ball, the cover point fielder threw down the stumps after a fine pick up, the captain rearranged the field, the fielders rushed to congratulate the bowler after he had taken a wicket.
Those outside the field, loud supporters of the Indian team, had the services of the announcer at the end of each over who gave the updates. Fans saw the match through his eyes, but often began to applaud a run out or a catch in the outfield with the anticipatory cheer that is a feature at all cricket grounds. And when a fielder at square leg dived forward to take a catch, there was a sharp intake of breath.
Batting was relatively easy to understand, bowling easier still, but it was the fielding, the catching and throwing that was difficult to get one’s head around. The accuracy and speed of the throws was, for me, the highlight of the match. Even some of the sighted cricketers are momentarily disoriented after chasing the ball in an arc and need to get the stumps in their sights before throwing. Yet here were these blind players either hitting the stumps or getting the ball into the wicket keeper’s gloves consistently.
“We have a heightened sense of spacial awareness,” explained Lindsay Heaven, who picked up five wickets in the two matches, “The rest is practice.”
After the match, I asked for and was given the ball. The following morning was spent trying to create at home the conditions under which the blind played. With some practice, it was possible to at least move towards the ball that someone threw towards me. With only the sound as the guide. That was encouraging, even if no catches could be taken. But to hit a target even from a short distance was nearly impossible. I would have to work on my special awareness.
On the evening after the match, I had a call from a former India player who had opened the batting. When I told him of the match I had seen, he said, “I saw a blind cricket match years ago. The media always called me ‘gifted’ because, thanks to two good eyes, I could play some shots while batting. So what do you call batsmen who can play terrific shots without the aid of a pair of good eyes? It is very humbling.”
Two things struck me. One, that even the regular Indian team might benefit if their fielding practice incorporated the techniques used by the blind. No coach is likely at the moment to mask the eyes of an international player and hit a special ball with a sound-maker for him to field or catch. But it might lead to better special awareness and make for better fielders. Worth a thought.
The other, perhaps more important move would be for the Board of Control for Cricket in India to take charge of blind cricket in the country. With its enormous experience, organizational skills, money and power, it will transform the sport. The Cricket Association for the Blind in India is a fine group of people dedicated to the game, but there is only so much it can do.
Just as the Women’s Cricket Association was placed on a higher level once the BCCI took over, so will blind cricket in India. Across the border, that is the arrangement; the Pakistan Cricket Board is the governing body of its blind cricketers too.
India are the world champions in T20 cricket for the blind. Later this year, they travel to South Africa for the next edition of the tournament.
“My services are at your disposal,” Kirmani told the officials at Samarthanam, the NGO which helped conduct the India-Australia match. There is a lot of goodwill (and interest) for blind cricket in India. The trick is to convert that into acceptance at the BCCI level.