Treat us as sportspersons, not blind people: India's visually impaired cricketers yearn for love
India's blind cricket team looks for the long-lost love as they prepare for the 3rd T20 World Cup set to be held in India.
He covered his eyes with a handkerchief, tried to field a few balls, but failed miserably. Having given up, Virat Kohli removed the piece of cloth after a few minutes, opened his eyes, and told a fellow India captain in 2017, "This is incredible. I can't do it, what you guys do is unimaginable."
India's visually impaired cricket team skipper Ajay Reddy fondly remembers the interaction with the then captain of the country's able-bodied national team. "Able-bodied" has been the most operative word in the 32-year-old Ajay's life since the fateful night when an anxious four-year old, unable to find his mother by the bedside, ran towards the door and the iron door hook hit his eye to change his life forever.
It started getting blurrier and from normal school, he had to get transferred to a 'school for the visually impaired' after sixth standard. Then, love for cricket gave his life a new meaning and direction. "I have no vision in one eye and in the other eye, I don't have 75 percent vision and it gets worse by the day," Ajay told PTI before taking off his dark glasses.
It is not easy as a batter faces the 'jingle ball' which breaks the silence before it reaches the bat. In cricket for the visually impaired, the bowler bowls under-arm with a white plastic ball that has many tiny carbon balls inside it, which makes a jangling sound.
If a fully blind batter is facing, the bowler needs to throw under-arm with minimum two bounces, so that he gets two chances to hear the sound and throw his bat at it. For a partially blind batter, it can be one bounce as there is some vision left. But before bowling each delivery, one needs to loudly announce "play", so that the batter is aware and ready. Ajay holds the world record in 'blind cricket', having scored a 33-ball 100 during the 2012 ODI World Cup, which was held in India.
Reminded of that knock and he smiles gently, and one feels that he is on a journey to find light at the end of the tunnel. As the captain of India's 'visually impaired team', Ajay wants to give the coming generations a reason to take up the sport and carve a niche for themselves.
"I play cricket because it is my passion and not for the Rs 3,000 match fee," Ajay said while preparing for another edition of the T20 World Cup for Blind. "For the visually impaired people, cricket is still not a career. I am grateful to God that I could complete my graduation and get a job in State Bank of India, have my own family. Not everyone is as fortunate.
"Had it not been for Cricket Association of Blind in India (CABI) head Mahantesh GK sir, we wouldn't have been where we are," said the man from Nellore.
Man who gave his all for the game
Mahantesh GK was in love with cricket as a young boy and would learn about the game by listening to radio commentary of people like John Arlott, Suresh Saraiya and Ravi Chaturvedi. He might have lost his eyesight but never "lost his vision", as Helen Keller would sum up.
The 52-year-old Mahantesh is the "heart and soul" of visually impaired cricketers in India and his own journey was penned in a book called 'Eye Opener'. If India has a blind cricket team, credit goes to Mahantesh, whose NGO 'Samarthanam Trust' paid Rs 4000 to all registered visually impaired (men and women) players during the COVID-19 pandemic, when a few of them struggled.
So how did cricket for visually impaired start in India? "I went with my school to England in 1986 and there for the first time, I came to know about plastic balls with multiple tiny jingle bells inserted in it. The size was slightly bigger than normal leather cricket or cork balls that we used to play in India," Mahantesh recollected.
The first national tournament was held in 1990 after a company in Dehradun started manufacturing those special balls and Mahantesh himself represented Karnataka in five championship between 1990-1994 before taking a pledge to create a national team.
"It is not very easy to generate funds but India is a land of cricket lovers, so there are lot of companies, who do donate as a part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). We have started a match fee, now our players get to travel by air and stay at decent hotels. But if the BCCI starts supporting us more actively, it will work wonders for us," Mahantesh said.
Luck favours few
While Ajay is now a Scale 2 manager in SBI and leads a happy life with his wife, parents and two kids, his 'Team India' deputy Venkataswara Rao Dunna can't be blamed if he considers himself as one of the children of a lesser God.
"I had a temporary job as a Physical Education (PE) teacher but post COVID-19, it had been a big struggle. My mother and brother are still daily wage labourers. You know when I got COVID-19, it at least helped me get free food after being admitted at a government medical facility," said the man from Andhra's Sreekakulam.
There was some relief after the Cricket Association of Blind (CABI) started paying Rs 4000 monthly grant. But it was not enough. Life has been a struggle for Venky, and at times, he feels that he has not been able to do enough for his family.
"I have played in Pakistan, West Indies, South Africa for India but I am still struggling. The only time some significant monetary assistance came our way was in 2017 when central government gave us cash award of Rs 3 lakh each. "I have approached my state government (Telangana) but never got any help from them," the all-rounder said.
On December 7, India's visually impaired team is slated to meet Pakistan (provided it gets visa clearance) at the Siri Fort ground, and Ajay's jaws tightened a bit when asked about that match.
"We have beaten them earlier and we will beat them again. We are prepared," he said. If India win this World Cup, what is that one change that the captain would like to see? "Treat us as sportspersons and not blind people. That's the first step."