On a pleasant September morning 25 years ago, in the heart of India's Lutyens’ Delhi, four types of cricket balls lay on the rectangular table of a boardroom, waiting to be chosen by 18 international delegates. Australia and New Zealand wanted the oval cane ball; England wanted a size-3 football; India and Sri Lanka voted for a hard plastic one, the size of a regular cricket ball; and Pakistan argued for a size bigger.
Though poles apart, the four specimens had one thing in common: move them and they jangled, made, as they were, for blind cricketers.
On the second and final day of the conference, George Abraham, the man who had mobilised the cohort, said before breaking for lunch: “Gentlemen, I just want to remind you why we’re together today. All of us have dreamt of having a blind cricket world cup. It will be a pity if a ball prevents us from having it. I suggest we start with one ball for the first tournament and then review it, if required.”
When the group gathered after lunch, a New Zealand delegate proposed the ball voted for by India and Sri Lanka be used for the first world cup. “And suddenly, there was no more opposition,” says Abraham, 62, who left a profession in advertising to develop blind cricket in India in the late 1980s.
On September 22, 1996, this historic conference brought together cricket-playing nations, standardised the equipment and rules, and formed the World Blind Cricket Council, a global governing body to manage and run the sport. It also declared that the first world cup would be hosted in the One Day International format in 1998 in India, the competition’s country of birth.
Abraham, a visually challenged cricket buff himself, was ecstatic. Keen to do something to uplift people like himself, his mind was made up the day he observed students from a blind school in Dehradun, in the state of Uttarakhand, playing cricket with a regular ball and bat, in 1989.
“So engrossed were they in the game, that each time they got a short break in school, they were out playing,” he says.
He saw that the sport had a lot to offer blind children. “Not only pleasure, but mobility, the ability to respond to sound and fair play,” he says. “I realised that it could become a terrific platform to showcase an image of a blind person that is starkly different from the existing stereotype of dark glasses and white cane.”
Given India’s obsession with cricket, Abraham was also certain the media would promote it and that blind cricket could create awareness about an underprivileged community.
Abraham worked from scratch to transform blind cricket from a pastime to a professional sport. “All I knew at the time from listening to BBC cricket commentaries was that Australia and England had blind cricket teams,” he recalls.
Inspired by radio commentary, visually impaired people played cricket in many forms. A common style was hitting a tin can with a wooden Braille slate, aiming it at a staircase, and scoring runs on the basis of the step it fell on.
Having never played blind cricket himself, Abraham wrote to British cricket commentator Brian Johnston, who sent him a history and rules of the game in the UK which, along with input from umpire Swaroop Kishen Reu, helped to frame a modified set of guidelines.
Murali Lal Mishra, a retired physical training instructor at the National Institute for Visually Handicapped in Dehradun in the late '80s and early '90s, proactively worked with a designer to develop the hard-plastic ball, which weighed 85 grams and came with about 36 metal bearings within.
While regular wooden wickets were chosen initially, it turned out that blind players – who rely on listening – could not differentiate the sound of a ball hitting a bat from that of a ball smashing into the wicket. Accordingly, for the first national tournament, held among 19 teams from across India in December 1990, metal wickets were used.
National tournaments have been held every year since, and in 1993, Abraham announced India would host the first blind cricket world cup five years later. In 1994, Abraham and D Ranganathan, a chartered accountant from New Delhi and passionate cricket player, formed the Association for Cricket for the Blind in India, now known as Cricket Association for the Blind in India.
Working up to the world cup
Abraham recalls his anxiety one morning in 1995, when he woke up and realised he may not be able to keep his promise of India hosting the world cup three years later. “In panic, I faxed a letter to the high commissions of all cricket-playing nations about my vision and asked for their interest in participation,” he says.
Australia replied within an hour, and the same year Abraham met up with the Australian Blind Cricket Council (now Blind Cricket Australia) in Sydney, where it was decided that India would hold a conference the following year for the seven blind-cricket-playing countries to open up a future for the sport.
With two years left to go after that, there was a great deal of work to be done, from booking stadiums to getting permission for teams to travel and planning their stay. Everything was reliant on funding, which turned out to be a big challenge.
Ranganathan calculated the budget to be about 12.5 million Indian rupees (about $385,000 at the time), 40 per cent of which was meant to come from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, and the remainder from individual donations, corporate sponsorships and brand subsidies for the players’ outfits, shoes, equipment and food.
The biggest expense was accommodation for 21 members from each country at Hotel Kanishka, a four-star property that the Ministry of Tourism had offered under the Indian Tourism Development Corporation, at 30 per cent off.
A month before the tournament, a huge chunk of the funding from the ministry was pulled away. “I was scared as to how things would work out, but also certain I wouldn’t cancel the event,” Abraham says. The Ministry of Tourism rescued the rocking boat by offering organisers more than 70 per cent off accommodation, which resulted in the historic tournament being renamed the Kanishka World Cup Cricket for the Blind.
Call to arms
In the first league match on November 17, 1998, India beat England for no loss. The team reached the semi-finals unbeaten, only to be defeated by the South African team, which went on to win the finals as well. “We literally wept at the defeat,” says Manvendra Singh Patwal, who played as a batsman and wicketkeeper.
Patwal recalls a lot of audience members were surprised when someone scored a boundary or a six. “Their reaction was, ‘How can they do it?’ instead of, ‘Wow, great,'” says Patwal. But the team was heartened by the fact everyone cheered for their country.
The Blind Cricket World Cup is now played in the T20 format as well, and Bangladesh, Nepal and the West Indies have also come on board. India won its first One Day International in 2012, and is currently the champion in both formats. Ironically, while many countries enjoy the support of their government and cricket boards for blind cricket, the Indian government is yet to allocate a budget to develop the sport and fund its players; the governing body Board of Control for Cricket in India does not support the game.
India also lacks academies for blind cricket and not all blind schools, most of which are government-run, are interested or equipped to coach players, so professional training is hard to come by.
From his experience running the non-profit Blind Cricket Association, which organises domestic tournaments for players, Patwal says the sport is still seen as a charitable event. Players are paid peanuts and sponsorship is hard to come by.
“It’s not just an event but a life-changing tool for a blind person,” he says. “The confidence that the freedom to run around in an open ground gives us, is unmatchable.”