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Salute these unsung heroes of cricket

By Geetanjali Krishna
February 13, 2017 06:47 IST
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India won the World Cup yet again on Sunday.
'It upsets me to see blind cricket going unnoticed by the government while it rewards even the smallest achievement in normal cricket,' the Sachin Tendulkar of blind cricket tells Geetanjali Krishna.

Blind cricket

IMAGE: The Indian cricket team celebrates after it beat South Africa in the 2nd T20 World Cup Cricket Tournament for the Blind. Photograph: PTI

With the announcement of the Padma awards last month, everyone is suddenly talking about the 'unsung heroes', who have been recognised.

One of them is Shekhar Naik, the ex-captain of the Indian blind cricket team.

I was especially excited to see his name on the awards list, having just returned from watching a national blind cricket tournament in Panchkula.

'When I have to play in a national-level tournament, I have to take casual leave.'

To watch players connect with a ball when they can only hear it coming towards them; to bowl accurately in the direction of the batsman's call and then to roll on the field in order to field a fast-moving hit, is a transformational experience.

For me, what made the experience more poignant was chatting with the players and listening to their stories of playing against all odds, while the government and society at large remain blind to their talent.

One such player, Rajinder Verma, was from Rajasthan.

His story illustrated all the injustices that differently abled sportspeople, especially cricketers, face in India.

Whether Naik's Padma Shri helps raise awareness about this sport remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, here's the story of Verma, a hero who remains unsung and unknown.

It was Karachi, circa 2004.

'I want to see you play well today,' said his mentor.

Verma smiled as he clutched an unseen hand to be guided to the cricket pitch.

The stadium was quiet, in deference to the players who relied on their finely developed sense of hearing to play the game they couldn't see. Somehow, he felt it in his bones that he was going to play well that day.

Zafar Iqbal

IMAGE: Zafar Iqbal plays a shot against South Africa during the 2nd T20 World Cup Cricket Tournament for Blind in Mumbai. Photograph: PTI

With him was his friend and runner, Nirmal Kumar.

The two were a team, for the partially-sighted runner always ran between wickets for the blind batsman.

That day, in front of a packed stadium (unlike India, Pakistan has a long tradition of supporting and watching blind cricket), Verma hit a double century, the first in international blind cricket.

"In fact, that entire series went off well," he said.

"After I scored 576 runs in five matches, the Pakistani papers dubbed me the 'Sachin Tendulkar of blind cricket'."

Verma was adjudged Man of the Series, and cricket insiders acknowledged his performance to be amongst the best they'd ever seen. 

Unlike other sportspeople who've brought laurels to the country, he doesn't receive a stipend or infrastructural support of any sort.

Yet, Verma was met with silence in his home country; no one acknowledged his achievement, and he soon returned to his normal life as a teacher.

"Till date, when I have to play in a national-level tournament, I have to take casual leave," he says.

Unlike other sportspeople who've brought laurels to the country, he doesn't receive a stipend or infrastructural support of any sort.

All this, because unlike in countries like Pakistan and the UK, the Cricket Association for the Blind in India isn't affiliated to the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

"It upsets me to see blind cricket going unnoticed by the government while it recognises and rewards even the smallest achievement in normal cricket," he says.

"But that won't stop me from playing, for just like it is for lakhs of Indians, cricket is my passion."

For players like him, the cricket field is perhaps the only place where they are heroes; a platform where they too can wow the world with their undeniable talent.

Watching the Punjab and Uttarakhand teams battle it out for a spot in the finals, I mused that Verma had understated his case.

For players like him, the cricket field is perhaps the only place where they are heroes; a platform where they too can wow the world with their undeniable talent.

How long can Verma and his cohorts continue without government recognition and support? I don't know.

Perhaps Naik's Padma Shri will change some of this.

And perhaps, it will help to ensure that our country’s blind cricket players don't need to apply for casual leave to play state, national and international-level tournaments.

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Geetanjali Krishna
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