Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Blind cricketers place their ear to the ground

Blind cricketers have their own unique methods to follow what the coach tells them to do

Written by Nihal Koshie |
January 29, 2017 5:38:28 am
India vs England, T20, T20 match, T20 cricket, cricket fans, blind cricket, indian blind cricket, blind cricket team,T20 word cup, Yuvraj singh, cricket, Virat kohli, Ravi shashtri, MS Dhoni, Dhoni, cricket news, india news Blind cricket has been around for a while. It continues to induce awe, but no longer surprise. (Photos: Oinam Anand)

Simple joys of watching a brilliant Yuvraj knock didn’t come easy to these men, and they didn’t paste posters on walls, waking upto them for inspiration. But blindness hardly impaired enthusiasm as the Ravi Shastri bombast, a rattling ball and an enhanced sense of hearing made up for what the sighted take for granted.  Nihal Koshie attempts to see the cricket of the unseeing.

Desperate to hear about India’s in-form batsmen from the Kingsmead stadium in Durban during the first-ever World T20 tournament, Golu Kumar frantically fiddled with the tuner of his pocket transistor. He still remembers that evening in Ranchi. It was September 17, 2007. Some tireless tuning got him a weak signal that relayed Urdu commentary. It broke his heart that he could just hear about the last three Yuvraj Singh sixes in that famous 36-run-Stuart Broad over.

In days to come, he would sit in front of the television and listen to Ravi Shastri, with India’s World T20 championship journey getting endless reruns. The sketchy image of Yuvraj’s batting frenzy would get underlined by Shastri’s over-the-top excitement.

That is huge, that is a biggie it’s out of here.
Six more, just a flick of the wrists and it goes into the crowd.
This is in the air again, clears long on and into the crowd’, ‘6, 6, 6 and it’s balle, balle balle in the crowd.
Its four in a row and he has got the licence to go for the full monty’.
Fiiivvveee.
Six, sixes in an over, Yuvraj finishes things in style.

The 17-year-old parrots Shastri’s lines like a primary school kid rattling off the day’s morning prayers. Golu is a Yuvraj fan but, maybe, it’s Shastri who he loves more. Shastri’s booming voice and his overblown description of the game triggers the cricketer in him. That’s what shaped the legend of Yuvraj in his mind. He talks about his swagger and his fearless approach. He even shows you Yuvraj’s shots with an imaginary bat in hand.

Golu has never seen Yuvraj, even on television. For him, Yuvraj is the super hero in the stories Shastri shouts on about from television. Golu is a ‘B1’ cricketer.

‘B1’ are the most disadvantaged in the visually impaired cricket rule book. B2 means partially blind, B3 is partially sighted. B1 is completely blind. It takes 4 B1s, 3 B2s and 4 B3s to make a playing XI.

“Shastri is my favourite commentator because he is loud and he describes what is going on in a game in simple terms and the images he leaves in one’s mind are vivid. I started following Yuvraj from the time he hit those sixes,” Golu says at the end of a practice match. Golu and the Indian blind cricket team are in New Delhi winding down their training sessions a day before Republic day. Starting this Monday, they will try to defend the T20 World Cup title. Last time they won, they got invited to the PM’s home.

Blind cricket has been around for a while. It continues to induce awe, but no longer surprise. We know it’s played with a ball that sounds like a baby’s toy rattle while traveling. It’s common knowledge that bowlers bowl under-arm and batsmen mostly sweep. Wicket-keepers yell when informing fielders about the direction of the ball. However, what has remained unexplored is how these cricketers get inspired, and also imitate, the men they can’t see. Sports writers continue to get stupefied by hand-eye coordination but hand-ear coordination remains uncelebrated.

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Kinesthetic sense (awareness of position of joints during an action) and muscle memory play a role in helping these cricketers practice drills repeatedly. Instructions usually are followed to a tee because these wards are very sharp. “They listen very carefully to everything you say and once they figure out they don’t forget. Since they don’t know anything when they start playing the game, they trust you so much. It is less challenging to convince them but more challenging when it comes to correcting them,” World Cup-winning coach Patrick Rajkumar adds before giving an example of how quickly his wards grasp facts or numbers.

India vs England, T20, T20 match, T20 cricket, cricket fans, T20 word cup, Yuvraj singh, cricket, Virat kohli, Ravi shashtri, MS Dhoni, Dhoni, cricket news, india news The Indian blind cricket team at the end of a training session ahead of the T20 World Cup which begins this week.

“How many mobile phone numbers can you remember? I guess a maximum of 10 to 15, if at all. You give these boys your mobile number once and they won’t forget it. They don’t even have to write it down once. They can recall over a hundred numbers. They follow everything using voice-enabled software… ball by ball commentary, online articles and post-match analysis. Numbers and statistics are at their fingertips,” he says.

Ketan Patel is someone who can give you a masterclass in batting. The 31-year-old from Valsad is playing his fourth World Cup but above all, has ticked the box all Indian cricketers must, to enter the pantheon — match-winning performances against Pakistan. 76 in the 2014 final and 99, two years earlier against the arch-rivals has elevated him to legendary status. He is B1 and in his own words uses his andaaz and dimag while batting. For the opposition, Patel is what Virat Kohli is or what Sachin Tendulkar was — a thorn in the flesh.

He has also boldly improvised by mastering the reverse sweep or the slash over point, shots not easy to execute when you cannot see the ball.

The ball is often hurled at over 100 kmph but bounces and rolls at ankle length when it reaches the batsman. When the ball takes such a trajectory, the sweep becomes a must-have stroke.

The over-reliance on the sweep shot means blind cricketers often end up breaking a lot of bats.

Sajukumar VS, the team’s assistant coach, recently made a trip to the Sanspareils Greenlands factory in Meerut with a unique request. He wanted to know if the bat manufacturer could supply them half a dozen bats with enhanced robustness at the toe end. The sweet spot of the bats would also have to be as close as possible to the bottom end.

“The cricket bat company was open to the idea of providing us with a few customised bats, a dozen pairs of gloves and even duffle bags for the members of the World Cup team. But the bats with a sweet spot toward the toe-end will help our boys get maximum value for their shots,” Kumar says.

Yet even the best of willows are of little use if batting technique isn’t correct or a batsman’s stance is not ideal to play horizontal shots. Rajkumar has tweaked the techniques of blind cricketers. They have their own unique methods to follow what the coach tells them to do, he says.

“When I have to instruct a batsman to modify his grip, I just can’t show them how to change the position of their hands on the handle. But they need to feel where I have placed the hands. If I have to make a modification in the stance, I stand in position I want them to get into after which they touch and feel to understand what I am trying to convey,” Rajkumar says.

What leaves the coach flummoxed is the sixth sense these blind cricketers possess. “When the ball is hit in the air the completely blind cricketers shout ‘catch’ immediately. Everytime this happens I am baffled. Their auditory perception is so sharp.”

But being fully blind or even partially blind comes with the risk of injury. B1 cricketers field only inside the 20 yard circle but the absence of vision means they rely on the wicket-keepers’s instructions to dive and stop a ball.

They don’t always get their hands to the ball and put their body on the line. Getting hit on the face by a powerfully struck ball is widely accepted as an inevitable professional hazard. A scar is seen as a badge of honour.

Batsmen too are prone to injuries. Patel recalls being hit between the eyebrows during the game against Sri Lanka during the 2012 T20 World Cup. “Luckily I was wearing goggles and the ball hit the rim. Though I was injured, the shades bore the brunt. But once you are hit, it can be unsettling because you can become a little disoriented. When the next ball is delivered, the rattling sound does play on your mind because you simply can’t see the ball and you could be facing a bowler who is partially sighted,” Patel says. The veteran batsman is one of the mentally stronger ones and took just two balls to get back into this stride.

The chances of getting hurt are greater for blind cricketers because they wear minimal protective gear in order to allow free movement. Getting down and sweeping every other ball can become restrictive in full cricket gear. Batsmen only wear abdomen guards and trade batting pads for shin guards. The helmet is done away with as ear guards can impede sound. Running between the wickets is also fraught with the possibility of injury and batsmen slamming into each other after a mix-up is commonplace.

With instructions flying thick and fast, blind batsmen can fall back on their runners to tip them about a bowler’s tactics.

Bowlers try to force a false short by subtle changes in their tone when they shout the mandatory ‘batsman ready’ and ‘play’ before releasing the ball. “Some bowlers holler but then release the ball slowly. Others are just about audible but bowl fast. You should not play the ball going by the ring of the bowler’s voice. That can be suicidal,” Ketan says.

The coach too is allowed to shout instructions from beyond the boundary. Taking the call to change the field or the introduction of a bowler into the attack or a decision to have a quick huddle often comes from the coach. His role is closer to that of a football manager than a cricket coach. The captain looks towards him for guidance when it all gets a bit too much in the middle. This bond of trust is extended off the field too.

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The team has in place a ‘buddy system’ in which a B1 cricketer shares a room with those with restricted sight or those who are partially sighted. “Blind cricket is all about trust and confidence and it is important that bonds are formed off the field too,” Rajkumar says. The ‘buddy’ is supposed to be at the beck and call of his blind roommate.

“Taking the completely blind cricketer to the room, making sure he has his meals and guiding him to the washroom if needed. We always try to create a buddy system between two cricketers from different states or those who don’t have the same mother tongue,” the coach explains.

Mohammad Farhan from Mallapuram, Kerala, is Sonu Golkar’s buddy. Sonu hails from Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, and calls himself a ‘late blind’. Sonu could see till the age of 10 but a botched up cataract operation left him with no eyesight. Farhan says Sonu is fiercely independent and does not ask for his assistance unless it is really needed.

“He can find his way to the room on the top floor without my help,” Farhan says pointing to the stairs that lead out from the dining hall of the Indian Social Institute where the team is residing.

Sonu didn’t allow his loss of sight to overwhelm him. He quit his job in a Bangalore-based NGO and revived the blind cricket association in Madhya Pradesh. He is the secretary of the cricket body for the state which will host the India versus England match at the Holkar Stadium in Indore. His day job is with the Indian Overseas Bank. He has also completed his MA and is pursuing a law degree.

Sonu is an example of a blind cricketer who has been able to pursue both academics and sport with equal success. A commonality of the Indian team is their underprivileged backgrounds, the first brush with the game at schools for the blind and a hand to mouth existence because it does not pay to play blind cricket.

“I used voice enabled software and books to read and learn. Nowadays there are so many tools which can help the blind study. I can even listen to ball by ball updates by using the ‘talk back’ feature on my smart phone. If you are willing there is a way,” Sonu says.

Yet, till blind cricket gets its due, players will continue to face prejudice. Mohammad Jaffer Iqbal is a procurement officer at the Orissa state civil supplies division. The World Cup winner felt slighted when a senior officer scoffed at him during a New Year meet-and-greet event. “Tumhe kya bolu, tum toh khelte hi rehte ho. Kaam tum karte nahi,” the officer said when he met Iqbal.

“We know we are not stars like the Yuvrajs, Kohlis and Dhonis but we too represent the country and have been multiple World Champions. Just because someone is ignorant about blind cricket and does not appreciate the skill and fortitude required to play blind cricket, it does not give them the right to demean our sport,” Iqbal says.

Iqbal and his teammates will criss-cross the country to play the T20 World Cup which runs from January 30 to February 13. The India versus Pakistan clash at the Feroz Shah Kotla is the most anticipated match. By the end of the tournament Iqbal hopes blind cricket gains visibility.

The next time he applies for leave to represent the country, he doesn’t want to be called a shirker.

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