T20 World Cup for the Blind, 2017 February 14, 2017

Keeping your ear on the ball

Blind cricket looks and sounds very different to its mainstream counterpart, but it is just as much of a batsman's game

Play 02:07
India lift their second successive T20 Blind World Cup

"Can the crowd be silent, please."

Now there are some strange things that happen on a cricket field, but that has to be unheard of. And yet it would be repeated by the public announcer. Over and over again. At the Chinnaswamy Stadium, normally home to howling crescendos of noise for six weeks of the year.

It is rather well documented that most players in our sport are lifted by people cheering for them. But some need to be able to hear a pin drop. Or, more accurately, ball bearings grind.

The 11 men in India's blind cricket team fall under this category. They met Pakistan in Bangalore on Sunday and beat them by nine wickets to be crowned the T20 world champions for the second time in a row.

Nearly half the stadium was full, though it seemed like sometimes they didn't take kindly to being shushed like errant children interrupting a conversation between grown-ups, and rebelled by yelling as loudly as they could. The cricket, too, had shades of the sort kids grow up playing: the bowling was underarm and the batting almost exclusively consisted of sweeping the ball away.

Blind cricket is completely different from the mainstream version. There is the very real possibility of eight runs off a single delivery, and perhaps even 12, for those who are completely devoid of light perception - referred to as B1 players - have their runs doubled. The ball itself is hollowed out and filled with ball bearings, so that even if it can't be seen, it can always be heard. And if it pitches only once on the 22-yard strip - as is advisable in the sighted form of the game, unless you are desperate to get on the blooper reel - it ends up a no-ball.

It seems a lot less cricket and a lot more tenpin bowling, only, instead of a free path to the target, there is a person with a bat going whack, whack, whack.

India's Prakash J did it so well that he made 99 in the final. Nepal's Padam Bahadur Badaila did it so well, he made 211 last Thursday. Pakistan did it so well, they put up the tournament's highest score - 373 for 4, with Muhammad Zafar, a B1 player, facing only two dot balls while making 46 off 14. Clearly, no form of cricket is ever in favour of the bowlers.

"Because it rolls along the floor, it's a very batsman-friendly game," England's Rory Hossell told ESPNcricinfo. "Often, in red-ball cricket, you have a little bit of swing but here you only get spin, but it has to be bowled very slowly. So really, you can bowl the best ball you could ever bowl and yet they could hit it for four easily and you go, 'Wow, what can I do?'"

Keep persevering. As Hossell himself has done.

He wasn't born blind. "I used to play red-ball cricket from as long as I remember," he said. "But I lost my sight when I was 13-14." Blind cricket gave Hossell a second chance. "I started playing when I was 15, but it was only last year that I began to really get serious."

Cross-bat shots low to the ground are the way to go while batting in blind cricket © AFP

He missed out on the Ashes squad that went to Australia in January 2016 but resolved to train harder and found a place in the England team for the T20 World Cup. He loved being in front of "20,000 people" in Indore. He is still at university.

Alvin James of West Indies was on his first tour, and for the entire day he just couldn't stop grooving to the songs belting out from the loudspeakers at Chinnaswamy stadium. He headbanged, and waved his arms in the air. For him, blind cricket is a means to "hang out with friends and have a good time. We use it to de-stress because it takes you away from problems, an escape of sorts. And for those who don't know [blind cricket], it's an eye-opener."

To most viewers used to mainstream cricket, the actual action of blind cricket may not capture the imagination as much as the methods the players use to hone their skills. It's fascinating, for example, to listen to England's Nathaniel Foy, a B1 player and father of two, explain how he goes about it.

"I train a lot in our back garden at home," he said. "I have one of the cricket balls and I put it in a little net bag and I hang it off my washing line so I can practise hitting it as many times as I like. I have a box and I put it 22 yards away and I practise bowling into it so I can see how many balls actually end up in the box. And I put a big metal tin on my fence and I practise throwing at that, because when you hit it, it goes bang. So I know if I've hit it or not.

"You've got some of the best blind and partially sighted athletes in the world training very hard, listening for a noise with the bat, or to chase in the field. We have players with very little sight in our team looking to catch the ball, and they see it so late, so they have to have really fast reactions. I think that's one thing among all the blind cricketers here in the World Cup, they all have fast reactions."

The players rely on constant, open and dynamic channels of communication from those with partial sight - classified as B3 - to direct them on the field. There's strategy involved as well, in terms of which fielders are placed in which positions. For example, B1 players are often in the infield, in areas that aren't hit too often, like mid-on or mid-off, and they are told which way the ball is coming at them, in addition to their hearing its arrival.

A run-out attempt in the final © AFP

There was a big crowd in on Sunday, lured by the prospect of a World Cup final - between India and Pakistan at that. But it is difficult not to wonder about the appeal of watching the ball roll along the pitch in relatively straight lines, and the batsmen sweep as they please for hours on end. To the players, it is invaluable. To spectators, it can get repetitive. And that's possibly why it might be difficult to fashion careers out of blind cricket.

"I think [it is hard to commit]," Foy said. "Around the world there are different expectations of blind and partially sighted people. For us in the UK, we're just expected to carry on. In our team back home, we've got people with families and jobs and all these other parts of our lives going, whereas some of the other nations will go to a blind school and be around blind people all the time and the expectations are much smaller, so they can concentrate on their cricket a lot more.

"So if cricket is the main thing in your life, you can play that a lot. But if you're studying or going to work every day, and for me, trying to get my children to school, that limits the amount of time I have available for cricket."

It seems as though blind cricket will need a lot of things going for it in order to succeed. Context can help. So can tapping into new audiences. And this World Cup has served both those needs, taking matches to 12 different cities, including major centres such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore.

It's a lot of hard work. But when you see players like New Zealand's Marquele McCaskill, whose entire family has been playing blind cricket, and who swore that it was actually "easy," because everyone in the team helped out, or his fully blind team-mate Parveen Shankar, whose face lit up when he remembered his best memory - a catch he took - you hope they keep trying.

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo