Blind cricket struggles for recognition in India
It looked like any other game. The two sides were in the middle of last-minute practice. The batsman was hitting throwdowns, and catches were being gobbled up effortlessly. If not for the metallic clang the ball produced, and closer scrutiny, one might well not have known it was blind cricket.
Shekhar Naik, the India captain, was in high demand. His family and friends mobbed him with wishes. He completed a 2-0 whitewash in a T20 series against the touring Australians this past week in Bangalore. The school boy who cut classes to pursue his passion rose through the ranks to break into the national side for the 2002 World Cup, and fulfilled a life-long desire in 2010 when he took the reins on a tour to England.
"I'm in cricket because of my mother. She was also blind and she died in 1998," Naik said. "She always used to say I had to achieve something in life, and I took that as a challenge. I was the only player from Karnataka selected for the 2006 World Cup, when I got Man of the Series. Then I wanted to be captain. It was my dream and my mother's dream as well and I've been leading the side for the past four years."
But the future of Indian blind cricket seems mired in uncertainty. It is not recognised by the BCCI and those involved in its operation are finding it difficult to get the funding and create the infrastructure necessary to sustain the game.
"The reason a visually impaired person wants to play cricket is to believe he is normal as well," Naik said. "That he can do anything. He gets confidence. And for that we need public support. We need some recognition.
"The BCCI is the richest board in the world and if they could affiliate blind cricket, like they did with women's cricket, give us 3-4% revenue, we will grow like anything.
"Yuvraj Singh got 14 crore in the IPL auction. We could conduct two World Cups with that money. If they recognise us, we could get more sponsors. Our cricket will grow and we can identify all the hidden talent at the grassroot level. We have 40,000 blind cricketers right now and given some help it could double, even triple."
At present in India there are state-level competitions that channel players into the zonals, and the top two teams from each zone go through to a national tournament every year.
Mahantesh Kivadasannavar, senior vice-president of the World Blind Cricket Council (WBCC), said he would like a reliable structure in place of the "need-based help" blind cricket now gets. "We have to make a constant effort to approach the government and the corporate sector, and even then it is very uncertain," he said. "During one of the World Cups, we had approached the BCCI and the state boards well in advance regarding playing in major grounds like Chinnaswamy or Chepauk, but we were turned down at the last minute and it was humiliating.
"As far as I know, India's is the only board that has still not recognised us. Pakistan are two-time world champions and their blind cricket association has voting rights with the PCB. If they [BCCI] could affiliate us we could get access to state-of-the-art facilities and personnel to develop the game further. The ministry of sport has been a big support to us and we would like them to create a planned grant scheme to promote blind cricket at grassroot level."
The WBCC has managed to secure annual bilateral series between India and Pakistan since 2011. Tours to and from other countries remain sporadic but there is hope that India will host and travel to places like England and Australia once a year.
The 50-over World Cup, first played in 1998, holds the trump card to raising awareness about blind cricket. The 2006 showpiece event featured teams from almost all the Test-playing nations. The next edition was "scrapped for whatever reason", according to Kivadasannavar, but South Africa 2014 fosters hope for India, especially in light of the fact that the players were given monetary incentives and jobs after winning the inaugural blind T20 World Cup at home in 2012.
"India has hosted the [50-over] tournament twice before but we haven't won it yet," Naik said, "The team is in very good form right now and I think we can win all our matches and hopefully it will get us better support."
But an instant fix doesn't seem likely. It was the first time Australia were visiting for a bilateral series. Former India keeper Syed Kirmani was there in support. Nearly 600 runs were scored across the two matches. And yet the majority of the spectators in Bangalore on Monday fit comfortably under a tent that arced from long-on to long-off.
"We play the same kind of cricket as the mainstream players do. Batsmen hit sixes, bowlers take hat-tricks and fielders take catches, but people just aren't willing to watch it," said India's T20 World Cup-winning coach Patrick Rajkumar. "It is tough for the players. Some of them are slowly backing out, thinking there is no future in this game. I don't see any future for them financially unless some professionalism is brought in."
Cricket isn't the only sport struggling to help its disabled participants stay afloat. The UK won 120 medals in the Paralympics yet only one athlete was conferred a DBE and one a CBE against two and four from the Olympics. In addition, a survey in the UK revealed that nine out of ten sporting clubs experienced a stagnation in the influx of disabled people despite London hosting a successful Paralympics in 2012. And last month, UK Sport withdrew funding for blind football 310 days into preparations for the next Paralympics, saying the sports they help "must be able to credibly demonstrate medal-winning potential".
The highlights are the athletes themselves. Martine Wright, 40, lost both her legs in the London bombing of 2005, and the steel she embodies is best represented in her criticism of sitting volleyball being denied funding, when a record £347m was allocated for Rio 2016. "All we need is a ball, a net, and our bottoms. We will go out and find private funding."
The same steel was visible among both the Indian and Australian blind cricketers. The Indian squad joined their openers at the edge of the rope for a war cry before they walked out to bat. An Australia bowler used his free hand as a rudder to ascertain his line. At the other end, an India batsman was directed to the field placings by his runner. The boys supplying drinks at the ten-over break indulged in a 100m dash for the dugout. A cricket match is an occasion for revelry, and the 22 vision-impaired players who took the field made sure it was.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo