The captain who paved the way with signs
Umesh Valjee doesn't get the excuse cricketers make when they run their partners out. "I can't understand why people say there's no communication. I don't think I've ever run people out." Valjee is making his point over the Friday-evening clamour of a Camden pub. "Okay, maybe one or two run-outs every year," he grins.
A slight correction. Valjee actually said he couldn't understand why "hearing people" ran their partners out. Valjee cannot hear and has played cricket for over 20 years now. He has just come off a winter tour of Australia where he scored three centuries in four innings and his team won a tri-nation Twenty20 tournament. He is the captain of the England deaf team and this year became the first deaf cricketer to win the ECB's Disability Cricketer of the Year award.
Of all the sounds related to cricket that Valjee cannot access - the crack of the ball meeting the bat's sweet spot, umpires calling "over", fatal edges, "death rattles", sledging - somehow not being able to holler out yes/no/sorry is not an issue. There are many other difficulties about playing cricket when you are unable to hear and speak, but run-outs? That's lame.
Valjee is talking to ESPNcricinfo in the company of his signing interpreter, Sula Gleeson. His clarity and articulation, through signing and expression, render voice recorders inadequate. The story of his life is told through his hands, and the emotion it involved flits across his face. Cricket in his world, Valjee says, is "more a question of watching closely. A lot of it is body language." And running between wickets? All about eye contact, picking up cues from his partner and perfecting the deaf cricketer's sixth sense - watchfulness. "If he runs, I run. If he stops, I don't run, you know," he shrugs.
Being watchful and alert has worked for Valjee in his two decades in the game; that and his ambition to be a professional cricketer, as much as he could possibly be. The inability to hear has been a hindrance but not a limitation. "Of course, sometimes I think if I was hearing, my talent could have been different. I could have talked to people about my cricket. But generally I'm happy."
The basic criterion for selection to a deaf team in England requires that the player's better ear must have an average (audiogram) reading loss of 55 decibels or more. Those near the 55dB range, Gleeson explains, will not hear their name being called from behind them. If the person calling them stands in front, they will catch the sound. On the field of play, no hearing aids are allowed, and not all deaf cricketers use sign language. In the three years Gleeson has worked with Valjee, she says she has not heard his voice. His communication, though, is first-rate. Among the 30 regular players in the England deaf team there are only about 10 signers, she says. Amongst the deaf, sign language may primarily be most used by those unable to get any assistance from hearing aids. In the England deaf team, the captain is one of them. That in itself is remarkable.
Valjee's pursuit of cricket - "My heart was in it" - has been driven by a striving for personal improvement as opening batsman. While captaining the England deaf team, he has tried to stay involved with conventional cricket. Training at Ilford CC and playing for Stanmore CC gave him short periods with the Gloucester and Hampshire county 2nd XIs. "That was the closest I got to being a professional cricketer," Valjee says. He has played for the MCC, the Club Cricket Conference, and twice spent a month each touring overseas with a hearing team.
He encourages every young deaf player to chase this possibility. "I always tell them, if you want to be better, you have to play with the hearing. In a deaf team, it's like being in a local club team. You play with the hearing at a good level, the grade is very high. Everyone is trying to aim for that. That's the challenge."
His first glimpse of cricket came at the West London Deaf Cricket Club, where his brother, older by 11 years, hung out every Sunday. The older Valjee preferred for his sibling to vamoose, but seeing the youngster's eagerness, a club member encouraged him to keep dropping by. Another deaf cricketer got him to try batting and gave him a special half hour of training in the basics to start him off. Valjee says the first boundary of his life was a six. He was not about to go away.
The two men who drew him into cricket are no longer alive. "I got a hundred at the Nursery Ground at Lord's last summer (England Deaf v MCC) and I thought, 'I'm here, nearly at Lord's, looking quite professional.' It was due to those two men, Gerald Dixey and Tom Clinton. I looked up and thought of them." He got out next ball, he signs wryly.
Once cricket's doors opened, Valjee sought teachers. Joe Hussain, at Ilford in Essex, coached him for five years. While generous when it came to ignoring weeks when full fees couldn't be paid or stretching his hours if fixed training slots were full, Hussain was iron-handed in his training discipline. For Valjee, the experience of playing with the hearing was both demanding and rewarding.
"I didn't hear what people were talking about. I didn't know their opinions on anything. The good thing was, I could just focus on my cricket." In the field he knew he needed to keep watching the ball and the captain, and to keep learning. He is convinced that if a deaf player joins a hearing team, it will make him a better cricketer. Could a deaf player make a first-class debut? Play Test cricket?
"If they're good enough, why not?" Valjee's favourite deaf sportsman is South African swimmer Terence Parkin, a silver medallist in the 200m breaststroke at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, to whom the starter's signal was communicated through strobe lights.
Compared with the 1990s, when he began playing cricket, Valjee believes this is a better time for disabled cricketers, with qualified coaches for deaf children. The ECB has acknowledged deaf cricket from the early 2000s, formal involvement coming by way of an MoU with the English Cricket Association for the Deaf (ECAD) in 2009. The ECAD works with ECB's development squad to introduce the deaf into the sport, and the ECB runs the national deaf squad and deals with performance issues like coaching. "I had to go the hearing route," Valjee says. "Like when Joe was kind to me and said, 'Come tomorrow, I'll work with you', I grabbed it."
Playing with the hearing, like during month-long tours in Zimbabwe and Australia, came with some benefits of cricketing improvement but also brought hours of boredom while travelling. "It was a great learning experience for me, but parts of it could be very frustrating... everybody is chatting but what do you do?" In Australia, Valjee taught a team-mate, Richard Halsall, who is now England's fielding coach, sign language. Both tours began with team-mates mumbling at him, but by the end everyone was trying to gesture and make things clear. Oh, and Valjee never ran anyone out.
The cricket world of the deaf is not just the sound of bat on ball and the chirping of birds. "Umpires come to our matches, whichever match, even England versus Australia, and think, 'Oh, this is lovely, it's so quiet,'" Valjee says, "It's not. We're all signing away all the time." That signing involves full-blooded swearing.
Gleeson's job as professional "interpreter" for the ECAD has taken her around the world, into dressing rooms full of furiously angry or deliriously happy cricketers, to a meeting with the Queen, and, as she says, to eating a lot of cold food while "signing" between the deaf and the hearing during meals.
Valjee communicates through her to those who cannot sign on his team, be it the coach or his team-mates who have varying degrees of hearing loss. With cricket and its unique vocabulary, she says, sometimes "the signs do run out". While umpires' signals are useful to illustrate a point, what happens when it comes to some infernal words, like "wicket"? In the course of an ordinary cricketing conversation, it has many different meanings - the pitch, a dismissal, a partnership, a batsman's most precious commodity. One sign just won't work for all of them.
One of Valjee and Gleeson's funnier moments occurred at Buckingham Palace. After Valjee talked to the Queen with his interpreter at hand, he found Prince Philip standing between him and Gleeson, somewhat "bewildered". Many seconds of silence followed. Standing behind the Prince, Gleeson politely cleared her throat and said, "Sorry, I am interpreting for him." The Prince replied, "Sorry, I thought he was interpreting for you."
With opportunities opening up, though not quite in a flood, for cricketers of disability (the 2011 Deaf Cricket World Cup, to be held in New Zealand, was cancelled due to the "inability to source funding"), Valjee says perhaps timing has been an issue with his career. "If I was born a bit later, I would've been all right. Also, I think I peaked at 24 in skill and how I was playing, but counties look for 17-18-year-olds." In his demeanour, however, there is no rancour, just pragmatism and the appreciation of what he's gained over two decades. "For rubbish cricket," he signs and laughs.
At the ECB awards function last year, he shared a table with Kevin Pietersen, was greeted by the England team, captain Andrew Strauss congratulating him twice over, and Andy Flower crossed the room to come over and chat. There were Middlesex cricketers who came across to shake his hand.
Valjee is 41 now. Cricket has stretched his life beyond the boundaries of his family jewellery business, into the Lord's Long Room, bringing with it appreciation and applause from the game's elite. For his part, Valjee, a Londoner from a South African-Indian family, has stretched the game a few inches forward for cricketers of disability.
He wears the No. 1 shirt for the England deaf team, but not merely because he is the captain. When the ECB got involved with the cricket arm of the British Deaf Sports Council (BDSC), Valjee was their longest-serving player, having first signed on with the BDSC in 1989, at the age of 19. His shirt number is more than the No. 1 given to Thomas Armitage, who played in England's first Test. For every deaf cricketer who plays for England in the future, Valjee will be the player with whom it all began. Mr Number One.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo