April 2, 2012

The ICC must get disability cricket onto the agenda

Pakistan have led the way in providing opportunities for the less fortunate to play international cricket. Now it's up to those who govern the game to take it forward

It does not take long to recognise that Matloob Qureshi is a special cricketer. Facing Saeed Ajmal in the nets at the ICC's Global Academy in Dubai, the left-handed batsman uses his nimble feet to come down the pitch and, several times, thumps the destroyer of England's Test team back over his head. Ian Bell could learn a few tricks from this fella. The next day Matloob makes his maiden international century.

It marks a significant milestone on his remarkable journey. He suffered a horrific accident when he was six years old: he was just leaving school when he was hit by a truck. His arm, as he puts it, was "turned into mincemeat". For a time it seemed he would lose his life; in the end he lost his right arm. With characteristic understatement he calls the incident "unfortunate".

Some might have accepted a life on the sidelines. A future as a spectator, not a performer. But not Matloob. Such was his unquenchable spirit and his passion for the sport, he participated in every game of street cricket, school cricket and club cricket he could find. And he proved to be better than most of his able-bodied colleagues.

Last month he was part of the Pakistan side - he was more than that; he was Man of the Series - that beat England in Twenty20 and ODI series in Dubai. More important than the result or any individual success, however, was that the matches were contested at all. It was the first Physical Disability international series.

And that marks a significant milestone in the history of international cricket. While the Paralympics has become an accepted feature in the sporting landscape, disability cricket has, until now, remained the preserve of well-meaning organisations, often lacking structure, funding or scope. While several national cricket boards are implementing plans to provide opportunities for disability cricket, the ICC has done little to help.

That is a shame. There is so much enthusiasm among disability cricketers, be they deaf, visually impaired, physically disabled or learning disabled. There is so much ability.

That is the key point that Matloob and his colleagues want to be understood: that the emphasis should be on what they can do, not what they cannot. As he puts it: "I want to thank God for giving me the strength that I have in this one hand and the capabilities that I have to play with this one hand. I can do so many things with it." Nor is Matloob unique. Every individual in each of these sides can tell his own tale of courage and determination.

Most were born with disabilities; some had disability thrust upon them. Every one of them found a way to cope - some days, no doubt, better than others - and now they participate in a groundbreaking series that might offer encouragement to lovers of disabled cricket across the world. It would be a hardhearted fellow who cannot find inspiration in the performances of these challenged cricketers.

The image of Farhan Saeed bowling is one that endures. Having lost the use of a leg to polio, Saeed admits he feared he would "spend my life in a corner of my house". But cricket gave him the motivation to approach life with renewed enthusiasm.

"We're introducing a new type of cricket to the world: it's not about Pakistan winning or England winning; it's about the whole game winning. I hope physical disability cricket will be seen as Pakistan's gift to the cricket world"
Amir Ansari, Pakistan Disability team coach

That enthusiasm is a quality abundantly obvious when he bowls. Ignoring the logical difficulties, Farhan doesn't just stand and deliver, he charges in off a long run-up and hurls the ball towards the batsman amid a whirl of crutches, arms, floppy hair and legs, with remarkable pace and control.

"Disabled cricket has given me a new lease of life," Farhan said. "I couldn't have achieved all this success without it. I believe that disabled people can do a lot more than people think they can. Many people just like me get involved with drugs due to the inferiority complex they attain from somewhere and waste their lives.

"I strongly advise them to live just like normal people. Forget that you have a disability. That will help them come out of the hole they've gone in. Explore yourself because you can then discover extraordinary qualities in you."

"He inspires us all," the Pakistan coach, Amir Ansari, said. "We look at him and he reminds us we can achieve more. He is our ambassador and our motivator. Every time I see him bowl I am inspired to work harder to provide more opportunities for more disabled cricketers."

Pakistan have taken a leading role in the development of physical disability cricket. It is not that they are able to direct many resources towards it - much of the funding has come from a private donor, Saleem Karim - but they were the first to provide a route from domestic to international cricket.

"Saleem just thought to himself: why is there no [formal] physical disability cricket?" Ansari said. "So he organised teams to play against one another, and once we had regional teams and a national championship, we started to talk to other countries. England was keen to take part, but it took time as most of their physical disability cricket had been played with a soft ball. Now we can proudly say that Pakistan is the founder and the promoter of physical disability cricket."

The ECB's record is good, too. They have appointed Ian Martin - who approaches the role with a vocational zeal that money cannot buy - to the full-time position of manager of disability cricket, and have built upon the excellent work of volunteer groups to provide support, funding and, now, a route to international cricket. The work is not complete - far from it - but the ECB has allocated resources to the development of disability cricket, and each year the opportunity to play cricket - and good-quality cricket - should become available to more people.

Pakistan won both the T20 and ODI series in Dubai. But Martin, recognising that participation was more important than the result, described himself as the "proudest man in the world". As he put it: "Players have been looking for international competition for years, and in this series we have provided pathways for them to achieve their goals. I hope other countries can follow our lead."

If they are to do so, the ICC will have a huge role to play. As yet it has been reluctant to get involved, but with this series played right under its nose, there is no excuse for further prevarication. Haroon Lorgat, the ICC chief executive, was in attendance and suggested more help in future. "It is an area we have not focused much on in the past, but this series has certainly created awareness," he said. "Disabled cricket is on the agenda - albeit still in a small way - and hopefully it will gain momentum.

"I would liken it to women's cricket. In the past the ICC was not involved with women's cricket but it went through a process and is now under the ICC, so disabled cricket will also have to go through a process." Whether it is disability cricket or the ICC that has to "go through a process" is a question that bears asking. Many are impatient for change.

"If Pakistan and England can arrange international teams," Ansari says, "then every other country can do it. The ICC has to get involved and make it happen. It can happen very quickly.

"We're introducing a new type of cricket to the world: it's not about Pakistan winning or England winning; it's about the whole game winning. I hope physical disability cricket will be seen as Pakistan's gift to the cricket world."

The ball is now in the ICC's court. It has the opportunity to do something worthy. The provision of disability cricket - all types of disability cricket - is as basic a requirement as access ramps to shops and to the offices from which the ICC works. The ICC needs to act. The eyes of the world are upon it.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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